WACO, Texas — Isaiah Austin, the spindling 7-foot front man for Baylor basketball, likely would be an NBA rookie today if not for a torn labrum that kept him out of predraft workouts last spring.
Yet of late it’s another injury that has fans and opponents discussing Austin.
In case you missed it, Austin revealed last week in an ESPN video essay that he has been playing with a prosthetic right eye throughout his high school career. While previous reports noted Austin wore goggles because of retinal surgery he endured in middle school, few people outside of his family and teammates knew he was blind in one eye.
The Arlington, Texas, native even kept it a secret from recruiters who fawned over him when he was a top-five national prospect in the class of 2012. Actually, he told the coaches at one program, Baylor, where he planned to sign since the eighth grade because of the school’s Christian environment.
“The only people we let know was Coach (Scott) Drew and his staff,” Austin said Monday. “I didn’t trust anybody else.”
Despite playing with one eye—which impairs depth perception and halves his peripheral vision—Austin was projected as a first-round pick had he left school after last season. The midterm results of his sophomore year at Baylor haven’t necessarily helped that status: he sports worse totals in scoring, turnovers, field-goal shooting and a severe dip in rebounding. (However, Austin’s blocks are up appreciably and he also has improved his accuracy from 3-point range and the foul line.)
His inconsistency hurt twice during Baylor’s current four-game slide. He finished with only four points and two rebounds in the 82-72 upset at Texas Tech and scored seven points on 1-of-8 shooting in Saturday’s 74-60 home loss to Texas.
“I take a lot of the fault myself,” Austin said. “My field-goal percentage is terrible and I’m not getting as many rebounds as I would like for my team. I have to step up my play and I take full responsibility for us having downfalls.
“I knew we have guys that can score, but when I get the ball I can’t go 1-for-8 from the field.”
Whatever production he generates, Austin said the lack of sight in his right eye isn’t a crutch.
“Sometimes I’ll miss a pass or something and I’ll tell my teammates, ‘My bad,’ because I’m used to it now,” he said. “Those are passes I should be catching and I have no excuses for it.”
Drew said his son Peyton wears glasses and virtually idolizes Austin. Texas coach Rick Barnes sought out Austin before Saturday’s game to praise his inspirational story. The player said he’s “extremely appreciative” of many fans who have expressed support since the ESPN story aired.
Some of that support come from teammates like fellow sophomore Rico Gathers, who was amazed to learn the scope of Austin’s sight limitations last year:
“There are times on defense where I try to cover his side, because I know he can’t see over there. But he’s a great basketball player, has a great IQ and gets me better every day. I look at him as a kid who has one eye but also a big heart.”