In one of the most stunning and heart-breaking twists of the pre-draft process, Baylor sophomore Isaiah Austin was found to have a genetic condition that ended his NBA career before it even had a chance to begin. He was a fringe first-round pick, but he had as much pure talent as any player in this year's draft. He's a Dallas kid, so I've watched him for a long time and I'm still kind of in shock that I won't get a chance to watch him anymore.
At 7’1 220 with a 7’5 wingspan, Austin had a very unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. He was almost unprecedented a player in the history of basketball - there has never been a player with his size with his ability to shoot 3’s, put the ball on the floor and block shots. At the same time, there were not many precedents for a player with his shockingly thin frame. He was a big man in name only - 7’1 and weighed less than Marcus Smart.
Austin was taking the positional revolution to its logical conclusion, with young big men modeling their games on Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett instead of Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal. These days, the tallest players on the court want to spend their time 25+ feet from the basket. A generation ago, a player with his skill-set would have been inconceivable. A 7’1 player who could take the ball between his legs might as well have been a work of science fiction.
The theoretical advantages for his combination of length, skill and athleticism are obvious. Austin could shoot over the top of every PF in the NBA and cover them up on defense. Like Anthony Davis and John Henson, he functioned as a mobile shot-blocking platform at the college level, with the ability to contest shots from any part of the floor. To approximate the way his length can impact the game, imagine a guard with a broomstick in each hand.
However, when that theory was put into practice at the college level, there were some pretty clear drawbacks. With his painfully thin legs and high center of gravity, Austin had a lot of trouble establishing post and rebounding position against smaller and more thickly built big men. He could be pushed off his spots easily and he had a very difficult time playing through contact. A 7’1 player with no mass is like a giant see-saw - easy to knock off balance.
In terms of projecting him to the next level, the biggest question for Austin was how much weight he could add to his frame. In the NBA, his first priority would have been putting some meat on his bones. Some guys are never able to do it - Brandan Wright has been in the league 7 seasons and he’s still 6’9 210, the same weight he was in college. Wright has excellent per-minute numbers, but his lack of strength makes it impossible to play him 30-35 minutes a night.
At the same time, Wright has gotten better in each of his seven seasons and he is only starting to peak at a time when most careers are winding down. Big men take longer to develop than guards but they tend to have much more staying power - a skilled 7’1 player like Austin could have spent two decades in the NBA. He’s not a guy who would have made an immediate impact, but he had as much long-term potential as any player in this draft.
Austin underwent shoulder surgery in the summer after his freshman season at Baylor, which prevented him from doing much work in the weight room. He didn’t need to become super bulky - just enough core strength to offer some modicum of resistance against stronger players. If he could have done that, his ceiling was frightening. There’s not much you can do against a 7’1 player who can create his own shot, stretch the floor and protect the rim.
The holy grail of a small-ball coach is a big man who can maintain the team’s floor spacing and its interior defense at the same time. For the most part, those are two mutually conflicting imperatives - a team that plays a bunch of 6’7 shooters upfront can’t protect the rim while a team that plays 7’0 gargantuas has to slow the tempo and pound the ball inside. Austin’s ceiling was a player who offered the best of both worlds - a stretch 5 who can block 2-3 shots a game.
As a stretch 4, Austin could pair with a center to give his team an almost unprecedented amount of length and shot-blocking around the rim while still letting his team team play 4-out basketball on offense. In the modern NBA, the two most important skills a big man can have are outside shooting and shot-blocking and Austin had them in spades. If Austin didn’t exist, he would have to be constructed - a player with his skill-set is the next step in the evolution of the game.
The only real historical precedent for a guy with his skill-set is Jonathan Bender, another freakishly gifted 6'11+ player whose career was cut short by injury and medical issues. It took a generation for a chance to see a Jonathan Bender 2.0 and it might take another generation for a 3.0, but the progression of the game makes that player inevitable. The dream of Jonathan Bender and Isaiah Austin has been deferred, but it will come again.