Ron Baker was a meme player.
Despite his “Shot Maker” moniker, he averaged just 3 points per game while making a hair over a third of his shots. His teammates called him Ron Burgundy. Madison Square Garden’s security didn’t even believe he was on the team. His biggest career highlight was getting dunked on so hard by Anthony Davis he had to leave the game.
Before announcing his retirement in basketball at the age of 28 to go into healthcare last week, he last appeared “in the news” two years ago when Stephen A Smith was prank called on his radio show by someone asking why Baker wasn’t still in the NBA.
Beyond the easy meme-ability, however, Baker was a genuine fan favorite among Knicks fans. When I asked Knicks beat writer Marc Berman his favorite non-star player he covered, he quickly replied with Baker. Along with some musings on his infamous $9 million extension (complete with an effective no-trade-clause), and on “if he developed a three point shot…”, Berman succinctly summarized what made Baker more than a meme.
“This guy was not supposed to be in the NBA. I just enjoyed being around him, he was such a rah-rah guy in the locker room and on the bench. He made the most of his talents, he was a defender and such a team guy, he was just a delight to be around.”
Before Tom Thibodeau’s promising Knicks, there were Jeff Hornacek and David Fizdale’s particularly dismal clubs. Baker embodied the principles Thibodeau would have fallen in love with as one of the lone bright spots on those bleak teams.
Going into the ‘16-17 season, the Knicks needed one last player for their ‘superteam’ roster. After Chasson Randle, who ran the illustrious triangle at Stanford, secured Carmelo Anthony’s endorsement early on in preseason, it seemed over for Baker. At Wichita State (home of famed Knicks Toure’ Murry and Cleanthony Early), Baker was no slouch himself—he was a second team All-American, and made two appearances in the Sweet 16 and one in the Final Four.
Baker kept his cool, effectively moving the ball and playing suffocating defense, as he had all throughout Summer League. In the penultimate game, he put up 12 points, 5 assists, and a +13 in 20 minutes off the bench, and the job was his.
While he played sporadically for the early part of the season (just 9.7 minutes per game in 15 out of the first 40) his presence was still felt throughout, whether it was cheering and dancing on the bench before Theo Pinson made it cool, or diving for loose balls in garbage time.
On one of the most selfish teams ever—a post-injury, post/pre-Thibs Derrick Rose finding himself, Joakim Noah finding himself in clubs, Carmelo Anthony in denial that he wasn’t still a star, and Kristaps Porzingis in denial that he wasn’t one yet—Ron Baker was a genuine breath of fresh air.
While Baker’s redeemable traits may be a bit out of necessity considering his shooting and scoring ineptitude would render him unplayable without stifling defense, they were redeemable nonetheless.
The jokes surrounding his silly looks and character immortalized him, but they are almost a disservice to the type of player he was. It is funny 6’4” Ron Baker would run all the way out of position to hopelessly contest an 6’10” Anthony Davis dunk just to get an elbow in the face, but it’s respectable when many seven footers would run out of the way even if they were in position to contest. He was the antithesis of everything wrong and unlikable with the Knicks teams he played for. While the rest of the team refused to play defense, move the ball, or seem to care all that much, that was all Baker could do.
Hornacek even recognized as much, getting sick of the team after an 18-23 start, abruptly starting Baker (and Mindaugas Kuzminskas) to give the Knicks some life after he put up 5 points and a team-high +19 off the bench in a 15-point loss to the Raptors. The stint was just three short games in which they won just one, though he played admirably with 12 points along with four threes and two steals in his first start against the Hawks in just a one-point loss.
As the season progressed, the Knicks and Derrick Rose fell apart, and Ron got more chances. Baker became increasingly comfortable, taking more risks on the court in tune to eight points and five assists per game for the final eight games as starting point guard.
In the penultimate game of the regular season, Baker shined with a marvelous eleven points, eight rebounds, and eight assists, including a beautiful fadeaway over Kyle Lowry (which Porzingis could never do), and even more impressively, a dunk.
As previously mentioned, Baker ended up parlaying that into the aforementioned ridiculous contract, along with what now seems like a satirical mention of the 24-year-old Baker as part of the future in Scott Perry’s blog post, but there was a valuable NBA player in Ron Baker.
The 538’s defensive RAPTOR stat placed him at a +2.06 (39th-best), +1.63 (59th), and +3.85 (33rd) in his three years in the NBA, and he averaged 1.7 steals and .4 blocks per 36 for his career. The Knicks were better with him on the court than with any non-Porzingis starter in ‘17, and the 29-win Knicks the following team had a laughable team-best +2.5 net rating with him on the court.
Despite the extension, there was not much room for Baker the following season. The prioritized likable-defender, pass-happy bad offenser, point guard was understandably their new lottery pick, Frank Ntilikina, who I will likely have to write a similar reflection piece for soon.
But Baker again kept his cool, kept the vibes, and chipped in occasionally, peaking with an 11-point, two-steal gem in a blowout win in Carmelo Anthony’s return to the Garden.
Sadly, the Ron Baker experience was cut short. In a blowout win against the Nets, Baker tore his labrum, aptly on an effortless strip of DeMarre Carroll. It required surgery and he was out for the rest of the season.
I am no expert on the injury, but I do not think it is a leap to assume that contributed to Baker going from a bad-though-improving shooter (37% from three in college, 29% with the Knicks, 47% in the D-League), to one who could hardly shoot or score upon returning.
In 2019, he had just 14 points on 4-20 shooting from the field and 1-13 from three for the season. In 45 minutes across four games for the Wizards before being waived, he attempted just four three point shots, making none (though he did have likely the best block of his career on Kelly Oubre).
Many Baker optimists likely felt foolish upon seeing how fast he fizzled out, but like Landry Fields, he may have truly been just a jumpshot away, and the injury cruelly stripped him of the chance to develop one.
While he may no longer be in the NBA, Ron Baker will always be a Knick, and serve a valuable lesson in why you’re always too big to dream small. I have no doubts that he will continue to overcome all odds as he did as a player and thrive in his life post-basketball.