When Billy Baron was 11 years old, he told his father Jim that he would play in the NCAA Tournament one day. His next declaration: Jim would be coaching him from the bench.
After guiding MAAC contender Canisius during the 2013-14 campaign, Jim Baron has 27 years of collegiate head coaching experience. He coached Billy’s older brother, Jimmy, at Rhode Island from 2005-09.
Jim essentially coached Billy from the stands as he grew up, but never officially held the title as his younger son’s coach during his youth.
“When I was 14 playing AAU, that’s when I really started to realize that I’m not only playing against my defender or whoever’s guarding me on the other team, but also my father’s watching me and I’m playing against his standards,” Billy says. “He was always pushing me. I always felt like I was playing against him.”
After graduating from Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, RI, with two first-team All-State selections and a McDonald’s All-American nomination in 2009, Billy attended Worcester Academy in Worcester, MA, for one year of prep ball in 2009-10, during which he averaged 27.5 points, 6.2 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.
Even so, Jim was hollering at him from the stands. Billy recalls scoring 45 points on the No. 2 team in the country that season with over 20 college scouts in the building.
“He looked at me after and was just ripping me,” Billy says. “’You should’ve done this, you should’ve done this, you should’ve had 50.’ That’s exactly what I needed and, in a way, that’s how he’s helped me get to this position today.”
Billy thrived in his father’s system at Canisius this season, the two Barons sharing the common goal of realizing their dream of the making NCAA Tournament together. He led the nation in offensive rating, earning his way to an AP All-America Honorable Mention after being named the MAAC Player of the Year by the conference’s coaches.
The No. 4-seeded Golden Griffins’ tourney hopes were on the line against top-seeded Iona in the MAAC Tournament semifinals on March 9.
Baron struggled for much of the first half as Iona took a 48-41 lead into intermission. But with his team trailing by 10 with 4:18 left to play, he scored nine points during Canisius’ 10-0 run to tie the game at 70 with 1:28 to go in the contest. Iona responded with a David Laury layup on the other end. Coming off a pick and roll from the right wing with 36 seconds left, Baron stepped back at the top of the key for a clean look at a three-pointer to take the lead, but his shot bounced off the front iron.
With 5.2 seconds remaining, Iona’s Tre Bowman drilled two free throws to make it a three-point game, setting up Baron for what would be a desperation heave. He collected the inbounds pass 90 feet from the basket, ferociously dribbled up the court and pulled up from 35 feet before hitting nothing but air.
And just like that, his roller coaster quest for March Madness’ biggest stage was over.
Baron arrived at the University of Virginia’s lush campus in the fall of 2010. Alongside Top 100 recruits in KT Harrell and James Johnson, Billy Baron and Joe Harris were members of the Cavaliers’ 2010 recruiting class Scout.com ranked 14th in the nation.
He and Harris connected on Facebook after it was announced the two guards both committed to UVA. Through online communication and texting, the two built up a strong bond. With basketball coaches as fathers—Joe’s dad, Joe Harris Sr, has coached at Chelan High School in Washington for over 30 years—the two had been around the game their whole lives.
“We connected before we actually met each other in person,” Harris says. “We became pretty close friends and we decided we would be roommates. Then when we got to UVA and I met him in person, it felt like I’ve known the guy since we were little kids. It was a unique relationship from day one.”
Baron’s Virginia career began with a bang. He scored 19 points on 5-6 shooting from three-point land and added 3 assists in 21 minutes off the bench in the team’s season opener against William & Mary. He followed up that performance with 14 points, 3 boards and 3 dimes in 24 minutes off the pine against USC Upstate.
But Baron never scored in double figures in a Cavaliers uniform again. Soon enough, he was barely cracking Tony Bennett’s rotation. Baron played just 7 minutes in Virginia’s 87-89 win at No. 15 Minnesota on November 29, a victory that jump-started a five-game wining streak in which he played just 4.6 minutes per outing.
Meanwhile, in Kingston, RI, his father’s Rhode Island Rams commenced the season 9-4, but his team was loaded with upperclassmen, headlined by seniors Delroy James and Marquis Jones. Jim knew his program was about to undergo a rebuilding phase and Billy wanted to help.
“I felt like I had work to do with him, I wanted to get Rhode Island to the NCAA Tournament, so that was always driving me when I was growing up,” Billy said.
Baron’s Virginia career ended just 17 games after it started.
“I listened to other people, maybe I did pull the trigger a little too early. Was it immature at the time? Maybe you could say that,” Baron says. “But also, I realized that going to play for my father was probably the best decision for my future. I always wanted to go the NCAAs, I always wanted to get drafted, so I felt like going to play for my father gave me better chances at doing that because he knew my game best and he wanted me to succeed overall and he was going to push me really, really hard.”
After scoring a combined 33 points in his first two outings at UVA, Baron only managed to drop 18 points over his next 15.
“He had kind of talked about [transferring] for a while,” Harris says. “Obviously I didn’t want him to go, I wanted him to stay. But I wanted him to be happy and I wanted what was in his best interests. I know he really wanted to play for his dad.”
Baron transferred to Rhode Island before the spring semester in 2011, eliminating a necessary red-shirt season that would follow a summer transfer. This way, he maintained eligibility to join the Rams on the Court in the spring semester of the 2011-12 season.
Before his collegiate career could really begin, Billy Baron didn’t play an organized basketball game for nearly an entire calendar year.
He was cleared to play and made his Rhode Island debut in an 80-61 loss versus Providence on December 23, 2011 after last playing for Virginia on January 27.
“It’s so hard sitting and watching. You really just want to contribute in any way possible,” Baron says.
He viewed his forced stint on the sidelines was a learning experience. He meticulously observed the way defenses reacted to his team’s ball movement. Instead of his usual view of the court from the top of the key as a point guard, he developed an entirely different vantage point from the sidelines.
“You look at it like you’re part of the audience, like you’re in the stands,” Baron says. “I picked up a lot on defenses: help side, where I could potentially be successful, where my shots were going to come from. That was big, knowing where your shots are going to come from.”
Once back on the court, Baron averaged 13 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 32.3 minutes over his 20 games during his abridged sophomore campaign. But the Rams struggled as a whole, compiling a 7-24 record and failing to qualify for the Atlantic-10 tournament during a season that ended with an 89-83 loss to UMass on Saturday, March 3.
Baron usually met his father around 10:30 a.m. for church every Sunday. On March 4, he went outside for a quick coffee run at 8 a.m. before getting ready for the service. His dad was already parked next to his car. Jim told Billy Rhode Island had fired him just 12 hours after the team’s season ended.
“When your father is just crying in your arms like a baby, it’s different,” Baron says. It hits you really hard. You feel like you let him down, he feels like he let me down.”
Jim says he was blindsided.
“We did it the right way. We graduated student-athletes, staying within the rules, taking the program off of probation. We were on probation for three years because of past incidents with coaches from before I got there,” the coach says. “It was devastating. Billy came back there to be with me and turn the program around and we fell short.”
In 1977, senior starting point guard Jim Baron led St. Bonaventure to the then-heralded NIT title on the Madison Square Garden floor.
The next winter, he was an assistant coach at the University of Rochester. Two years later he would serve as an assistant on the Bonnies’ staff for the 1980-81 season. And then, after his first head-coaching job at St. Francis (PA) from 1987-92 led to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1991, he returned to St. Bonaventure to take over the program he once led to national prominence from 1992- 2001.
“I’m very familiar with Western New York,” he says, chucking. “I know the area well.”
Just a few weeks after Rhode Island showed him the door, Jim received a call from a small school in Buffalo called Canisius. As a main rival of the Bonnies, Jim knew all about the Golden Griffins. Billy believed his father was going to retire before he accepted the head-coaching job at Canisius and a five-year contract through 2017.
During the layover, Billy visited Providence College, which he figured would be nearby his parents in his hometown of East Greenwich, RI. He toured Purdue. But neither school seemed right.
After Jim signed on at Canisius, Billy instantaneously decided to join him. They would have two more years to try and tango in the Big Dance just months after Rhode Island had turned their lives upside down.
“That’s the ultimate motivator. It changed everything for me. It pushed me just to be better, to be that much better,” Billy says of overcoming his father’s termination. “It changed my mentality about the game, I saw the dark side of basketball. It taught me to ultimately believe in myself. I really wasn’t scared any more to fail because that’s the low point, I was kind of at a stand still at my basketball career. I really didn’t know what was happening and it came at the absolute worst time.
“To ultimately transfer again was deflating, but overall you gotta get over that, you gotta keep moving on and I was able to do that with his help.”
When the Baron’s arrived at Canisius, the Golden Griffins had suffered through a 5-25 2011-12 year and ranked 328 out of the then-345 Division-I basketball teams in the nation.
“They needed us as much as me and my father needed them,” Billy says. “It was a perfect fit.”
The 2012-13 season had a storybook opening. The Barons led the Golden Griffins to a 3-0 start with momentous wins over Boston University and the school’s two biggest rivals, St. Bonaventure and Buffalo, during three home games over the span of eight days. Fans packed the 46-year-old, 2,176-seat Koessler Athletic Center to see it to believe it.
Three weeks later, Canisius trailed No. 4 Syracuse 32-35 at halftime in the Carrier Dome before ultimately losing. Four days after, the Golden Griffins upset Temple 72-62 in Philly.
“People were like, ‘Oh man,’” Billy says. “They were really behind us. We really caught everyone’s attention really fast.”
Baron averaged 17.2 points, 5.0 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 34.8 minutes per game for the year, leading Canisius to a 20-14 season and the CIT Quarterfinals.
But his senior year, 2013-14, was truly his coming out party.
“Honestly, when I first thought about it, going to Canisius wasn’t the most appealing thing in the world at that time, but I know if you win and if you do well, people are going to find you,” he says. ‘That was the advice my brother gave me: just keep battling and if you’re good enough, people are going to find you no matter where you’re at.”
He improved his numbers yet again, posting nightly averages of 24.1 points, 5.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds on just 15.6 field goals per game. Baron was the first DI player since Rodney Stuckey in 2002 to average better than 24.0 points, 5.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game for an entire season.
He ranked as the top player in the country with at least a 28-percent usage rate in offensive rating at 124.8, per KenPom.com. As the most efficient scorer in the country, Baron shot 46.4 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from three and 88.4 percent from the line—all career bests.
Just two years after Canisius won five games, he was piloting an offense that ranked 45th in the nation in offensive rating. Baron excelled at orchestrating his father’s schemes that relied heavily on his crafty play out of the pick and roll. The Golden Griffins scored 111.8 points per 100 possessions as a result.
But Iona still triumphed over Canisius in the MAAC semifinals.
“The next following couple weeks it was extremely tough to even watch the NCAA Tournament, but I was able to get over that,” Baron says. “I’m really working on improving, in the 39th and 40th minute of the game, not short-rimming a three-pointer. That’s something I picked up from that. It all comes back to believing in yourself and being able to take those shots.”
With 42 seconds left in the first quarter of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on May 29, Patty Mills drilled a three-pointer. Danny Green’s subsequent three tied the game at 32 after the first 12 minutes. Mills started off the second quarter with a triple to regain the lead for San Antonio. He finished the game with 9 points and 2 rebounds in 16 minutes.
He’s averaging 15.3 minutes per game backing up Tony Parker this postseason after seeing just 3.4 minutes of action a night in the Playoffs one year ago.
“I look at a guy like Patty Mills for when he comes in the game. Overall he’s just competing. He wants to win, he’s upping the energy and that’s a guy who I really look at who I can be,” Baron says. “A guy who comes in, gives you instant offense, can make others better. It just goes to show that he’s a basketball player, he’s a guy that is going to have a job for a while because he knocks down those shots.”
Today Baron is preparing for the 2014 NBA Draft even though he still has one full season of NCAA eligibility left. He graduated from Canisius with a degree in marketing in May. Now he has to sell himself to 30 teams on why he will be an effective NBA player after two transfers and a wild college ride.
“The overall skill I bring is just being a guard. Being able to knock down shots, being able to make others better,” he says. “You don’t really see too many true point guards anymore where teams just say, ‘Here’s the ball, run the offense.’ The game’s really changing, the guard position overall, that’s the prime position right now in the NBA.”
No matter what you call the position, Baron will be tasked with handling the rock and facilitating the offense in some capacity whether he gets drafted in the second round or finds his way onto a roster following Summer League. His comfort running the pick and roll bodes well for him to make a seamless transition into the League.
To develop his confidence making reads and playing out of that set, Baron watched hours of film on Portland Trailblazers point guard Damian Lillard and Milwaukee Bucks point guard Nate Wolters during their careers at Weber State and South Dakota State, respectively.
“I watched a lot of college guys who had to shoulder big loads because they knew they were going to get doubled. I watched how those guys read and reacted to the pick and roll and that really helped me a lot,” Baron says. “It’s all about pace with that, it’s all about how you come off that screen. Towards the end of this season, I was really able attack the pick and roll with good pace and when they started to double me, I was able to hit the cross-court corner pass for a lot of shots.”
Jim believes Billy is ready for the League not only because of his skillset, but also for an advantage he’ll have as a 6-2, 195-pound 23-year-old compared to many of the teenage prospects in this Draft.
“It’s tough for me, because I’m his dad and his coach, but I’ll tell you, somebody is going to get themselves a really, really good player because he knows the game, not only with the talent that he has, but he gets it,” Jim says. “I just think he’s so far ahead of so many other players because of his body, because of his maturity and his growth.”
Baron and Harris reunited for the first time since he transferred from Virginia at this year’s Final Four in North Texas. The two have stayed in close contact and say they’re friendship is as strong as ever Harris ultimately led the Cavaliers to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament this season.
Even though Baron never accomplished the goal he set forth to achieve when he was a pre-teen, he’s on the doorstep of checking off the task that has always been at top of his to-do list. And, he thanks his father for pushing him toward his mountain top.
“I always wanted to get drafted,” Baron says. “He’s helped me get to this position because getting drafted means everything to me.”