There are only nine players on NBA rosters this season listed at 7'1 or above. Even in a sport where height is at an absolute premium, there are diminishing margins of return once you start bringing in guys much taller than 6'11. Not only are you selecting from a smaller pool of available talent, but super-sized centers seem to have a higher risk for injury. At that size, it's difficult to have the coordination and quickness to survive in the modern NBA. For the most part, teams count themselves lucky if a 7'1+ player can walk and chew gum at the same time.
The nine 7'1+ players in the NBA are all traditional low-post centers. None are capable of running a pick-and-pop at the three-point line, putting the ball on the floor or pulling up for a mid-range jumper off the bounce. When it comes to Isaiah Austin, Baylor's 7'1 freshman center, we're entering uncharted waters. Basketball has never seen a player with his size and frame do the things he's capable of doing. Austin defines the word "tremendous upside potential," which is why he'll be one of the most interesting prospects to watch over the next few months.
At 7'1 and 220 pounds with a 7'3 wingspan, he makes quite the first impression. The nephew of former NBA center Ike Austin, he's all legs and limbs, towering over even the tallest collegiate centers despite weighing less than many guards. He also wear goggles, making him look like a praying mantis who has taken up racquetball. In Baylor's loss to Texas, Austin somehow convinced the referees to let him wear darker tinted ones that essentially function as sunglasses. Put it all together and he's a stranger in a strange land, playing a slightly different game that operates by a different set of rules than almost everyone else on the court.
Given his lack of strength and preposterously high center of gravity, it's relatively easy for smaller, thicker players to push him away from the basket. However, despite the finesse and skill in his game, Austin has no problem getting into the middle of the wrestling matches that occur in the paint. And with his size and reach, he doesn't need to always win them either. When an athletic 7'1 player puts his hands straight in the air, the ball has a way of finding them. There aren't many other 220-pound players who can average nine rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game.
On offense, he's playing on a different plane than the rest of the sport. There's no way to close out or even bother the release point of a 7'1 shooter and Austin is capable of pulling up from beyond the NBA three-point line. He averages 3 three-point attempts a game and knocks them down at a 32 percent clip as a freshman. And unlike most perimeter-oriented big men, Austin can score with his back to the basket, displaying a tantalizing array of drop-steps and fadeaways at times this season. Yet, for all his skill, he's only averaging 13 points a game on 46 percent shooting while Baylor looks to be headed for an NIT berth.
Scott Drew isn't exactly known for getting the best out of his players, but the problem with Austin is more basic. Right now, he's not strong enough to consistently finish in traffic while his lack of leg strength means his jumpers often die at the front of the rim. If the referees allow his opponents to be overly physical with him, he can be sent sprawling to the ground very easily. And if he isn't strong enough for the Big 12, how is he going to be strong enough for the NBA?
Austin's development will ultimately depend on how much weight he can add to his frame. In theory at least, that shouldn't be too much of an issue. He is only 19 years old and most big men fill out as they get older. Ike Austin was 6'10 and 270 pounds in his playing days. Isaiah doesn't need to be nearly that big; he just needs 15-20 pounds to gain the strength to stay on balance through contact and be able to hold his own boxing out and sliding through traffic in the paint. Whoever drafts him needs to understand that it will take him 2-3 years to grow into his body.
However, for a patient team, Austin represents a huge potential reward. You don't get many chances to draft a skilled and athletic 7-footer. A player that tall with potential on both sides of the ball can change the direction of a franchise; it's someone you can build around for the next decade. When Austin is 23 years old, he could be a 7'1, 235-pound stretch five. Everyone's always quick to point out when gambling on a big man doesn't pay off, but how are all the teams that passed on Andre Drummond feeling right now? Where would Philadelphia be if they had taken Derrick Favors over Evan Turner?
If Austin isn't going No. 1, his handlers should focus on finding the best fit for him in the draft. Ideally, a stable organization with veteran role models, a winning culture and a commitment to building from within. Interestingly enough, there is one franchise who fits that description perfectly, who doesn't have any short-term roster needs and who just happens to have the Raptors' lottery pick this season burning a hole in their pocket. The Thunder are one of the only franchises with their own D-League affiliate and Oklahoma City is just a few hours drive from North Texas, where Austin grew up and went to college. Given the track records of a lot of the other teams in the lottery, it's hard to trust his development to anyone else.
And now a look at Baylor's other pro prospects.
Shot creation: A mesmerizingly quick 5'10, 180-pound guard, Jackson has the necessary skill and athleticism to be an NBA player at his size. Check out how high he's getting on these dunks; he's athletic enough to be an NFL DB. He's best suited to a role as a change-of-pace guard coming off the bench, where he can use his quick release and excellent ball-handling ability to put up points in a hurry. (Averaging 19 points a game on 42 percent shooting, 6 free throw attempts)
Defense: Size will always be an issue for Jackson, but he's got great speed and quick hands, which should allow him to ball pressure smaller second-unit guards. (Averaging 1.5 steals a game)
Shooting: Jackson is an excellent shooter with a good-looking shot. His problem has always been shot selection. Drew has tried to make the JUCO transfer into more of a traditional PG the last two seasons and it's been an awkward fit. If he insists on taking off the dribble pull-up threes with a lot of time on the shot clock, he's going to end up in the D-League. (Shooting percentages of 42/35/77, 7 three-point attempts a game)
Passing: Jackson is a talented passer who can see the floor, but he gets sped up very easily and has a tendency to force the action. He doesn't always do a great job of involving his big men in the offense, a problem considering the level of talent he's had at his disposal the last two seasons. (Averaging 6.4 assists on 3.6 turnovers a game)
Rebounding: Jackson does about as good a job on the boards as you can reasonably expect for a 5'10 guard. (Averaging 3.5 rebounds a game)
Best Case: Nate Robinson
Worst Case: D-League
One of the best-kept secrets in college basketball, Jefferson has had to wait his turn behind a number of future NBA players in the Bears' frontcourt. An athletic 6'9, 210-pound big man who is finally getting a chance in his redshirt junior season, he has a surprising amount of touch and finesse for a guy capable of playing above the rim. He gets most of his points cleaning the glass and finishing off of penetration, but he's shown the ability to knock down a turn-around J and score with his back to the basket on the rare times he's had offense run through him. It would be nice to see what he could do with more of a featured role, but his age (he'll be 23 next season) might start to affect his draft stock if he stays in school. If he declares this season, he could be a huge steal for a team at the end of the first round. (Averaging 12 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks on 57/0/70 shooting).
At this point, you might start wondering how a team with this much talent has a 17-13 record and no chance of getting an at-large bid to the Tournament. In his own way, Scott Drew really is a genius.
An extremely athletic 6'4, 190-pound sophomore, Bello hasn't yet developed into the player many expected him to be coming out of high school. He hasn't gotten much floor time, but he hasn't done much with the time he has gotten either. With Baylor's starting backcourt, Jackson and A.J. Walton, set to graduate, it will be crucial for Bello to seize the opportunity next season.
Two highly-regarded recruits who were never able to carve out a consistent spot in the rotation as freshmen. Rose, a 6'4, 190-pound PG, and Prince, a 6'7, 200-pound wing, both have NBA bodies and they should have plenty of opportunities going forward to make names for themselves in Waco.
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