Ron Baker was one of Euroleague champions CSKA Mocow’s most prominent signings last summer.
The (almost) 27-year-old guard sought a different style of basketball and probably a slightly different role compared to the one he had in his two and a half years with the New York Knicks (2016-18) and his brief stint with the Washington Wizards that lasted roughly a month. Baker had been a free agent since January 7, 2019. Seven months later, CSKA came in with a contract and brought the former Witchita State star (2012-16) to Europe.
However, adjusting to the Euroleague and to the requirements of one of its top clubs is no easy feat for anyone, even for someone who kept grinding throughout his career. Making the NBA was one important goal for Baker, but getting more playing time with CSKA Moscow has been proven almost as difficult. So far, he’s been averaging less than 12 minutes per game, while posting modest numbers: 2.6 points, 1 rebound, 0.9 assist in 26 games with the Russian side that’s still trying to secure its Euroleague play-off spot.
TalkBasket.net had the chance to discuss with Ron Baker many topics, including his presence in the NBA, getting over defeat on both sides of the ocean, Conner Frankamp’s potential, Rick Pitino’s tweets and the elements that he thinks make the Euroleague a special competition. If anyone ever doubted whether a few months ago he knew who Alexey Shved was or not, the answer is simple: Of course he did!
Q: How is the season going for you and CSKA?
A: Obviously, we’ve had a couple of hiccups here and there throughout the season. We’re still in the TOP-8, which is important. In the play-offs, I think we’re going to be a team that’s going to be tough to beat out. Play-offs are the first call and obviously we want to get to the Final Four and get the championship. At times, the team shows that we can play at high caliber. On a personal level, it’s my first time playing in the Euroleague, so I’m sure that it is as expected. I came in pretty open-minded and CSKA treated me with tons of professionalism. I’m starting to find a little groove, as far as playing 12 or so minutes a game. I’m just trying to play hard with the opportunities I get.
Q: Would you say that CSKA resembles an NBA team in terms of organisation?
A: Absolutely. The people that helped me get there are organised, very professional and easy going. The President (Andrey Vatutin), Natalia (Furaeva, Vice-President), the GM are doing a great job, making sure that we have everything, regardless of the hiccups in my transition. I spoke to Kyle Hines and coach Itoudis before getting there. Kyle being from New Jersey was familiar with the New York Area and was telling me how the situation was going to be. Obviously, he’s a legend over here. It was easy to listen to the things he was telling me about this league (the Euroleague) and how things are in CSKA. That was the determining factor after I talked to him.
Q: Did you get any info from Conner Frankamp, your ex-teammate at Witchita State , who’s also playing in Europe?
A: I’ve heard he’s in Greece.
Q: He’s playing for Rethymno, in Crete.
A: Really? That’s awesome! I could say a lot of good things about him and go on and on. He was a great teammate at college. I’m sure he tunes into our games every now and then. I also know his agent, who talks highly of him. I think Conner’s ceiling is very high. He can do some dangerous things in the Euroleague as well.
Q: Do you believe that he’ll be playing in the Euroleague anytime soon?
A: I think eventually, yeah. Without a doubt. All it takes is a couple of good seasons. This Greece (Euroleague) teams might pick him up.
Q: By the way, CSKA has lost all three games against Olympiacos and Panathinaikos this season. How do you explain that?
A: I didn’t really think about that until you told me. I’m new to Europe, so I get a little confused when I look at the standings and try to remember games. It’s a shame being 0-3 against Greek teams and those are games that can change our outcome, but Greek basketball is obviously high standards.
Q: Is there really a big difference between Europe and the U.S.A. in the way defeat is perceived?
A: The thing about the U.S. is that you’ve got 82 games. Some guys are playing four games a week. Instead, here in Euroleague you might play one or maybe two a week. So, the turnaround is not as quick here. Sometimes, it’s a thorn inside for a couple of days when you lose a game. It’s a bad taste in your mouth, while in the NBA you play again the next night or the night after. So, you’re kind of a clean slate after a loss.
Q: Have you adjusted to that?
A: (sighs) I’m trying my best, yeah. It’s just a little different, especially for me because I’m just playing Euroleague and not VTB League. I’m trying to stay positive and take days one at a time. After a tough loss, the only thing we can do is stay together, watch film and learn from it.
Q: How did President Vatutin react after another defeat to Olympiacos?
A: Obviously, as he should be, very disappointed. He’s been in this business a long time, he puts a lot of heart and desire in his job. He has the right to be upset with the loss. Everyone is upset. He’s a guy that we should really be playing every game as hard as possible for. He got us all here, he respects us and we’ve got to show more effort and attitude for him.
Q: How was your time with the Knicks?
A: Playing in the NBA was a privilege. I took every day as an opportunity. I really enjoyed it. Obviously, being on a team that’s battling for a first-round pick is kind of tough, but I had no complaints with the organisation. They treated me very well. As a kid coming from Kansas, I could never have imagined a better start to a professional group.
Q: Being undrafted in 2016, did you expect to play in the NBA eventually?
A: In college, when I had a good season in my sophomore year, I really had dreams of turning an NBA career to reality. I kept working hard and the Knicks gave me a partially guaranteed contract after I wasn’t drafted. I continued to work hard with the player development guys and eventually made the roster.
Q: Nicks coach David Fizdale said he was sorry to let you go. Did that statement provide some sort of consolation?
A: Yes, that’s how the NBA works. You can have only a fifteen-men roster, you can only dress thirteen and I was kind of the odd guy out. It had nothing to do with my professionalism, my day-to-day activity. I just wasn’t performing and the club had to make a decision. No hard feelings against the Knicks. NBA is a business and that’s how the chips fall.
Q: Is it true that you were a players’ favourite in the Knicks locker-room?
A: Yes, I really hang my hat high on that. When I go places, I like to treat others with respect, being one of the best teammates I can be. If I can retire tomorrow, I’d want everyone that I played with to say that I was one of their favourite teammates.
Q: What do you cherish the most about the NBA?
A: Well, it’s one of the best leagues in the world. So, playing with guys that are averaging 30 points a game, some really skilled individuals that eventually are going to be legendary, I can look back and say I’ve played with Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony. Tell stories for hours at the dinner table with my family. Just create stories like that from hard work and from dedicating your heart to the game. It’s surreal.
Q: How did you react on the news of Kobe’s death?
A: Very sad, especially for all the victims involved. Kobe’s impact on the game was hard to explain to people. I didn’t have the privilege to play against him. I missed him by a year as far as the NBA career, but growing up watching him I’d say that he was the closest thing that a player will ever get to Michael Jordan. His legacy will be forever.
Q: Do you see any Kobe Bryants in Europe? I mean players who can really make a difference.
A: If there were any, they probably ought to be in the NBA, to be honest. I think there’s very few guys that can be compared to Kobe. It’s him, MIchael Jordan and a few others that you can throw up there. What’s really special about the Euroleague is that you have a good player perform on any given night. I think it’s very balanced. Probably the most surprising thing to me has been going into a game, focusing on a couple of guys that are averaging certain numbers, but any guy off the bench might drop in 12 points. That’s what makes the Euroleague kind of special to me: you just never know who’s going to have a good game. For instance, in our game vs Olympiacos, all their players outhustled, outrebounded us on offensive glass. Hustle plays are always going to win games. They make a difference, regardless of what league it is.
Q: Talking about difference makers in Europe, Rick Pitino tweeted that he’d like to see your teammate, Mike James, with the Knicks.
A: (smiles) Yeah, I’m sure Rick is throwing out some good quotes out there. The truth is that Mike is a very skilled player and he does have a lot of potential.
Q: So, would you agree with Pitino on James being a good fit for an NBA team?
A: I mean, I don’t always agree with Rick, but I respect his opinion. I played against him in college. His son Richard coaches at the University of Minnesota with one of my assistances for college. Rick would text me in the summer a couple of times. I’ve heard great things about his family and it’s a good connection to have.
Q: In an interview you gave in Russia, before season tip-off, I read a quote of yours about Alexey Shved. Did you actually say: “I don’t know him and I have no idea what kind of player he is” ?
A: No, I don’t think that’s true. I knew Alexey. I just never played against him in the NBA because he was already back, playing in Europe. Obviously Alexey is a very skilled individual.