CHAMPAIGN — Austin Hutcherson’s high school basketball career was consistently interrupted by injuries.
First came the two herniated discs in his back, the result of a car accident — not his fault — before the start of his sophomore season at The Hun School in Princeton, N.J. Then he was undercut in a scrimmage during his junior year, which ended in a hard fall, some lost teeth, a broken jaw and a broken wrist.
The repeated pattern of getting on the court and then another setback soured his relationship with basketball. It also kept him sidelined during the most crucial time of any recruitment save for a month of AAU in the summer after his junior year of high school.
It came to the point where Hutcherson wasn’t even sure he’d play basketball in college. Two seasons at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., changed all that.
“Having those two years where I got to play basketball and not worry about being hurt all the time, I think I just fell in love with the game again and really enjoyed basketball,” Hutcherson said Wednesday. “I got to actually play the game and feel that growth of getting better.”
That love for the game didn’t diminish during Hutcherson’s sit-out season last year at Illinois. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Division III transfer, but there were enough good moments for the 6-foot-6, 180-pound wing that he enters the 2020-21 season with that same desire to play.
Hutcherson gets a smile on his face when he talks about the path that led him to Illinois. From not knowing if he’d even play college basketball to being on the roster of a potential top-10 team in the country with Big Ten and national championship aspirations is “a crazy story” in the New York City native’s own words.
The results he’s seen in the weight room and on the practice court in the last year after his August 2019 arrival in Champaign — and the continuous feedback he’s received from the Illinois coaching staff and his Illini teammates — has solidified his knowledge he belongs.
“When I got to D-III, I was actually more nervous to step into that team than I was stepping into this team,” Hutcherson said. “It was all mindset.”
Even that mindset has changed in the last year, though. It’s something Hutcherson said is a regular topic of conversation with his dad, Eric, who played collegiately at NYU.
“I’m a completely different person after just one year in terms of my mentality,” Hutcherson said. “I think I have more of that killer instinct attacking. I think I learned that just from going up against our guards every day. Then physically, my vertical increased a bunch. My strength, I’m up like 10-15 pounds from when I came. I’m a completely different person in my opinion.”
Hutcherson got to that point through another season quite unlike any he’d previously experienced. He knew about sitting out because of injuries. Sitting out after a transfer — where practices and workouts weren’t geared to playing right away — was different.
The message from Illinois assistant coach Stephen Gentry, who ran Hutcherson’s redshirt workouts with fellow sit-out transfer Jacob Grandison, and the rest of the Illini staff was to keep pushing. The time spent on those workouts and in playing on the scout team in full-team practices would be worth it in a year’s time.
“The hardest part was just in the very beginning,” Hutcherson said. “The guys had all summer to kind of learn stuff, and I came in when school started. I was already behind the eight-ball stepping into practice.”
Hutcherson also had to change his practice focus. He wasn’t going to be playing in any game in the 2019-20 season. That meant not taking reps from active players during practice and learning the intricacies of Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s offensive and defensive schemes in more of a mental rep capacity on the sideline when the situation called for it.
“Eventually, toward like November, December, January, was when I really started to feel comfortable and I think that’s when I started to string together some really good practices,” Hutcherson said. “Those bad days started to decrease a lot.”
Hutcherson has reached a comfort level at Illinois in the year since he arrived. Gone are the more chaotic days early in his Illini career where he was trying to get used to Underwood’s system and the pace of the game at the Division I level.
Now, Hutcherson is ready for the 2020-21 season and the role he’ll play. He sees a fit on the wing.
“I think you saw last year there were some games where we struggled a bit because of our shooting or not shooting the ball well,” Hutcherson said. “I think that’s something I bring to the table being the best three-point shooter in my (Division III) conference. I think that translates to this level, and I think the coaches and all the guys see it as well when I’m out there.
“Learning the defense here, I think it will translate with my length, my height and my athleticism. I just want to fit in and fill in some of the gaps where we struggled a bit last year and try to improve that so we have no weaknesses.”