The ability to adapt to a changing environment is essential to survival. This principle is true in nature, the business world and in sports. In the age of national recruiting and high school power rankings, there is more pressure on 18-year-old kids to walk into a college gym in front of tens of thousands of fans and compete at a high level. Freshman center Isaiah Austin knows this first hand, and his journey has only just begun.
Once upon a time, even the best college players would stay until at least the end of their junior season. Even the great Michael Jordan played three years at the University of North Carolina.
The last three No. 1 picks in the NBA draft have all been players that chose to leave school after just one year. In 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Kyrie Irving from Duke despite the fact that he only played 11 college games due to injury.
Austin is in the middle of step one of his journey: jumping from high school basketball to college basketball. According to Austin, the transition has had its ups and downs.
“It has definitely been a crazy transition from high school here to college,” Austin said. “The strength is way more physical. The speed is way faster. Just the knowledge of the game is on another level… In high school, you can get away with driving into the paint crazy a few times. People really aren’t going to step over and take charges like that, but in college, if you don’t step over and take a charge, then you’re going to be sitting on the bench.”
Despite being a dominant shot blocker in high school, Austin is still considered an offensive player. His 7-foot-1-inch frame helps him shoot over defenders, and his rare combination of height and handles make him a nightmare matchup for opposing centers. Because of the matchup issues that Austin creates, the offensive transition from high school to college has been relatively easy.
“Offensively I would say it’s really not that big of a change,” Austin said. “The only change is the speed of the game and the strength. I stick to my skillset. I know what I can and can’t do on the offensive end.”
While Austin has recorded nine double-doubles on the season, head coach Scott Drew wants him to improve his rebounding. Rebounding in high school is very different than it is in colleg Austin said. In high school, Austin would use his height to get to rebounds first. In college, rebounding is more physical.
“I really didn’t have to box out [in high school]. The ball came off the rim and I just went and got it,” Austin said. “I was so much more athletic and taller than everybody. In college, everybody is an athlete. Everybody is strong. Everybody has that ego saying that they want to be the best, so everybody is out there giving 110 percent each and every play.”
With this more level playing field comes a fundamental difference in how players go about cleaning the boards. Instead of reaching, players have to get a low center of gravity and push other players out of the way. When the ball comes off the rim, the paint turns into a war zone.
“If you’re not being the one out there that’s doing the hitting, you’re definitely getting hit,” Austin said. “Especially if you’re trying to crash the paint for boards or trying to get an offensive rebound, or even trying to get a defensive rebound. Everybody is in that paint. That paint is a battle area.”
In high school, Austin owned that battle area defensively. Where high school guards panicked, college guards know how to handle what they are up against.
“They’re way smarter than in high school,” Austin said. “In high school, they would go and just flip the ball up and I would just go get it. Here I have to play my percentages. Either I can go get it or I can’t. If I can’t go get it, then I need to hit my man and try to rebound.”
Earlier this year, Austin went toe-to-toe with a man that owns the paint in college, Kansas senior center Jeff Withey. Austin finished that game with 15 points and 11 rebounds, but Baylor lost the game 61-44.
“He’s an outstanding player. He’s a future NBA player,” Austin said. “Playing against him, he’s a senior now and I’m a freshman. It was a little nerve-wracking, but I have all confidence in my own skills. I just went out there, and I didn’t want to play timid.”
Withey is currently third in the nation in blocked shots with 4.08 blocks per game, but what makes him special is his ability to stay on the floor. Shot blockers can sometimes get into foul trouble because they leave their feet more often than other players, but Withey has recorded fewer fouls than everyone else in the top 30 in blocked shots.
Austin said that he surprised himself in his first college game. The Bears were taking on Lehigh, and Austin finished with 22 points on 10 of 22 shooting.
“Our chemistry that game was just amazing,” Austin said. “Lehigh is a tough team. They beat Duke last year and [C.J.] McCollum, he’s a handful to handle with. We definitely set the standard high for that game because we knew that was going to be a tough game.”
Austin had to leave that game after rolling an ankle, but senior guard Pierre Jackson and head coach Scott Drew liked what they saw out of the freshman.
“Isaiah, unfortunately he rolled his ankle, but he probably would have kept killing like he was. I just hope they keep it up,” Jackson said.
Drewwas also pleased with how austin played.
“I don’t think you can be any more efficient than he was, so we will have to get him healthy and now the rest of the world is going to know about him,” Drew said. “People probably didn’t know that he could hit the three as effectively as he did and for as athletic he is for his size.”
NBA scouts are seeing what Austin is doing, and a lot of NBA mock drafts predict that Austin will be selected in the lottery. Austin expects the transition to the NBA to be much like the transition that he is currently going through.
“The high school game is way different than college and college is definitely way different than the NBA,” Austin said. “In the NBA you have the defensive three-second rule, so the floor is always more spaced out than in college. In college, you can sit in the paint as long as you want as a defender. I think the transition is going to be just like going from high school to college. It’s going to be a brand new game.”
One former Baylor basketball player that is making that transition into the NBA is Perry Jones III. Jones was selected 28th overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder, and his skillset is similar to Austin’s.
“He’s definitely more athletic than me. He’s a freak athlete,” Austin said. “I think I probably have a little bit more offensive skill than him. I think I’m a little bit more aggressive than him, but he is an NBA player. I’ve talked to him a couple of times. He said the transition is crazy. They have you traveling each and every day. You’ve got to keep your body right. There’s 82 games in a season, so it’s tough”
For Austin, the NBA is another test for another day. For now, he just wants to make this season a success.
“I just aim for trying to do the best I can for my team. We’re having a rough kind of season a little bit. We’ve lost a few games that everybody knows we shouldn’t have lost. So now people are looking down on us. Whenever we’re out there, we go out there as a team and everybody tries to do their part,“ Austin said. “Right now I’m just focused on college basketball and trying to help my team out, but I think my skillset can help at any level.”