Unintentional though it may be, the nickname that evokes one of basketball’s best-known big men is perfect for the freshman center who is already making a name for herself. As fifth-ranked Maryland’s nonconference schedule comes to a close Thursday at Delaware, Austin is tied for fifth in the nation in blocks (27) and 11th in rebounds (118).
She is also the Terrapins’ fourth-leading scorer at 10 points per game, and with her average of 11.8 rebounds, she is the only player on the roster averaging a double-double. Thanks in part to the contributions of the Fredericksburg, Va., native, Maryland ranks 12th nationally in scoring defense and second in rebounding margin.
Coach Brenda Frese isn’t surprised at what Austin’s raw talent has allowed her to do after just a few months of working with Maryland’s coaching staff.
Austin, as ESPN’s No. 3 overall player in the class of 2018, was Frese’s highest-ranked recruit in the past decade, beating out eventual Maryland greats such as Alyssa Thomas (No. 7 overall in 2010) and Lynetta Kizer (No. 5 in 2008). To Frese, Austin is simply living up to her billing.
“I'm excited. I mean, the way we develop pros, she's got a chance to be a pro, she's got a chance to be really special,” Frese said in her office Tuesday. “When I look at her from a coaching end, by the time she graduates we need to make sure she's the No. 1 pick in the draft. That's the kind of potential she has, it's exciting to think what's ahead.”
Part of what makes Austin special is the way she moves. Though she isn’t as fluid as some of the more veteran bigs at Maryland, she is fast — and aggressive, particularly for a freshman.
Opponents have made just 3 of 14 post-up shots against the freshman, and 11 for 41 overall when she is the primary defender, according to Synergy Sports. She is comfortable just about anywhere on the court.
“I’ve played people who have her size, but not anybody who’s as agile as she is,” junior swingman Kaila Charles said. “She’s kind of like a guard who’s 6-5. She can handle the ball, she’s very athletic, she can really run the floor, she has good footwork, she can move very well for her size. … It’s very helpful, because she can spread the floor just like anybody else. It’s good for our transition game.”
Austin’s transition to Maryland was both quick and smooth, on and off the court.
The Washington Post first-team All-Met selection is used to change. She went to three high schools, playing her sophomore and junior years at Colonial Forge, where she won a Virginia state championship, then went to Riverdale Baptist her senior year. Instead of commuting from home in Fredericksburg, Austin lived with her coach during her senior year.
“Moving, it definitely made me more independent,” said Austin, who grew up shuttling between her parents' homes. “It made me more responsible … it just made me overall a better woman, and prepared me a lot for college.
“That was really hard for me, being away from my family my first year. But now in college, everybody else is like 'I want to go home!' and I'm like, 'I'm good! I'm chilling!'”
At that, Austin releases a big smile and some of the easy humor that fits Charles’s description of her: “She just brings a lot of life to our team.”
Starting at a new school every few years made Austin good at making new friends. At the Terps’ annual media day, she launched herself into Charles’s arms when it came time for the “goofy” version of the team picture.
Austin chose Maryland over top programs including Connecticut, Notre Dame, Texas and UCLA in part because of the family atmosphere the Terps offer and in part because it allowed her to stay close to home. Her parents and five younger siblings attend almost every game.
But it was also Frese’s recruiting pitch that sold the center on the Terps.
“Coach Frese was consistent with what she sees me being for this program,” Austin said. “Other coaches would call me and say, ‘How’s your day going, how’s your mom, blah blah blah,’ and with Coach, she was like, ‘We see you being an all-American here, we see you being the leader that you are.’ She knew how versatile I was, and she believed in me being able to do all things on the court.”
Austin committed to Maryland over a postgame dinner at Noodles & Company with Frese and her parents. The speed with which she had made her decision surprised even Frese — Austin hadn’t yet told her parents when she calmly made her commitment over pasta. But she knew she was sure, and she was ready.
“I think we celebrated with ice cream,” Frese said.