IT IS A CHOICE that only the most blessed get to make. That's how Isaiah Austin, Baylor's 7-foot-1 center, approached a decision that might have tormented a more ordinary 20-year-old: remain a giant on collegiate courts, or hope to begin a more lucrative education. Austin, like dozens of other young men this spring, has elected to leave school in pursuit of a professional career. "I'm just very thankful to be in this position, "he says. Unlike Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, however, Austin is far from certain what even his immediate basketball future holds. These weeks between declaration and draft are the last in his life when all things are possible.
In some ways, Austin is right to feel limitless. When he arrives at the NBA combine in Chicago in mid-May, he knows he will stand alone in at least one category. Isaiah Austin will be the only potential pick in that gym with one eye. Before he decided to enter the draft, he made perhaps an even more difficult choice: He went public with what he calls his "dilemma,"the hard fact that since middle school he has seen only half as well as every other player on the floor.
That confession "was like lifting a boulder off my shoulder,"he says. "This is the genuine me."He had been struck in the face by a baseball as a boy, and it loosened his retina; when he later went up for just another dunk warming up for an eighth-grade basketball game, a red curtain suddenly descended over his right eye. His early panic turned into a silent perseverance, a profoundly spiritual belief that he was given this test for a reason. "I wouldn't go back and change things even if I could,"he says. Almost impossibly, he developed three-point shooting range despite his lack of depth perception. Each basket became part of a larger revelation.
His coaches and teammates at Baylor knew what he had overcome, and at least some NBA scouts have said that they also long knew. But for Austin the announcement of his semi-blindness was the more consequential of his two declarations. "It gave me a chance to touch a lot of lives,"he says. He's since heard from young players working through their own hardships, and Austin's ascent has given them hope that they might reach similar heights. Between his two-a-day workouts in Dallas, he offers them the same optimistic mantra that kept his own head up: "The only thing that's going to get in your way is yourself."
Now he has reached a place where that is no longer true. Even setting aside foreign players and graduating standouts like Doug McDermott, more underclassmen have already declared for the draft than there are first-round spots, after which nothing is guaranteed. There just aren't enough secure futures to go around. There never have been. In the past 20 years, 707 underclassmen or high school players have entered the NBA draft, and 256 of them, 36 percent, haven't been picked. They've entered instead a difficult, often fruitless, transition in summer leagues and places like Greece, filling the limbo years between their youthful success and their adult resignation.
Austin's odds are even longer. (ESPN's Chad Ford projects him as a second-round pick, but going undrafted is always a possibility.) Unlike the growing army of imperfect boys he now carries on his shoulders, he's never had many idols from which to choose. Most recently, Jon Scheyer, the former Duke star, had his professional career cut short after he severely injured his right eye during a summer-league game. Dave Bing provides a happier lead. He's an NBA Hall of Famer despite suffering from blurry vision in his left eye following a childhood accident.
On June 26, Austin's own fate will finally become that much clearer. He plans on being in Brooklyn on draft night, and he gets gooseflesh whenever he imagines his name being called. Perhaps not surprisingly, he is convinced he will be among the chosen. "I'm not going to back down against anybody,"he says, now addressing the teams that might draft him. "I'm going to give you my all every time I step on the court."It won't much matter if the team that wants Isaiah Austin finds itself, like him, in a category of one. All he's ever needed is a single believer. He needs just one to see everything that he sees.