A year ago at this time, New Mexico power forward Cameron Bairstow was coming off his junior season, in which he was a part-time starter and while a good role player, not a player many expected to join classmate Tony Snell in the NBA, as two other members of his recruiting class, point guard Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk, were expected to lead the team as seniors.
Things didn’t go exactly as planned, as Bairstow not only emerged as the Lobos’ top player, but the leading scorer in the Mountain West Conference and as of last week, the Bulls’ second-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. The brawny, 6-foot-9 native of Brisbane, Australia, credits a summer spent with the Australian national team in building his confidence and getting him to a point where his game could translate into NBA success.
“I thought this year, I had some good improvements. But I think that physical play and I think that I’ve got a decently high basketball I.Q. with a skill level to accompany all that, and I think those three things, regardless of where you play, you can fit into a system and understand how to fit into a system. And I think I played against men last year on the international stage , so I understand what it is like to play against men who are professionals,” Bairstow explained Monday at the Berto Center.
“I think playing against men, you realize the tricks of the trade, a lot of the guys aren’t as athletic as youth and little things they do, in terms of how they think the game and see things one step ahead, I think that really helped me and I learned a lot from that. And in terms of being successful in each situation, I feel like going into a new structure after playing four years in one structure is a challenge, so I think to be able to see things in a different way and in a different aspect on the international level can only help me moving forward.”
Bairstow caught the Bulls’ attention when they were scouting Snell, who left New Mexico after his junior year, but it was New Mexico head coach Craig Neal’s recommendation that encouraged them to keep a closer eye on the big man, according to Bulls general manager Gar Forman.
“Cameron, really the first time we saw him was a year ago, when we were scouting Tony Snell and he was on our radar at that point,” Forman explained. “Actually, his coach was here during [training] camp and came to a preseason game to see Tony, and he told us about the great strides that he thought he was making and that he thought he was going to have a breakout year this season. So our scouting staff got on that right away and followed him throughout the year, as far as both practices and in games.
“Cameron is somebody we’ve had our eye on for quite a while and were actually trying to move up to get him in the second round, and were fortunate to get him at our pick at 49,” the general manager went on to say. “He’s a guy that’s going to bring a physicality in the low post. He’s got a skill level. He’s a good passer. He can shoot the 15-footer and again, is a guy that’s going to fit the culture that’s been created here.”
Reuniting with Snell is an added bonus for Bairstow and ironically, the swingman’s early departure helped paved the way for his big senior year.
“When Tony left, there were a bunch of points up for grabs,” Bairstow said. “I played really well with Tony. He definitely helped my game.
“He was actually far more quiet. He’s actually opened up a lot. Coming in as a freshman, he would be in the back seat and sometimes you’d get scared because he would say something and you didn’t know he was back there. But it’s really great to see him open up and he’s a great guy,” he joked, referring to Snell’s quiet demeanor. “He loves it here and he’s been a great help. I think he’s got that working mindset within him and he talks about the team culture, and how great it is and to live in the city of Chicago is awesome for him. So he’s been a great help and he loves the scenario he’s been put in here and I think it is a great scenario. So definitely excited to join him here and hopefully continue the success that we had in college.”
After playing with Snell on the Bulls’ summer-league team in Las Vegas later this month—coincidentally, the aforementioned Williams, a speedy floor general who went undrafted, will also be on the roster, along with University of Virginia product Billy Baron—Bairstow will try out for the Australian national team, which will participate in the FIBA World Cup. Australia is on the rise when it comes to basketball, as current NBA players like Golden State center Andrew Bogut, San Antonio point guard Patty Mills, Utah draft pick Dante Exum and top high-school prospect Ben Simmons are amongst the country’s top players.
“I think we’ve got a really good chance to do what the aim is to do, which is to get a medal and that’s something Australian basketball has never done. At the World Championships, the Australian team is going to have another chance at that. I think we’ve got a good setup this year and I think in two years’ time in Rio, that’s the goal, to get a medal,” Bairstow said. “We’ve got a couple young players, like Dante [Exum], [top-ranked rising high-school senior prospect] Ben Simmons. Obviously you’ve got established NBA players, like Patty [Mills] and [Andrew] Bogut, so I think it’ll all come together and I think we’ve got a really good shot to get a medal in two years.”
Bairstow hopes to make the team and use the experience to further prepare him for life in the NBA, but he already believes he knows how to carve out a niche for himself as a valuable role player.
“I think it’s going to be based on my trademark physicality. I think it’s going to be understanding how to play the game, understanding the role you’re put in and how to be successful in that role,” he explained. “I was only the star this year. First two years, barely played, backup minutes and freshman year, I think I only played in 15 games the entire season, so it’s something I’ve been used to, just coming on and contributing any way you can, and just help the team win. I’ve had that luxury of seeing it all and understanding it’s not going to be like the senior year in college.”