ORLANDO — A year ago, Ron Baker came to the Amway Center in Orlando as an undrafted prospect on a non-guaranteed deal, one of many in Summer League who, more often than not, never make it to the NBA.
On Saturday, he was back in the same arena as New York’s first free-agent signing, delivering the most grateful goodbye to Phil Jackson yet from anybody in the Knicks organization.
Baker also revealed that his new contract is for two years.
“I really enjoyed Phil Jackson. He taught me a lot this past year. He wasn’t only a mentor of mine, but he’s a really good friend,” said Baker, sharing a story about preparing to throw out the first pitch at a Royals game by playing catch with Jackson in the trainer’s room. “A couple of weeks ago we were playing catch in the trainer’s room before my first pitch. I wish Phil the best, gonna miss him.”
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Baker is only a spectator for this year’s Summer League, sort of like the Knicks have been bystanders to free agency. As of Saturday afternoon, the 24-year-old point guard was the team’s only free agent signing — giving them 10 players under contract for next season counting rookie Frank Ntilikina.
Depending on how the offseason shakes out, Baker could own a large role with the Knicks next season despite his limitations. The connection with Jeff Hornacek gives him an edge, since the coach sees a lot of his own career arc in Baker as an overlooked guard from the Midwest.
“Our stories are very similar. His career and my career hopefully can line up some day. Hopefully I can play as long as he did,” Baker said. “He’s someone I can look up to and trust on the court. Pretty much everything he says I relate to really well.”
With that being said, Baker is neither a great athlete nor a sharpshooter like Hornacek, a former All-Star in Phoenix.
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“The things I need to improve on are obviously shooting the basketball. That’s what I’ve been working on all summer and continue to work on,” he said. “I feel like with the athletes, the players I play with, I can get a lot of open looks in this offense. I just got to knock them down, and just keep being the aggressor and being the hustle player and play defense and I can sustain a good career in this league doing that.”
Ideally, Baker is a bench player as the Knicks are still looking for a starting point guard. But the market dried up rapidly in the first few hours of free agency, leaving GM Steve Mills with slim pickings.
Jrue Holiday (Pelicans), Jeff Teague (Timberwolves), Ricky Rubio (traded to the Jazz), Steph Curry (Warriors), Langston Galloway (Pistons), Shaun Livingston (Warriors) and Patty Mills (Spurs) all fell off the board within 24 hours. The remaining starting-caliber point guards includes two the Knicks likely can’t afford — George Hill and Kyle Lowry — and two with injury histories that aren’t a good fit for New York’s rebuild — Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose.
So for now, the Knicks have Baker, who a year ago nobody thought would make the team, let alone be the first signing in the Big Apple — whether with the Knicks or the Nets.
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“This year was a tough year on the wins and losses. But I met a lot of great people in this franchise, a lot of great players, coaches,” he said.
“We had a fun year together so I’m very comfortable in New York to go back. I can make some more memories hopefully and extend my career.”
Ntilikina sat out the Summer League opener on Saturday, an 80-75 loss to the Mavericks that included 21 turnovers from the Knicks.
The eighth overall pick will also likely miss Sunday’s game because of the knee bruise sustained while playing overseas.
On Saturday, guard Chasson Randle scored a team-high 14 points but also committed seven turnovers.
Second-round pick Damyean Dotson, in his first pro action, scored 10 points on 3 of 9 shooting with a team-high eight rebounds.
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