The biggest day in the life of Larry Austin Jr.--up to now, that is--comes on Feb. 18. It will be his 16th birthday. It is only a coincidence that his Springfield Lanphier team, which is ranked No. 1 in Class 3A, will meet second-rated Peoria Central on that date.
"That morning I get my driver's license," Austin said. "I'm looking forward to being able to drive. I don't want to depend on my parents all the time."
If he had a choice, Austin would choose a Ford Explorer or Mercury Mountaineer for his first vehicle, not a Ferrari or Sting Ray or Lamborghini.
That's because Austin, or LA to his friends, is all about being a utilitarian, nothing flashy. He prefers the grunt work, not the spotlight. Of all the many things he does on the basketball floor, he likes to make steals, not shots. He plays with enormous poise and maturity, rare for someone who enjoys watching cartoons.
Austin is a 6-foot-1 sophomore guard who averages 11 points, four assists and five steals for a 20-2 team that will meet highly rated Chatham Glenwood and Peyton Allen on Friday night for the Central State Eight Conference championship.
He already has received scholarship offers from Illinois, Bradley, DePaul and Memphis but most of the major programs, including Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State, are showing interest. Longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com rates Austin among the top 50 players in the class of 2014.
Austin has built a national reputation despite his modest statistics. As a member of the 12-member USA men's developmental national team that won a gold medal at the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 championship, he averaged only four points but accumulated seven assists and seven steals per game while playing with Simeon's Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn and Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor.
"He has a great basketball IQ. He plays at a high level," Lanphier coach Chuck Shanklin said. "He does so many different things. His big statistic is the number of steals per game. His performance in the summer with Parker and USA Basketball brought him to everybody's attention. He will be a point guard in college."
That's what is attracting the major schools--Austin's point guard skills. Have you noticed how many teams in college and the NBA are desperately looking for leadership, someone to steer the ship and prevent it from sinking?
That's why former Thornridge and Indiana star Quinn Buckner, perhaps the most celebrated leader ever produced in Illinois, was the first player ever selected among the top 10 in the NBA draft who didn't average more than 10 points per game. Everybody coveted his point guard and leadership skills.
"The biggest thing that Austin has going for him are the positive intangibles that he brings to the table," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.
"He sports considerable toughness, is a strong man-to-man defender, has great leadership qualities and plays unselfishly. In addition, he has outstanding speed and quickness which combined with his strength allow him to consistently get to the basket.
"His perimeter shooting is still suspect and he is definitely not a scorer like Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, who is the other elite point guard in the class of 2014. Nevertheless, Austin possesses many of the attributes that warrant him drawing potential as a potential high major recruit."
Recruiting seems to be the last thing on his mind. With more than two years left to play at the high school level, he can expect many more offers, giving him endless options and opportunities to select the program of his choice, what is best for him. And there is no hurry to do it.
"I just want to stay focused and stay in the gym and do my schoolwork," he said.
At the moment, Austin doesn't play point guard on a team that is led by seniors Everett Clemons, T.J. Davis and Jaylen Briggity. But Austin will move to point guard as a junior. He knows that is his position for the future and he welcomes the challenge.
"A pure point guard is someone who controls the game very well and makes other players better," Austin said. "He has to have a pass-first attitude. His job is to get everyone involved in the game as soon as possible before he thinks about taking shots.
"Leadership is about communicating with other players, taking the game over when it is necessary, scoring when you have to, being in control of the game. When you see people arguing, you know they are in a bad position. It's your job to tell them what to do and when to do it."
Austin admires NBA stars Derrick Rose and Chris Paul and watches them whenever possible. He marvels at Rose's quickness and how Paul comes off pick-and-rolls. But he always talks about "playing my game" and not trying to copy someone else's.
At the USA Basketball camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he minded to his own business. "I learned how to compete every day. I realized that someone always is working when you aren't. It takes hard work every day if you want to be a great player, if you want to get better. We talked about little things that help you to win games...hustle plays, getting loose balls, breaking down defenses, drawing fouls, getting rebounds, how to make plays," he said.
It didn't take him long to realize that basketball was his future. He stopped playing baseball in second grade, after only one season as a first baseman. He said the game was too slow for him.
"Why basketball? I like intensity, the way we compete against other teams. The atmosphere is there," Austin said. "I like to make steals. If I get a steal and a breakaway and a dunk, it fires up my team and gets the crowd into the game. That's what makes it fun for me. I just go out and play and have fun."