By Shehan Jeyarajah
On April 28, center Isaiah Austin surprised Baylor fans by deciding to return for his sophomore season. Ever since being recruited as a consensus five-star prospect, it was assumed that Austin would leave after his freshman season.
Coming off his freshman season, the Basketball Times named Austin a Freshman All-American. The league’s media also named him All-Big 12 Second Team center. Austin averaged 13.0 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game and 1.7 blocks per game on 45.9 percent from the field.
Many outlets listed Austin as a first round pick in the upcoming draft. DraftExpress.com projected Austin as high as the 15th pick in the first round.
ESPN soon reported that Austin had suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder in the lead-up to the decision.
The injury would have kept him out of NBA pre-draft workouts.
“He still could’ve left school and been drafted,” head basketball coach Scott Drew said. “He likes it here. He’s enjoyed his time here so far. If he didn’t like his teammates and if he didn’t like Baylor he wouldn’t have come back. I think that says a lot.”
Austin was forced to rehab his shoulder throughout the summer, and was not able to play basketball.
Teammates said that he would referee their pick-up games in lieu of playing. He was cleared to play just in time for the first day of practice on Sept. 27.
Through eight games, Austin is averaging fewer than eight shots a game, but has dramatically increased his shooting from 45 percent to almost 51 percent from the field.
Austin has virtually removed the three-point shot from his game. His shot blocking output has almost doubled from 1.7 per game to 3.1 per game.
“Isaiah has done a great job of maturing and being a great teammate,” Drew said. “He hasn’t played as many minutes as he did last year, or put up as many shots, but I think he’s been concerned primarily with winning.”
The one part of Isaiah’s game that has fallen off mightily is his rebounding.
After averaging more than eight boards a game last season, he is averaging 4.9 per game this year. That statistic does not bother Drew.
“We have more size around him,” Drew said. “You have multiple people grabbing rebounds this year. Last year, if your four or five didn’t get the rebound, no one did. Even when he doesn’t block shots, he affects shots. I’m really pleased with how he has progressed as a shot blocker.”
More important than any production, the Bears have jumped out to a quick 7-1 start despite playing one of the tougher opening schedules.
The only loss for Baylor this season was a loss to then No. 8 Syracuse. Since the loss, Syracuse has jumped up to No. 4 in the nation.
“I’m not playing as well as I did last year but we’re winning so I’m not really troubled by it,” Austin said. “I just have to get back in rhythm. I know my teammates have my back.”
No. 20 Baylor basketball will play No. 3 Kentucky at AT&T Stadium in Arlington at 9 p.m. Friday. The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN.