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Dick Harmon: With Nate Austin, Cougars suddenly have a triumvirate in the front court

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 7 2011 11:19 p.m. MST

Nate Austin of BYU greets fans after the basketball game against Weber State in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Nate Austin of BYU greets fans after the basketball game against Weber State in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

PROVO —

Nate Austin has turned into an unexpected tower of power for Dave Rose.

Austin, the 6-11, 215-pound freshman from Lone Peak, had a major hand in the dismantling of Weber State 94-66 Tuesday night in the Marriott Center.

The kid scored 15 points, hauled down nine rebounds and had a block. He was 7 of 8 from the field and hit 1 of 2 from three-point land in 21 minutes.

This was his follow up from a "starter" kind of performance in a win over Oregon last Saturday in the Energy Solutions Arena. In that game and the Northern Arizona game, Austin hit a pair of 3-pointers and scored 11 and 9 respectively.

Rose already welcomed back 6-9 junior postman Brandon Davies this season to give the Cougars a veteran one-two punch inside with senior Noah Hartsock.

Craig Cusick of BYU, left, Jordan Richardson of WSU, right, move in as Logan Foster of WSU dives to the floor for a loose ball during men's NCAA basketball played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Craig Cusick of BYU, left, Jordan Richardson of WSU, right, move in as Logan Foster of WSU dives to the floor for a loose ball during men's NCAA basketball played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

But Austin?

Really?

A 6-11 rookie guy popping out on the wing for a taste?

Is it too early to give the guy a little ink?

Nope.

"He's played awesome," said senior guard Brock Zylstra. "Great job off the bench," said Hartsock. "Really gives us a lift. That's what we were missing last year."

It isn't out of the realm to say Austin is officially pushing Davies for playing time. He takes smart shots, and he works the system. He makes plays on both ends of the court. He looks like a defender, albeit a pretty good fouler. Thing is, with foul-prone Davies, Rose can get a decent 10 arm-whack fouls out of the two.

Austin was wearing a white shirt and tie as an LDS missionary last August in McAllen, Texas.

Noah Hartsock of BYU, Brandon Davies of BYU and Charles Abouo of BYU celebrate as Davies makes a shot against Weber State as he was fouled during men's NCAA basketball played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Noah Hartsock of BYU, Brandon Davies of BYU and Charles Abouo of BYU celebrate as Davies makes a shot against Weber State as he was fouled during men's NCAA basketball played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

That's about four months ago.

He's supposed to look geeky, slow, underpowered and fawn-legged after two years off. He's supposed to have stress fractures, tendonitis, sprained ankles and a sore back the first year off a mission.

Instead, he's looking every bit the part of a future star, and he's killing the softy myth given to guys off missions.

"In the summer, we played with Nate and thought, here's a guy who'd be a good candidate to redshirt this year," said Hartsock.

Then Austin started looking like a sophomore after Thanksgiving.

For the third-straight game, Austin has impressed with 3-point shots from the wing. He rebounds with Dennis Rodman ferocity. He's got the balance of a veteran, hands like a third baseman and goes after loose balls like they're ping pong balls dumped out of a state lottery box.

The BYU bench cheers as Stephen Rogers runs by after dunking the basketball against Weber State during men's NCAA basketball played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) The BYU bench cheers as Stephen Rogers runs by after dunking the basketball against Weber State during men's NCAA basketball played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Back in the day, Clearfield's 6-11 Russell Larson did something similar for Roger Reid and the Cougars off the bench as a big man. Fresh off a mission to Argentina, he dropped 20-something on Utah State in Logan right out of the chute. He was legit, scrambling for minutes behind veteran Gary Trost as a freshman.

I asked Larson Saturday night if it was too early for folks to get excited about Austin after this three-game stretch making numbers.

"No, but with these young guys, it takes a while to see if they're legit because so many other great scorers and players on the court is getting so much attention that they leave him open," said Larson.

But Austin might be turning the corner after BYU's ninth game of the season, said Larson.

"It seemed like an anomaly when he scored those jumpers and 3-pointer against Northern Arizona and then he did it again against Oregon and now he seems to be a major contributor.

BYU's Noah Hartsock goes up with the ball over Weber State's Darin Mahoney during an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, in Provo, Utah. (Associated Press) BYU's Noah Hartsock goes up with the ball over Weber State's Darin Mahoney during an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, in Provo, Utah. (Associated Press)

"Dave Rose talks about expanding the depth on his team. Well, he's had several revelations, one of them is guard Anson Winder. But two, how huge is it to have a third guy when Chris Collinsworth isn't available any more to have Nate Austin come in and play significant minutes?"

In BYU's win over the Wildcats, the Cougars outscored the visitors 42-22 in the paint. For a good stretch in the second half, Rose had Davies and Austin on the court at the same time and Austin was not only posting up, but hanging on the outside baseline corner waiting for a deep shot like Jimmer.

"He's getting veteran minutes. This is a guy who's getting 15 to 20 minutes a game and Rose isn't afraid and doesn't hesitate at all to turn to him. That's a nice option for them. He's got to clean up his foul trouble but he's a bruiser and a banger."

Head Coach Dave Rose yells to his team during men's NCAA basketball against Weber State played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Head Coach Dave Rose yells to his team during men's NCAA basketball against Weber State played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

No doubt Austin is not becoming a bigger part of opponents' scouting reports. He will draw more attention, possibly even some double teams. And if he draws beef out of the paint, it can only make Hartsock happier.

"Right now it's just phenomenal that he's out there and doing what he's doing off the bench. It just adds one more option for Rose."

Larson averaged 10 points as BYU's sixth man his freshman year in 1991-92. He averaged 18 his senior season. Austin is not BYU's sixth man. That duty is Stephen Rogers, who scored 15 Wednesday, 13 of those in a five minute second-half stretch that included eight straight.

Austin has now scored 45 in nine games (five point average) but 35 (11.6 average) in the last three.

"I think Nate Austin has every bit a chance to be as successful as I was as a freshman," said Larson.

Nate Austin of BYU, left, and James Hajek of WSU fight for the ball during men's NCAA basketball played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Nate Austin of BYU, left, and James Hajek of WSU fight for the ball during men's NCAA basketball played in Provo, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Email: dharmon@desnews.com

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