Former Baylor star Isaiah Austin faces an uncertain NBA market
2014 NBA Draft prospect faces scrutiny after he reveals he is healthy to play basketball
News that Isaiah Austin will attempt to resume his basketball career has been met by support and curiosity around NBA front offices, but not, in the telling bottom-line reality check, by instant mass interest in signing him.
Executives appear to generally be taking a relaxed approach toward Austin’s planned comeback even before the unique medical situation is factored in, with one offering that Austin will likely have to find his way back into the league through the D-League or through some other way.
Most teams had Austin on the bubble for the first round of the 2014 draft after his sophomore season at Baylor, a slide from earlier lottery consideration but high enough to be considered a decent prospect who needed to get a lot stronger at 20 years old, 7 feet 1 and 225 pounds. Four days before the selections, though, it was announced Austin would retire immediately after tests showed he had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that strikes the connective tissues that hold together cells and organs.
The league brought him to the draft in Brooklyn, N.Y., anyway, wanting Austin to experience the chance to be picked, even if only ceremonially. Commissioner Adam Silver stepped to the podium in the middle of the first round and, just as every other selection is revealed, announced Austin had been chosen by the NBA. But his playing career was thought to be over and Austin turned much of his attention to starting a foundation and raising awareness and research of Marfan.
“They said I wouldn’t be able to play basketball anymore at a competitive level,” he told ESPN when the illness was disclosed. “They found the gene in my blood sample. They told me that my arteries in my heart are enlarged and that if I overwork myself and push too hard that my heart could rupture. The draft is four days away, and I had a dream that my name was going to be called.”
Last week, though, Austin announced he had been cleared to resume his career, telling cassyathena.com that “I have been blessed by the grace of God to receive a second chance at chasing my dream of playing basketball. Everything happens for a reason and I’m ready to share my testimony and journey with millions of people across the world.”
What has changed in the last 54 months is not immediately clear. Teams are left to wonder if there was a change in Austin’s condition or if Austin, now 23, found a different doctor who provided the news he wanted to hear. The only certainty is that front offices are very noncommittal while waiting for answers.
“What reversed the decision?” one general manager said. “How did it come to be that now he can play? We don’t even know how. Yeah, that’s what I’d be curious about. I’m not saying this happened, but I’ve seen this before. You can find someone to tell you that you can play. Somebody will.”
Said another GM: “Your doctors, they can have that assessment, but our doctors will come and say, ‘OK, we want to talk to the doctors and we want to examine him ourselves and do some necessary tests’ and then see what happens from there. It’s not only the basketball side, the upside of who he is and what we saw (at Baylor).
“I’ve never heard anybody (in the NBA) talk about any skepticism on that because I don’t think he’s on people’s radar like that. I don’t think there’s a buzz like, ‘Whoa, now he’s been declared healthy. Is he really healthy?’ I don’t think people are looking at it that way. I think people are more ‘OK, that’s interesting.’ I can see maybe someone trying to do a feel-good story, liking a little bump from a PR standpoint. Maybe someone does a short-term contract with him and brings him in.”
If Austin’s camp has signaled a timetable for teams to watch a workout, it has only been to select teams – multiple executives say their club has not been notified when the No. 7-ranked power forward in 2014 according to an NBA.com consensus of front offices will officially begin the comeback. That, as much as anything, indicates the amount of doubt that still surrounds a future that could begin overseas or in the D-League. It is not even clear whether Austin is thinking about getting in basketball shape for this season or giving himself several months of preparation before opening up to evaluation in the summer.
“He’ll definitely get a chance,” said one head of basketball operations. “It’ll be interesting. I don’t know if he’ll work out for teams or do one workout where he’ll invite people or he’ll just say, ‘I’m available’ and somebody will sign him. But he’s absolutely worth a team taking a long look at, with his skill set and size. He seems like a really good kid, especially what he did in the face of a ton of adversity, as far as how he handled it. I think he’ll get a great opportunity. Ultimately he’s going to have to show he can play and play well to stay in the league, but I hope he makes it, whether it’s with us or someone else. I root for guys like that.”
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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