Loyal Cougars

What’s Cooler Than Being Cool: Nate Austin and the 3-point shot

Ben Wagner dives deep into the stats to discover whether shooting threes is really the best use of Nate Austin’s abilities. This is the latest installment of our ongoing season preview, profiling each member of the 2013-2014 BYU basketball team.

On November 30, 2011, BYU played Northern Arizona in Prescott. Little did then-freshman Nate Austin know, but this seemingly meaningless non-conference game would shape his basketball career for the next two seasons.

At that point — the seventh game of the season — Austin had seen relatively little court time, playing just 42 minutes and taking only six shots through six games. With BYU leading big against Northern Arizona, coach Dave Rose pulled the starters, letting the bench clean up the last few minutes of a blowout.

With 4:20 left in the game, after an NAU miss, the BYU offense swung the ball around the perimeter to the 6-foot-11 Austin, who — after just a moment’s hesitation — squared up and shot the ball for the first three point attempt of his career, which, remarkably, went in.

That shot began a stretch of four consecutive games in which Austin hit a three-pointer, shooting 4-for-7 from deep during the streak. Before that stretch, Nate Austin had been a freshman struggling to get on the court. By the end, he was an established rotation player and an important part of BYU’s frontcourt, finishing the season averaging 13 minutes per game.

His impressive three-point shooting, apart from earning him more minutes, firmly established his offensive role as what is known in basketball parlance as a “stretch four” — a power forward whose ability to shoot the three forces defensive big men out to the perimeter to guard him, freeing up space around the basket for guards to penetrate either for layups at the rim or passes out to open shooters. In the mind of the BYU coaches, fans, and Austin himself, Nate now had the proverbial green light — the go-ahead to shoot a three whenever he was open.

But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, it becomes a sad story pretty quickly. Since that successful 4-for-7 stretch to open his career, Austin has shot 6-for-31 from behind the three point line — a dismal 19 percent.

Yet that 4-for-7 hot streak still informs the way we think about Nate Austin. Every time I bring this up with fellow BYU fans, the consensus seems to be that “Nate is a good three-point shooter.” Once last season, on Twitter, someone told me he was just having a rough shooting patch, but that “he’s shown he’s capable of shooting threes” — all this despite the fact that if Austin were a baseball player, he wouldn’t be able to get off the bench in single-A ball, much less start in the majors.

This unwillingness to embrace the math is found in coaches, too, who somehow continue to give Nate the green light despite overwhelming statistical evidence that a possession ending in a Nate Austin three point attempt is — 81 percent of the time over the last 61 games — a wasted possession.

Just last week on media day, Rose talked about Austin in terms of his ability to “stretch the defense” — or in other words, his ability to shoot threes. And this week, at the program’s Boom Shakalaka skills competition, Nate will compete in the three-point shootout alongside Tyler Haws, Matt Carlino, Skyler Halford, and other members of the team who should actually be shooting threes on a regular basis.

In a sense, this is a small problem — Austin only attempted 15 three-point shots last season, making three. Over the course of an entire year, 12 missed shots may not seem like such a big deal. But BYU lost 5 games last season by seven points or fewer, and the team’s scoring differential for the entire season was only +7.6 points per game. In most of the Cougars’ close losses, Austin did shoot and miss a three, which is, in essence, a completely wasted offensive possession.

In an increasingly competitive West Coast Conference, not to mention BYU’s strong non-conference schedule this coming season, the team simply cannot afford to waste offensive possessions — a single bad shot has and will cost the team valuable wins.

Furthermore, the loss of Brandon Davies and his fantastic post game leaves a gaping hole for this team. Rose needs Nate Austin to contribute more this coming season than he ever has in the past, especially on the offensive end. Yet, Austin has previously been a liability on offense. He has shown absolutely no post presence, and his most reliable move at this point is a baseline fadeaway jumper. At 6-foot-11, Austin should be able to dominate most other power forwards in the West Coast Conference by sheer length alone. With his height and wingspan, even a simple baby hook move in the post would be worth a few buckets a game in conference play.

Instead, Austin has relied heavily on offensive rebounds, mid-range jumpers and three-point shots to produce points — offensive strategies that, for him, range from inconsistent to borderline impossible. The three-point shooting remains the most troubling — after that hot start, every three-point attempt has been less likely to go in than the previous one — a discomforting trend. With Austin expected to contribute more to the offense and play more minutes this season, his shot volume will likely increase significantly — and if a large chunk of those shots are low-percentage three-pointers, the team could be looking at a lot of wasted offensive possessions.

This is most frustrating because Nate Austin does some great things on the basketball court. He’s a tenacious rebounder and defender (despite a proclivity for foul trouble), and he has the uncanny ability to produce offensive rebounds in those moments when BYU seems to need them most. Any program in the country would want a player like Austin, whose heart and hustle are of the absolute highest caliber.

Nate clearly has the potential to be a solid offensive player if he can make a big leap forward in terms of his post game. But on a team with players like Kyle Collinsworth, Matt Carlino and Tyler Haws, possessions cannot and should not be wasted on shots with a 30 percent chance of going in, much less shots with a 19 percent chance of dropping.

Austin will be an important asset for Coach Rose this season — his defense and rebounding are going to be critical for a team with real depth problems at the post positions. On media day, Austin did say he focused on his offensive post game during the offseason. If he can demonstrate early in the year that he’s truly developed a go-to post move, he could be a real weapon for BYU. On the other hand, if he keeps shooting low-percentage three-pointers without contributing down low, he’ll continue to be a liability and a possession-waster on the offensive end.

Of course, I suppose it’s always possible that Austin shot 50,000 three-pointers this summer, allowing him to come in and shoot 35 percent from deep this season. But until that happens, the statistics in no way support allowing Nate Austin to shoot another three-pointer. Ever.

Want more hoops action? Get your fix by reading more player profiles from our 2013-2014 season preview:

The cerebral Kyle Collinsworth
Next Level: Cougars need polarizing Matt Carlino to make ‘the leap’
BYU newcomer Frank Bartley knows the importance of family
Non-traditional Anson Winder a perfect fit for BYU system
The Tyler Haws Offense: Can BYU’s star scorer carry them alone?
Freshman Eric Mika expected to fill big shoes
Josh Sharp: Come for the dunks, stay for the dirty work
Skyler Halford: More than just a deep threat
Happy Days: Luke Worthington and the power of fun

16 Comments

  1. RobB

    October 14, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Let’s see what Nate’s outside shots look like with his shoulder surgery now more than 1 year behind him. Nate was a good shooter in high school, and he was fine prior to the surgery. I don’t blame coaches for wanting to see if he can get his shot back.

    • Brett Hein

      October 14, 2013 at 12:57 pm

      A necessary consideration. Maybe that’s had an effect. If Nate did start knocking down threes, it would be welcome from any player and any position. But I agree with Ben, if it’s not there, time to stop forcing it.

    • Ben Wagner

      October 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      I think the shoulder surgery certainly had an effect on Nate last year, particularly because he was out the entire off-season and had no time to improve his game, and he came back as more or less the exact same player. But Nate’s three point shooting woes aren’t contained to last season, after that 4 for 7 start he finished up his freshman year shooting 3 for 16. High school stats are fine, but two years into a player’s career we can’t look at what they did against inferior competition and with a shorter three point line as any reliable indicator of future success.

  2. Fdnman

    October 14, 2013 at 11:22 am

    It is only a wasted shot if he doesn’t pull the opposition forward out when he is out there, freeing up the lane for other players and if every one of his 3 pointers get rebounded by the opposition rather than one of our smaller players that are successful inside partially due to the fact Nate’s opponent is guarding him. If he is chucking up 3s because no one is guarding him and the opponents are clogging the lane and getting all the rebounds you would have a point. I don’t seem to recall it that way, though. Even so, here is hoping for a higher percentage shooting going forward.

    • Steve Pierce

      October 14, 2013 at 12:59 pm

      Therein lies the problem that Ben is articulating though, right? If Nate continues to connect at 19% from outside, teams won’t guard him out there, which means a more clogged paint. I’d prefer to see him step in and take that 15 footer that he can hit more consistently. Same effect in spreading out the defense, but better rate of return.

  3. Adam Mangum

    October 14, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Excellent points. I think Rose might be talking about his outside shot in general, not sure shooting threes. I believe he’s a good mid-range jump shooter, though I couldn’t find numbers to back it up. But your point is valid — fans and coaches may be putting him in a role that doesn’t actually match his skills.

    • Steve Pierce

      October 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm

      I think there’s some truth to what you’re saying, Adam. I think Nate is a pretty decent mid-range shooter, and if we’re defining a stretch 4 as being able to hit a 15-footer with some consistency, I think that’s a great role for him. Now, I can’t prove that with data, because shot-charting just isn’t widely available at the college level yet like it is for the NBA. But perception would certainly seem to uphold that, at least in my book. It’s when he steps back to the three-point line where I see the problems developing.

  4. Wes

    October 14, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Love this article. I think Austin’s green light really reflects Roses’s guard mindset. Hey – I love it that a forward can step out and stretch the defense, but when that becomes his primary gig offensively, it’s a problem. I also cringed when Rose said that – like he was almost surrendering to the notion that Austin will never be a meaningful post presence offensively; but I really loved hearing Austin say he is working on his post game – although I get the feeling that Austin would much rather be outside. I think he’d be the typical big man who wants to run point in pick-up games… not exactly the kind of help that Mika will need this year – but maybe he’ll surprise. Also – he HAS to play smarter, so he can stay in games and the team can learn to depend on his presence.

  5. Cougar Passion

    October 14, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Glad to hear someone else say this. We need 6’11” players to be able to score down low, not act like guards–especially if they don’t shoot with a high percentage. I know nothing about the effect his injury had, but the three-point shot–if the coaches feel he is capable of making it–should be a distant second consideration. Nate’s height is a rare and valuable commodity. He needs to do what a player of that size should be able to do to make it easier for the guards to do what they should be able to do.

  6. Geoff Johnston

    October 14, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    I was with up until the last “ever”. There will be times when him shooting a three could still make sense.

    But I completely agree that the numbers don’t lie. A big guy with a 26% career 3pt shooting average should definitely not be launching from three at will.

  7. David Walton

    October 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    If Austin could develop a jump hook and be a factor in the paint BYU could be really good.
    I’m just not sure he has the mentality to play inside. Maybe he’s been in the weight room during the off season and can show a little more toughness.

  8. John Palica

    October 14, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Austin has terrible form on his shot. His release is flawed and his rotation on the ball is sideways. He “palms” the ball when he shoots it from the outside making touch very difficult on his shots. Watch him shoot a free throw. It looks painful at times. Nate is long and should learn to play in the paint. Otherwise, he is a liability on the offensive side of the court.

  9. justin w

    October 16, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    I also find it interesting that Mika has been talked about as the center and not Austin. Hopefully this doesn’t further cause Austin to want to try to become a shooter. It would be spectacular if BYU could have 2 6’10″+ guys on the floor really securing the post, and not just making Austin want to shoot more. We already have amazing guards! Let’s keep the big’s down low. BYU doesn’t often have multiple guys over 6’9″ so this should be a beautiful thing.

    In his defense though, I love that Austin hustles down the court and has some speed for a big guy. Carlino loves to push the team down the floor and having a couple of big guys that could get down the court and to the rim quick, should make for some very exciting fast break opportunities (especially if Austin learns how to dunk…).

    But I totally agree with the article. Get to the rim, Nate! Hope he has a fantastic year. (We need him too, if we are going to make the NCAA.)

    • Geoff Johnston

      October 17, 2013 at 6:49 pm

      Mika is beefier than Austin and reportedly much better at playing in the low post. Austin is still skinny so despite his height he will likely always be at the 4 spot primarily.

  10. Brett Hein

    October 18, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    A 3 point contest certainly isn’t definitive of anything, but in larger context, his performance in tonight’s Boom Shakalaka event certainly was terrible.

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