"History is made by those who show up." – Benjamin Disraeli
You've probably heard that quote before. It's not a new one. In fact, it's very old. Its source, Benjamin Disraeli, reached the zenith of his influence in the 1870s when he served his second stint as prime minister of the United Kingdom.
But despite the fact that Disraeli's maxim is well over 100 years old and was ostensibly intended to encourage civic engagement, its spirit is still alive and well in 2014 — albeit in a very different context, nearly half a world away.
Nate Austin is the living, breathing, exceptionally tall embodiment of Disraeli's ideal. (And yes, I did just attempt to attach 19th Century British politics to a college basketball player.)
None of this is to say that Austin, in and of himself, is a history-making athlete. He is quite clearly nothing of the sort. He's not flashy. He doesn't score much. He's not going to give you many (if any) highlight plays. He is, in the purest sense of the term, a role player.
But despite his perceived shortcomings, Cougar fans can rest assured that Nate Austin is going to show up and contribute everything he can — however big or small — to BYU hoops history. Every. Single. Night. And that consistency and dedication should never be taken for granted.
Every time he steps on the floor, you know what you're getting from Nate. You're getting outstanding rebounding. You're getting yeoman-like post defense. You're getting non-stop, no-holds-barred, all-out hustle on each and every possession. It's not necessarily pretty on an individual level, but it's absolutely essential to BYU's success as a team.
As with most great role players, the numbers don't necessarily back up Nate's importance on their own (with one notable exception to be discussed shortly). But you can see and feel his impact in the little moments — the ones that don't necessarily show up in the box score but that can nonetheless shift the emotional momentum of a game and, ultimately, its outcome.
If that assessment seems overly vague and dewy-eyed, I'd encourage you to go back and re-watch a BYU game from last year. Pick one — any game should do. While you're watching Austin lumber around the court, I want you to wait for the moment when, in a burst of manic energy, he makes what might otherwise be considered a nondescript play at the exact time the Cougars need it most. And in that moment, I want you to listen to the crowd begin to buzz; I want you to watch his teammates begin to come alive; and then I want you to feel the tide begin to turn. The experience is palpable.
Chances are, Austin won't be the one that finishes that play in a blaze of glory. That honor will likely go to Tyler Haws or Kyle Collinsworth, or maybe even Matt Carlino. They'll be the ones who put the ball in the basket and record a tally next to their name in the scorebook. But those tallies wouldn't exist without Nate Austin. Whether he's taking a crucial charge, diving on the floor for a loose ball to save possession or tipping a missed shot into the waiting arms of a teammate, Austin's unglamorous grunt work makes everything that comes after it possible.
However, all this talk about grunt work doesn't necessarily mean Nate lacks elite skills that the casual observer might recognize. He has at least one — and it should play an increasingly important role for the Cougars this season.
Nate Austin is, by all accounts (statistical or otherwise), exceptional on the boards. Last year, he led BYU with 11.9 rebounds per 40 minutes played — an incredibly effective display. (It's worth noting that Collinsworth barely led the team in rebounds per game, collecting two more total rebounds than Austin in 202 more minutes.) Nate also topped the team by grabbing 15.8 percent of all misses when he was on the floor — a number that likely would have been even higher had he not spent much of his time competing for rebounds with Collinsworth (the nation's third-best rebounding guard) and his frontcourt-mate Eric Mika, a strong rebounder in his own right.
So Nate has proven he can clean the glass — and he'll likely need to scrub even harder this season. With Mika in Italy on a mission, Collinsworth still recovering from knee surgery and no obvious candidate prepared to step into the other starting frontcourt spot, Austin should be called upon to shoulder even more of the rebounding load for BYU. Sports Illustrated reflected that dynamic this week when they projected Austin would average 9.1 rebounds per game in 2014-15, second most in all of college basketball. That's a whole lot of scrubbing.
But all that glass work is not without its own reward.
It's no secret that Austin is a limited offensive player — a reality that drastically reduces the number of touches Dave Rose sends his way on that end of the floor. Even for a consummate team player like Nate, all that screening and hustling with no actual shooting has to get old every now and then. After all, it's fun to score. It's a rush. Every basketball player, no matter how selfless, wants to feel it.
So how can Nate get some touches when Rose is (quite reasonably) disinterested in running any plays for him? There is a way, and it's something my father — a basketball coach all his life by passion, even if not necessarily always by profession — drilled into me growing up: "If you want the ball and they won't pass it to you, go to the basket and get an offensive rebound — then you can do whatever you want with it."
This approach has worked pretty well for Austin in the past. Last season, 22.7 percent of his total shot attempts came on putbacks, according to Hoop-Math. Even better, he converted 70 percent of those putback attempts, compared with a conversion rate of just 54.5 percent on his field goal attempts overall. So if the pattern holds (and we have no reason to believe that it won't), more offensive rebounds means a more effective and efficient Nate — and as a result, a more balanced BYU attack.
With Mika gone, he should get plenty of opportunities to own the glass. All he needs to do is show up and play hard — and that's never been a problem for Nate Austin.