Rookies earn their place in the NBA, especially undrafted free agent rookies.
Baker has played by the rookie code this season, making the most of every minute of playing time and treating each practice like it is a game.
Prior to tipoff of Sunday’s 112-105 Knicks loss to the Golden State Warriors at The Garden, Baker sprinted back-and-forth on the baseline before getting in some last-second stretching.
The mantra, ‘Be Ready’ always cycles through his head like a layup line.
Since the Knicks waived Brandon Jennings on Feb. 27, Baker has moved into the role of backup point guard and his minutes have surged. His confidence, however, has increased more than minutes and stats.
Baker announced his presence with two plays midway through the fourth quarter.
With the Knicks trailing 97-91, Baker took an outlet pass from Derrick Rose and bolted into the frontcourt. All that stood between Baker and the basket was Draymond Green, the nastiest of the Warriors, known as much for his groin shot on LeBron James in last season’s NBA Finals as much as his aggressive all-around game.
Baker went right at Green, powering in a reverse layup that brought the Knicks to within 97-93 and brought The Garden crowd to its feet.
“As far as just being aggressive, that’s something you’ve just got to do in this league,’’ Baker told MSGNetworks.com “Other guys are going to be aggressive at you, so might as well do the same thing to them.’’
True. But this was not any ‘guy.’ This was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Green, whose muscular physique is a warning sign to his take-no-prisoners approach on defense.
“I knew there was just one guy back,’’ Baker said. “I didn’t know who it was until I got the ball.’’
Green was seemingly caught flat-footed. Surely this hayseed rookie from Wichita State was going yield. Not Baker.
“Regardless of who that is you have to be aggressive and go at the rim,’’ Baker said. “You try and draw a foul. You’ve got be a heads-up player and know it’s one-on-one at the rim. You’ve just got to make the right play.’’
Which Baker has done most of the season. His basketball IQ is extremely high, the result of growing up in a household in which dad, Neil, and mother, Ranae, were coaches. The Knicks loved Baker’s decision-making, toughness and the fact that he won every place he’s been.
Baker led Scott City (Ka.) to its first-ever Class 3A state title. He helped take Wichita State to its first Final Four in the modern era.
“He’s always been a confident player,’’ coach Jeff Hornacek said. “I think he feels, now that he’s getting some consistent minutes, he can go ahead and play his game. If the opportunity is there, take it.
“We talked to him about being a little more aggressive, taking shots when it’s a kick out, when you come off a pick and roll and you’re open from 15, 18-feet, shoot. Make that defense play honest. I think he’s doing that. He’s a strong kid so he can go in and drive the ball and use his body to hold somebody off, and still get the shot off.’’
Baker has been more aggressive, a byproduct of his increased confidence, which is a byproduct of his increased playing time.
Since Jennings was let go, Baker’s minutes have increased from about 12 to 18 per game. His scoring has seen an uptick from 3.3 to 4.0 as well as his rebounding, 3.5 up from 1.6, and assists, 2.3 up from 1.3.
“The more minutes you get, the more comfortable you are,’’ Baker said. “I kind of got a little confident early in the year when I was getting minutes as well. The more you learn, the more you progress as a player, the more confident you get.
“Confidence is a very key thing when you’re in this league because you’re going against the best of the best and that’s very important for me.’’
At 6-foot-4, 220, Baker has great size and strength for an NBA point guard. Now he’s starting to feel like he has a voice in the league.
Prior to his driving layup over Green, Baker was called for a foul on Shaun Livingston. Livingston seemingly hooked Baker, but veteran ref Dan Crawford didn’t see it that way. Baker turned to Crawford, grabbed the side of his jersey, and made his case.
“It’s definitely me growing as a player,’’ Baker said. “Obviously when you come into this league, you feel like you’re not getting the calls that you deserve.
“Most rookies play hard, try to do the right thing. There are times we feel we don’t get the calls that we deserve, but that’s part of growing up in this league. For me to express myself to the official is me growing as a player.
“I’m not trying to undress them, or show them up, if you will. I’m just trying to express that I feel like something else happened during that play and then we move on from there.’’
Baker finished with nine points on 3-of-7 shooting (1-of-3 on threes), five rebounds, one assist, one steal and one blocked shot in 23 minutes. He had plenty of family at The Garden to watch the kid that was born in Utica, Kansas and grew up in Scott City, population about any one square block in Manhattan.
His mother Ranae, one of 10 siblings, had several brothers and sisters with her in the sellout crowd of 19,812. They got to see a more confident, aggressive player.
How much more? Baker wouldn’t put a percentage on it.
“It’s definitely grown,’’ Baker said. “There were a lot of new teammates for me when I came in here. Once I got more comfortable with them, I can talk to them, not necessarily coach one another, but I can express myself to all my teammates.
“When you get on that level with them, you get more confident as a player and you understand what things you can do, what shots you can take that they’re OK with. So that gives me confidence knowing that guys understand my game. I understand their game. That can be a confidence booster in itself.’’
Before he left the locker room, Baker was reminded that despite his improved play and increased confidence, he remains a rookie, the lowest rung on the NBA hierarchy.
Kristaps Porzingis handed Baker a boxed meal to carry for him on the team flight to Milwaukee. Thanks, rookie.