Canisius career behind him, Baron shifts focus to NBA

Photo by Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Photo by Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

By Jourdon LaBarber

BUFFALO — Billy Baron wore practice attire to his interview. He wasn’t really there to speak to me; his sleeveless blue Under Armour, basketball shorts, and the brand new pair of Kobe 8’s he had posted earlier on his Twitter account implied that he came to the Koessler Athletic Center for a greater purpose.

All the while, he tightly clenched a basketball in his hands.

“I took a few days off. Normally I take a few weeks off; I can’t do that right now since I’m going right back at it,” he says.

“I try not to kill myself,” he continues, “I have to take myself out of the gym because my legs are starting to come back; I feel like I can go forever but I don’t want to run myself down because this upcoming June, July, and even late May is going to be really hectic for me.”

After our session, Baron would be heading down to the KAC gym, where he’ll be spending one and a half to two hours every day for the next two months improving his game.  His hectic summer schedule begins on 9 May, when he flies to California before a hopeful trip to the NBA Combine in Chicago, followed by trips to over 20 NBA cities with teams he’s already arranged workouts for.

All that work, he hopes, will culminate in hearing his name called on 26 June at the NBA Draft.

“Basically every single NBA team is interested in me because they haven’t seen me a lot on film, they just saw the numbers,” he says. “Which is good, I mean I have a lot to prove, I’m looking forward to prove to them things they haven’t seen in my game. They see my 24 points a game, but I don’t think they really understand my making my teammates better and things like that.”

Baron can’t immediately recall all of the NBA teams he’s scheduled to meet; the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, and Dallas Mavericks are a few. The San Antonio Spurs are the first team he mentions in this instance, ironic considering the fact that they were one of the first teams to send a scout to Canisius.

He lists those teams matter-of-factly, as if it’s not unusual for a Canisius student to have their foot at the NBA’s doorstep. Of course, he’s had time to adjust to the idea of going pro during his senior season. It’s always been his personal goal, but as he lit the scoreboard night-in and night-out for the Griffs, others began to notice as well.

“He’s a winner,” 15-year NBA coach and executive Jeff Bower said after seeing Baron torch his Marist team with 38 points in a 78-65 Canisius win, a game for which a Spurs scout was also in attendance. “He’s got skills. He’s got size. He’s got deep shooting ability. He’s got playmaking ability. He is a competitor. Those are qualities every NBA team would value and will do their research and see.”

Bower wasn’t the only opposing coach to see that potential; after Canisius beat Siena in December, Saints Head Coach Jimmy Patsos stated his belief that Baron had the skill set to be a back-up point guard in the association.

While Baron hasn’t showed up on any draft boards quite yet – a fact he thinks works in his favor – he has developed some level of attention from the national media this season. The latest report came from Ric Bucher on, who in May reported that several NBA teams said “they would be the first to offer him a summer league and training camp invitation if he were available” after the draft.

That post-draft availability will likely be contingent on how he performs at his team workouts, and there are no givens considering the hurdles of advancing from a mid-major to the world’s most prominent basketball league.

Baron has heeded the advice of his agent in deciding to turn down an offer from the Portsmouth Invitational, a 62-year-old tournament featuring mid-major draft prospects including, in the past, NBA Hall of Famers John Stockton and Scottie Pippen.

Baron’s agents decided he’d have more to lose than to gain at Portsmouth – if he didn’t win MVP after posting the regular season numbers he had, his draft stock could fall. That advice was similar to that of another prospect from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference received two years ago.

“That is what they told me,” former Iona guard Scott Machado said, now a member of the Idaho Stampede in the NBA Developmental League. “I do recommend it, to go, because I feel like if I would’ve gone to Portsmouth and did what I had to do then I would’ve gone up on the draft boards, I do think that.”

Machado is the most recent graduate from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to advance to the NBA, although it hasn’t quite gone as he had planned. An excellent point guard in college, Machado was known as a fast player who could drive and feed his teammates dynamically.

He climbed up the draft boards and was even ranked as number one on ESPN’s “best available” list midway through the second round. He never got picked, instead latching on with the Houston Rockets summer league team. He made the NBA roster out of camp, but was sent to their D-League affiliate in Rio Grande Valley in mid-November.

“I felt like I was getting a lot of recognition coming out, they put me as one of the top point guards and I felt that as well,” Machado said. “When I went to Summer League I was just trying to do what the coaches told me to do; at first I wasn’t playing too well and my family members told me just keep your confidence, it started getting better game after game.”

Since then, Machado got re-called by Houston, was waived and picked up by the Santa Cruz Warriors where he fluctuated back-and-forth from their roster to the NBA roster in Golden State. He was then waived by the Warriors the following off-season, picked up by the Utah Jazz, waived again, re-signed by the Warriors and traded to Idaho, the Portland Trailblazer’s affiliate.

Such turbulent years aren’t uncommon for borderline NBA players, and Machado to this day still works on his game in hopes of finding a permanent spot on an NBA roster. Baron hopes to avoid such turbulence, but feels his college career has prepared him if it were to arise.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Scott,” Baron said. “He’s done a great job and he’s paved the way for me to have a chance like this, and that’s something you’ve just got to be ready for. But a lot of that, it’s the opportunity in hand, it’s the team you get taken to, like say I get taken late in the draft and go somewhere with a winning culture, that’d be big for me but it’s kind of how that ball rolls and you’ve to roll with it.

“You’ve got to keep it moving, you’ve really got to have a short-term memory, you can’t look at the past. I’ve had a tough time in the past, I’ve transferred  before and I see a team like Virginia (where he began his college career) playing for a National Championship, and I’m here working out on my own and that’s extremely tough, but I have to move forward and I think an experience like that will do well for me.”

If nothing else, Baron can take from Machado what it takes for a guard to take their game from the MAAC to the NBA, a challenge Machado says might be as hard as one thinks. Big men have trouble jumping from mid-majors to the pros, but the MAAC is a guard’s league. The challenge in making that jump isn’t necessarily as much about adjusting talent as it is earning respect.

“The MAAC doesn’t get a lot of respect, Scott Machado’s done a great job in the league and so has Jason Thompson, but it’s not in the spotlight,” he said. “It’s a great league; the guys who play for bigger schools, those guys are just automatically seen as better. And that’s what you have to prove, just because you had that name on your jersey doesn’t mean you’re better than me.”

That last statement is delivered with a slight angst; it’s a vendetta against those who might doubt him or view him as a lesser player. On the court, it’s a recognizable confidence that allows Baron to take control of games, so often burying teams with his shot. He holds that same confidence off the court, too, and it shines through when he talks about his future potential.

“I think my game’s really going to translate well because an NBA court is much more spaced out, it’s a little wider, and they’ve got their shooters everywhere, the spacing is all set. I’m a pick-and-roll player, I thrive in pick and rolls, and others team have got to be really accountable for other guys on the team so I’m going to have a lot more space to drive and hit the open shot,” he says.

At that, he continues without hesitation as he lists his abilities and the ways he can contribute. “That’s what’s going to be really important for me; I’ve got to be that guy who can knock down a drive and kick. If someone dishes out to me – Boom! I shoot or – Boom! I set someone else up or the big thing is for me, what you see me do a lot, I come off the pick-and-roll. Yeah, I can shoot the ball and the big man knows that but I can also make a one-handed left-hand pass to the big man, or swing across court just for a three ball. I think it’s going to translate extremely well to the NBA.”

That list of abilities rolls off the tongue so quickly it’s as if they’re rehearsed. The truth is, Baron knows exactly what he has to show NBA teams come summer. His brother, Jimmy, went through the process upon graduating from Rhode Island and came up short. Now playing in Rome, the elder Baron prepares Billy for the challenge ahead.

One particular story Baron recalls is when Jimmy worked out for the Portland Trail Blazers following his senior season. He was there competing against Jeremy Pargo of Gonzaga and Patty Mills of St. Mary’s. Billy recalls his older brother being sure that he would be taken by Portland. He won every one-on-one game; he made all of his shots. He played, in his mind, as well as he possibly could have.

“Then they didn’t take him,” Billy says. “And he looks backs at his defense, and he looks back at his body and everything he really couldn’t do, he showed everything in that workout.  He stressed all of that to me and my agents did as well; it’s not about knocking down 25 three’s, it’s coming down to the defensive end, to the intangibles, the little things like that will put me over the top.”

Should he do that, the only remaining question is the mental intangible, the ability to overcome the awe of playing against the world’s biggest stars. One year from now, he could be faced by the historic purple and gold clad of the Los Angeles Lakers or the dynamic speed of a guard like Russell Westbrook. At those times, Baron’s confidence will come in handy.

One particularly interesting scenario could be playing against his favorite team, the Boston Celtics, or, better yet, playing for them. While Baron admits that would be an added perk to his dream, he’s just happy to have an opportunity that, to many, seems unattainable.

“I thought about that the other day, and it’s pretty cool, to set myself up in a position where you’re only a few months away and you have a legitimate shot. So many guys fall short; it’s really almost impossible to get drafted because only 60 guys get taken,” he said.

“I really just want to finish the job and get it done. If my name isn’t called, I’ve learned how to move forward. I’ve learned that I’ll get my opportunity in a training camp and if I have to go to Europe, I’ll love it. I’ll learn to love it because I’m playing basketball.”


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