Austin brings 'inspirational' story to NBA Draft

Austin brings 'inspirational' story to NBA Draft
June 11, 2014, 10:15 pm
(USA Today Sports Images)

WALTHAM, Mass. — Every player you talk to leading up to the NBA draft has a story.

Some had a tough home life growing up that was filled with both physical and mental abuse.

Others play with a ginormous chip on their shoulders after putting up big numbers at a small school few outside the high school-sized student body, have ever heard of.

And then you hear former Baylor center Isaiah Austin tell you his tale, the kind of narrative that speaks to the human spirit of perseverance and faith that provides this 20-year-old the kind of clarity to keep doing what few in his size 18 shoes would ever think was possible.

Austin, who was in town on Wednesday to work out for the Boston Celtics, suffered an injury in middle school that left him blind in his right eye.

Just being able to continue playing with limited vision was impressive.

But Austin wanted more.

The 7-foot-1 big man developed into one of the top prep players in the country, with the extent of his eye injury not being revealed publicly until January of this year.

“We knew we needed to get the story out because of the NBA scouts,” his mother Lisa Green, told the Dallas Morning News. “We didn’t want people to think we were purposely hiding the situation. But we didn’t do it for that reason. We had never come forward because we didn’t want people to make it as an excuse for him. We wanted him to be able to accomplish what he’s accomplished so far, and people can understand that if he makes it to the next level, it’s because he’s good enough to be there.”

Many believed Austin would have been in the NBA after just one season at Baylor. But a torn labrum injury wouldn't allow him to participate in in pre-draft workouts or the pre-draft combine in Chicago.

So he made the decision to return to Waco, Texas for his sophomore season.

"This past season was more fun for me," Austin admitted. "I did a lot of maturing on the court and off the court. That really helped me develop my game even though my stats are down a bit and stuff like that."

Indeed, Austin's scoring dipped to 10.6 points per game from 13 as a freshman. In fact, his numbers dropped in just about every statistical category on offense.

However, Austin's play seemed to improve significantly on the defensive end of the floor courtesy of Baylor playing more zone defense which saw his blocked shots per game nearly double to 3.1 per game.

Maybe even more important, Austin's play helped propel Baylor into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

"With Isaiah being a former number one player in the country out of high school, I felt he really played within himself this year," said Austin Ainge, the Celtics' director of player personnel. "He didn't force things. He played to win and really helped his team win. You see that with a lot of guys who go back to college and figure it out."

But that success has come at a cost.

Had he entered last year's draft, Austin would have likely been a solid first-round pick even without workouts.

By returning, he's clearly a better, more well-rounded player. And yet his draft stock has taken a hit to where he's on the bubble for being selected in the first round of the June 26 draft.

But as you listen to Austin, it's clear that he has no regrets about how things have played out for him when it comes to basketball.

"People get so caught up and think basketball is life," Austin said. "There are so many more aspects to it. For me, I want to be able to use basketball as a stepping stone to be able to touch people around the world with my story. I really needed that extra year at Baylor to help me find that out."

Celtics coach Brad Stevens admits he's a "big fan" of Austin.

"His story is inspirational," Stevens said. "And him coming out and sharing his story was inspirational. I've got a good friend of mine who has gone through some issues with his eye and that was one of the first stories I shared with him (Austin). He's a really neat kid."

But the Celtics didn't bring him in because of what he has overcome.

Boston, desperately in need of a rim-protecting big man, wanted to get a closer look at him. The assessment could only be enhanced when you consider one of the players he faced in the workout was Haverill, Mass. native Noah Vonleh who is among the handful of players Boston is seriously considering selecting with their No. 6 pick.

"He's long. He's athletic. He can play out on the perimeter," Stevens said of Austin. "I think he's got a high ceiling. He's gotta put on some weight; there's no question about it. But he's a young guy that's only going to get better and better and stronger and stronger."

Indeed, Austin understands basketball is the platform from which his story of faith and perseverance can be launched from.

As much as he wants to be respected as a player, equally important to him is the light from which he's viewed as a person.

"Being a basketball player is one thing. But being a great person is a whole different thing; a bigger standard," Austin said. "I pride myself on being a great person. Basketball is going to end one day. Right now, it's a privilege and I'm thankful for it and I'm blessed to be able to play it and blessed to be this far."