When the history book is written on Wichita State basketball, Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker will occupy a prominent place. They are the biggest reasons the Shockers have just had an amazing four-year stretch that began with a Final Four appearance, featured an undefeated regular season and ended with an impressive NCAA Tournament win before they bowed out in the next round.
Now, it’s on to the next act. And that next act has nothing certain about it – certainly nothing as certain as the place they will occupy in their alma mater’s basketball history book.
VanVleet and Baker will go down as two great college players, period, though they will occupy a special place at Wichita State in particular. They were co-winners of the Wichita Eagle Most Valuable Player Award three straight years, led them to three Missouri Valley Conference titles, three MVC regular season titles, and nine NCAA Tournament wins. VanVleet is the program’s all-time leader in assists, steals and assist-to-turnover ratio, and tied the MVC record for wins with 120, while Baker is in the top 10 in scoring, wins, three-pointers, assists and steals. Along the way, they helped the Shockers set a new Missouri Valley record for consecutive seasons with at least 25 wins, something they have now done in seven straight seasons.
You get the idea. The Shockers’ recent success had a lot to do with them, and their numbers only tell part of their story. One can seemingly spend all day attempting to describe their accomplishments and impact.
For their last act, they led the Shockers to two straight NCAA Tournament wins, before seemingly running out of gas in their third game. Their win over Arizona impressed many with their defense, the kind of defense the Shockers showed throughout Missouri Valley play this season.
VanVleet and Baker were not highly recruited out of high school. In fact, Baker, who also starred on the gridiron as a quarterback and on the baseball diamond, actually started out as a walk-on until a scholarship became available as he redshirted his true freshman year. He emerged during the NCAA Tournament during his redshirt freshman season and was on the NBA’s radar for good from there.
Though they combined as a backcourt in college, both may make their money as point guards at the next level. At 6’4″, Baker is considered to be borderline for the shooting guard spot, though he can really shoot and has intangibles that are off the charts. VanVleet’s intangibles are similar, and that’s a big reason these two won so many games together.
In evaluating their pro potential, though, some of the same reasons they were under-recruited as high schoolers show up as questions in the eyes of pro scouts. With Baker, it’s size and not being very athletic. Like Baker, VanVleet’s size could be a hindrance, though he can’t move down a position like Baker can from off the ball to on the ball. VanVleet is also not an elite athlete or very quick, and with his lack of size he has two things working against him. The big question will be if his basketball I.Q. and toughness allow him to overcome that.
Neither player projects as close to a first round pick. In fact, it wouldn’t shock anyone (no pun intended) if both went undrafted and then signed very quickly with a team to play in a summer league. Neither has much upside at this point, and the NBA Draft is first and foremost about upside. Their intangibles go a long way toward making them the kind of players who can hang around the league for a long time, though, as solid reserves. NBA championship teams have good reserves they turn to at times, so there is a place for guys in such roles.
VanVleet and Baker have had to fight to get as far as they have thus far. Their work yielded two impressive college careers that will be long-remembered at their alma mater and beyond. Now they will try to ride all they have to an NBA career, even if it means a detour from the NBA Draft along the way.