Cameron Bairstow never quite tried to hold up 196 fingers to signal his national ranking as an incoming freshman power forward at the U. of New Mexico, one of only two U.S. colleges that offered the Australian a basketball scholarship. And Bairstow did play to his ranking, averaging 2.6 points and 1.8 rebounds as a freshman and 3.7 points and 3.6 rebounds as a sophomore, both seasons in limited play.
But by the time the shaggy haired 6-9 forward was a senior, he had completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in school history, averaging more than 20 points to become the first player in school history to more than double his scoring average to more than 20 in one season.
Could history repeat, in a fashion, anyway, for the Bulls backup who had 63 games of DNPs or inactive last season while playing the fewest minutes on the team with the lowest scoring and rebounding averages and shooting percentage?
“That’s something that’s made my transition easier,” Bairstow said after a team practice Monday on the UNLV campus. “Having come from a situation where I wasn’t playing a whole lot and having to work my way up through the ranks. It’s something I’m accustomed to, not playing a lot and how to deal with that. It’s something I hope to do at this level, work my way up like I did in college.”
Perhaps not to average 20 points, but Bairstow has been a ruggedly pleasant surprise in the Bulls 1-1 summer league start. The Bulls continue play against Brooklyn 4 p.m. (Central) Tuesday.
Bairstow, starting for coach Fred Hoiberg along with Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis, is leading the Bulls in rebounding and blocks, tied for first in steals, second in three pointers made, and perhaps in his most revealing statistic first in fouls committed, basically twice as many as the runner up. All while just fifth in minutes played.
McDermott leads in scoring at 15.5 per game, though one of seven on threes. Portis is averaging 14 points, but just 6.5 rebounds and shooting 41.7 percent overall. Bairstow is tied for fourth averaging eight points and shooting a respectable 44 percent. After all, he’s not finishing on any lob dunks.
“I really like Cam,” said Hoiberg. “I think he makes winning plays. The first game I think he took four shots, but the two guys who got all the points and rebounds were Doug (McDermott) and Bobby (Portis) and Cam was the one out there doing all the dirty work. A lot of things that don’t show up in the box score. That’s the type of kid he is, goes out there and makes those winning plays and picks things up quickly, a very smart player.
“He’s not going to back down from anybody,” said Hoiberg. “He’s going to bang and hit people. He had 11 rebounds (Game 2), nine the game before. It’s not athleticism; it’s positioning his body the right way.”
And not that Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson are going to have to worry about their places in the rotation. But Bairstow has been showing in leading the team in rebounding each game despite playing against much bigger players that he can eat up some minutes and play a role. Plus, Bairstow, who didn’t even appear to be allowed out of the paint when he did play last season, has shown a reasonable shooting touch even from deep.
“I’ve been working on (the three) a bit, so it was a good opportunity to try things out and expand your game a little bit,” Bairstow said. “It’s also the system. It’s been more open, more flow. So it gives you an opportunity to do different things. I’ve just been trying to get comfortable to be in position where I can be successful.
“Just play my role,” Bairstow said. “I understand what it is for a (potential) championship team. You’ve got to find your niche, do the little things to help make other guys’ jobs easier whether that’s crashing boards or setting good screens. That’s basically what I’ve been trying to do here, do the little things and help the team be successful.”
Bairstow seems the most unlikely of contributors for a deep team like the Bulls. It seemed difficult to understand last season why he even was on the team or not in the D-league for the rare playing time. And for a team that basically never scrimmaged. Still, Bairstow signed a modest deal with a partially guaranteed second year for this season. And he could be worth a further look with a coach who regards his aggressive play.
Bairstow isn’t the high jumping athlete. But he is bright, understands the geometry of the game, the angles of where a ball will come off, how to seal and box out and anticipate the play and where the ball is going.
And coming from nowhere, which seems even farther than Brisbane, is nothing new for the overachieving kid who carried a basketball wherever he went like so many kids in the United States. Cameron wasn’t growing much and not a prospect even in Australia. But he had a growth spurt late in high school and earned a scholarship at 18 to the Australian Institute of Sport, a national training facility. That’s why he was a 24-year-old NBA rookie after four years at the U. of New Mexico playing with current teammate Tony Snell.
Bairstow eventually blossomed and the Bulls took a chance with a late second round pick. He also became a member of the Australian national team and with Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova will try to help Australia qualify for the Olympics this summer after leaving the Bulls following summer league.
He’s seemed many times to be the guy of whom little was expected. But he has surprised.
“It’s also something I’m accustomed to, coming in situations where people don’t expect a lot,” said Bairstow. “So I have to show what I can do on the court and continue to improve to the point where I can do things and be successful at this level. The main thing is doing the little things, being part of the flow of the game and helping the other guys be successful because I understand the level of talent we have on this team. It’s not going to be my position to be a leading scorer like in college. I don’t mind banging bodies with the big guys. I’m comfortable wherever coach likes me.
“It’s been fun to be able to play after basically a year of not playing,” Bairstow said in embracing the summer experience. “Pretty rusty in a lot of areas, but at the same time a good experience to be back on the court. So I’m really enjoying it.
“Just take day to day; that’s all you can do in this league in any situation,” Bairstow said after enduring another frustrating freshman year. “Just try to make the most of summer league and enjoy the whole experience.I don’t think ahead too much, to be honest with you.”
And speaking of heads. Or knocking someone’s off at least in the figurative sense, Bairstow is ready to get back in there.
“I’m making use of those 10 fouls rule (for foul outs in summer league),” he said with a laugh. “I wish that was the way it was (all season). You can play a lot more physical.”