ROSSVILLE – James Baker compares his style of play to Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo.
It’s easy to see why Rossville’s senior point guard would say such a thing. Both are mostly known for their ability to distribute the basketball: Rondo led the National Basketball Association in assists, including a 37-game double-digit assist streak, before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, while Baker is one of Indiana’s best distributors – he’s fourth in the state in total assists with 126 and is somewhere in the top-six in per-game average with an even 6.0.
Baker, like Rondo, is not much of a shooter – he has only attempted six 3-pointers all year and gets most of his baskets by driving to the bucket on a consistent basis despite defenses geared to prevent that and forcing him to shoot jumpers.
Baker is a 55 percent shooter from the field this season, slightly ahead of Rondo’s 48. And if they have to settle for a jump shot, both can knock one in from 15 feet out.
And Rossville’s point guard, once again like Rondo, wastes very little time in getting the ball up the court, helping a Rossville offense averages 57.5 point per game, the Hornets’ highest scoring output in four seasons.
“(Rondo’s) not the greatest shooter and he passes the ball, dishes it out consistently and gets lay-ups all day. I feel like that’s more me,” Baker says.
Baker’s backup, oddly enough one of the Hornets’ other starters in junior Ethan Brenneman, agrees with the Rondo comparisons.
“He always gets it to the open person,” Brenneman said. “He’s never selfish. He’s always looking up the court. We score a lot in transition because he always finds Brandon (Tonsoni), Austin (Miller), me and Mike (Gregorash). We mostly score off him. He’s so fast with his first dribble he can usually get to the rim, finish or kick it out.”
Brenneman, who takes over ball-handling duties when Baker heads to the bench for a breather or is in foul trouble, isn’t too shabby himself. He’s got 76 assists on the season, averaging 4.0 a game.
Baker will tell you immediately that his assist total coincides with having the great teammates listed above. And they’ve mostly been able to finish whenever Baker gets them the ball, whether it’s Tonsoni or Miller on the wing for a 3-pointer (a combined 38 percent from downtown) or Gregorash and Brenneman on the blocks (a combined 60 percent on 2-point shots).
“He’s everything you want in a point guard,” said Rossville head coach Dave Mosson. “He’s capable of averaging 10 because sometimes his body gets ahead of his mind and he makes the wrong pass or the kids aren’t ready for it. When he makes a pass, it’s usually got something on it.”
Baker’s been at his best when he’s able to push the tempo: he’s got two double-digit assist games (12 against Clinton Central – when he nearly got a triple-double – and 10 against Clinton Prairie) and four games (Faith Christian, Pioneer, Harrison and Sheridan) where he tallied nine assists.
Baker had no idea he was among the state leaders in assists.
“When I give my teammates the ball, they’re hitting their shots,” Baker said. “They’re the reason I’m getting the assists. It’s not me, it’s them.”
If there were any signs Baker would raise his dish game, it didn’t show in the statistics. A second-team All-Clinton County performer as a junior last year, Baker averaged 3.5 assists per game, a decent-sized dip down from a sophomore year where he averaged 4.2 per contest.
How Baker got to a point in his prep career where he’s one of the state best dish men is a bit surprising. Baker played maybe 10 minutes of varsity as a freshman. On top of that, Baker barely played junior varsity that year, finding himself in JV coach Mosson’s doghouse in the second half of the season.
Mosson, now in the second season as the varsity head coach, no longer has a leash on Baker. Not to make this an after-school special, but Mosson marvels at Baker’s transformation from a questionable student academically to one who’s taken charge in the classroom and on the court.
“We had butted heads so many times and he wasn’t listening, I didn’t think he was involved in the game,” Mosson said. “He’s made great strides, academically, socially and athletically. He’s a really good student. I have teachers come to me all the time and tell me what a joy it is to have him in class. He’s matured quite a bit.”
Mosson also says that Baker has become more of a student of the game.
“He’s making suggestions to me all the time during the game, which I kind of like,” Mosson said. “I like him bending my ear and I know he’s into the game. He’s always had the physical skills, he just needed to grow up a little bit and let that stuff take over.”
Baker’s game shares some DNA with Kendall Sadler, Rossville’s point guard when Baker was in middle school, in that they both love to push the ball up the court quickly. But whereas Sadler – who played collegiately at Indiana University-Kokomo – was much more reliant on his 3-point shot, Baker can get to the bucket a step or two faster.
“James’s court sense is maybe a little better but his quickness would be the number one thing,” Mosson said. “Kendall was pretty quick and adept at handling the ball with either hand.”
With Rossville sitting at 10-11, and running the show for a team that’s much better than its record indicates, it’s all a far cry from his sophomore year, when the Hornets went 6-15.
“I was new at everything,” Baker said. “I never had any varsity experience other than like 10 minutes total. The pressure got to me (then) and this year, I’ve gotten more comfortable handling the pressure and I think that was a big struggle for me my sophomore year.”
Rossville senior James Baker is fourth in the state in total assists with 126, and is averaging 6.0 per contest.
Baker leads a break
Rossville senior James Baker leads the break in the Hornets’ game against Clinton Central earlier in the season.