Baylor freshman Isaiah Austin takes on the big boys

WACO -- It didn't happen at a packed Rupp Arena earlier this month. Or the first time he set foot on the Ferrell Center floor for his college debut against Lehigh.

For Baylor freshman center Isaiah Austin, his welcome to the world of college basketball moment happened back on the first day of practice in mid-October.

"That's when it really hit me," said Austin, a McDonald's All-American last year at Arlington Grace Prep, where he averaged 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks per game. "Things got a lot more physical and I realized I was playing against grown men."

The 7-foot-1, 220-pound freshman was going up against players such as J'mison Morgan, a 6-foot-11, 275-pound senior, and fellow freshman Rico Gathers, a 6-foot-8, 260-pounder.

However, Austin has held his own in practice and in games. He might not be a physically intimidating presence, but he's been more physical than his body might suggest.

Against Lehigh, Austin scored 22 points with four rebounds and two blocks. His numbers could have been more impressive, but he saw only 17 minutes of action before leaving with an ankle sprain.

Austin sat out the Bears' second game against Jackson State, but has started the past six. That includes a 16-point, nine-rebound effort in an 84-74 win against Boston College and an 11-point, five-rebound game in Baylor's 64-55 upset of Kentucky on Dec. 1.

The victory at Kentucky snapped the Wildcats' 55-game home winning streak, and Austin outshined Kentucky's freshmen big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.

"That was great but we didn't capitalize on it the next game," Austin said.

Austin is referring to the Bears' game against Northwestern three days later, a 74-70 loss in which he had eight points and three rebounds. Baylor has been off for more than a week for finals, but is back in action tonight against Lamar.

So far, Austin has played well and lived up to the hype. He is averaging 12.9 points with 7.1 rebounds and a 51.4 shooting percentage through his first seven games.

Austin fits well into coach Scott Drew's system. He can stretch the floor, work inside and even has the go-ahead to air it out beyond the arc.

"Coach Drew gives you a lot of freedom," said Austin, who tries to model parts of his game after Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Garnett.

"I'm not the strongest 7-footer, so I don't like to bang the whole time. I like to use my height and quickness, so it's been a great fit for me. It's really elevated my game from high school."

Said Drew: "Isaiah is one of those players when he gets it going offensively, he can really light it up. Like all freshmen, there is a learning curve, and he's definitely going to have some growing pains, but we've been impressed with a lot of the early things he's done as far as toughness. He doesn't shy away from contact and he's working daily on his post game."

Drew is used to developing talented big men, too. He spent two years with Perry Jones III, another highly touted player out of the Metroplex (Duncanville) who was a McDonald's All-American.

Drew sees several similarities between Jones and Austin. Both were wiry -- but immensely talented -- freshmen centers.

"Both [are] skilled big men who can stretch the floor, put it on the floor, lead a break and shoot the 3," Drew said. "They aren't just limited in the paint, but both of them worked to get better in the low block."

Moreover, Jones III was projected to be a one-and-done player just as Austin could be. But Jones came back for his sophomore season and helped the Bears reach the Elite Eight last season.

Jones didn't improve his draft stock with the extra year, falling to 28th overall, but Austin is months away from having to make a decision on the NBA. Instead, he has other things on his mind, such as ending Kansas' eight-year reign as regular-season conference champions.

"Yeah, we're definitely planning on winning the Big 12," Austin said matter-of-factly.

Baylor has the talent to do it, especially if Austin reaches his potential.

Drew Davison, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @drewdavison