Former University of New Mexico forward Cameron Bairstow was selected by the Chicago Bulls with the 49th overall pick, No. 19 in the second round of Thursday night’s NBA Draft.
Bairstow, the 6-foot-10 power forward from Brisbane, Australia, improved over each of his four seasons with UNM before having an All-America honorable mention campaign this past season as a senior, during which he averaged 20.4 points per game, 7.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
UNM head coach Craig Neal on Wednesday said he knew at least one of this former players — Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams were also in Thursday’s draft pool — would be drafted tonight, but did not elaborate. Thursday, he said he is confident all three will be successful pros.
“Extremely happy for Cam!” Neal said in a text message. “Shows you what hard work and dedication can do for a player. It is the ultimate experience to get drafted in the NBA. Unique for our program to have players picked in back-to-back years by the same team. The Bulls got a class person, a great player, a credit to our program.”
Neither Kirk, a 6-11 center from Los Alamos, nor Kendall Williams, a 6-4 guard, was drafted, but both are expected to sign free-agent deals and participate in the NBA Summer League in July (six teams play in Orlando, Fla., and 24 play in Las Vegas, Nev., including the Bulls).
“All three of our players in this draft (pool) are class acts, great players and a credit to our program,” Neal said.
“I expect all three to have success playing basketball.”
Bairstow spent draft night in San Antonio, Texas, with his girlfriend and was unavailable for comment late Thursday.
Last summer, Bairstow started to appear on the radar of NBA teams thanks to his emergence for the Australian national team in the World University Games, then later by earning a spot on the Aussie Boomers squad. Thursday, former Sydney Kings coach Shane Heal congratulated Bairstow via Twitter, saying he made a good decision by not forgoing his senior season at UNM to play professionally.
“I flew Cam Bairstow into Sydney 12 months ago and offered him a big contract to play with the (Sydney) Kings,” Heal tweeted. “Good decision to stay in school #nba”
Known as a workout warrior who was known for lifting weights after games still in uniform and before doing postgame interviews with media, Bairstow helped himself throughout pre-draft workouts with NBA teams, said his agent, Chris Emens. While Bairstow rarely shot from deeper than about 15 feet at UNM, he shot 60 percent from the NBA 3-point range (22 feet in the corners, 23-9 inches at the top of the key) at the NBA Combine in May.
“It’s something that teams really haven’t been expecting, given the fact that I didn’t shoot many this year (at UNM),” Bairstow told the Journal earlier this month. “I’m showing I can be consistent and accurate from the 15- to 18-foot range, and in the future I can really start working on bringing that back out (to NBA 3-point range) and add that to my game.”
Nevertheless, Bairstow is about physical play. In an interview on ESPN Radio on Wednesday, former Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, drafted in the first round by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Miami Heat, called Bairstow the one “big guy” who stood out in workouts.
“He was definitely talented,” Napier said of Bairstow. “He was big. The other big guys playing up against him, it was kind of tough. They weren’t as big as he was. I wouldn’t say dominating, but he was definitely getting his fair share.”
At the combine in May, Bairstow measured better than many expected. He was listed as 6-9 throughout his college career at New Mexico but measured at the NBA combine in Chicago on May 15 at 6-9¾.
It is the second consecutive year the Bulls have drafted a former Lobo. Guard Tony Snell was the team’s first-round pick last year.
Former Lobo and fellow Aussie Luc Longley, now a coach with the Aussie Boomers squad Bairstow plays for, played for the Bulls, winning three world titles in the 1990s.
According to the Bulls’ official Twitter account, general manager Gar Forman said the team considered moving up from the 49th pick in the draft to acquire Bairstow.
Bairstow was one of two Mountain West players drafted. San Diego State’s Xavier Thames was chosen by the Brooklyn Nets with the 59th pick, 29th in the second round.
This is the first time the Lobos have had players drafted in consecutive years since 1986 and 1987. The draft has been limited to two rounds since 1989.
The program had two players chosen in the top 60 picks in 1978 — Marvin Johnson (round 2, pick 31) and Michael Cooper (round 3, pick 60), but hadn’t had a player chosen in the top 60 picks in consecutive seasons in more than four decades.
Only players selected in the first round are guaranteed contracts next season.
Here is a profile on Bairstow’s emergence published in December: Bairstow’s overnight success story was 23 years in the making.