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ASU Basketball: Austin Nunez capitalizing on opportunities as a freshman, playing with “super-high IQ”

The freshman stole the spotlight in the Legends Classic. How high can he go?

NCAA Basketball: Arizona State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE - In a sense, sports are a lot like stocks.

If a team or player is succeeding, you buy in early so you can claim some sort of benefit when they reach their ultimate goal. With no postseason appearances in the last three years, and a 25-31 record in the last two, nobody was taking a chance on a program that was seemingly on its way off of the national market. The ASU stock was tanking.

But when the college basketball world saw a closing business ready to sell, Austin Nunez bought in.

Born and raised in San Antonio, sports are, as the saying goes, bigger in the lone star state. This kind of environment doesn’t typically fit an introverted, down-to-business type of player.

But that’s exactly what Lupe Nunez, Austin’s father, has seen in his basketball experiences. As the head coach of Nunez’s former AAU team, Lupe has coached against some of the nation’s top talent with, and without, Austin on the court. While Nunez tried his hand at nearly all sports growing up, Lupe had that magical paternal insight that the hardwood was where his son would find the most success.

“He grew up in a basketball environment,” Lupe said. “He had older peers that he got to look up to. His work ethic and love for the game, it wasn’t forced upon him, he just gravitated toward it.”

And as Nunez grew closer and closer to the game, his skills and abilities began to outshine his peers so much so to the point that Lupe knew he had a future collegiate athlete in the house..

“He was very talented from a really young age,” Lupe said. “I knew he was gonna go to school for free, and I would always tell him that. What I didn’t know early on was how he was going to get to those games, whether that be in a 15-passenger van, charter bus, or plane. That determines your level.”

Nunez’s talents were on display from the jump. As a 14-year-old high school freshman, he was the starting point guard on the 17U team for the Texas Hard Work, Lupe’s AAU team. Playing against some of the nation’s best competitors both for school and travel throughout his prep years, Nunez did not let the bright lights take him off his game.

“Being from Texas, they hype every game up that you play,” he said. “The stage doesn’t scare me. It’s something I wanted to embrace and was waiting for my whole life.”

He averaged 28 points per-game at Wagner High School in San Antonio, located in District 26 of Region 4 in the prestigious 5A level in Texas. He shot 45% from the field, including an impressive 40% clip on threes in his senior season.

“At that point, I knew he was a high-major level player in his freshman-sophomore summer,” Nunez said.

When it was time for Nunez to move onto the next levels of the game, plenty of the nation’s top teams sought out the slick-shooting four-star point guard from San Antonio.

Considering ASU’s recent campaigns, Tempe wouldn’t seem like a preferable destination for a top-100 recruit from Texas, especially with Texas, Baylor, and Arkansas on the prowl. And while those schools have their X’s and O’s masterminds in Waco and Fayetteville, Scott Drew and former Sun Devil assistant-turned Razorback Eric Musselman couldn’t offer what Bobby Hurley could as a head coach.

“Coach (Hurley) is the best passer to play college basketball,” Nunez said. “That’s an aspect of the game I can really get better at. Learning from him is an honor.”

The all-time NCAA assists leader, Hurley is in his eighth season as head coach of the Sun Devils, and he has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game during his tenure. In his mission to do that and more, Hurley saw a lot of himself in the tough kid coming from a strong basketball environment. It’s that relatability to Nunez’s situation that allowed Hurley to secure a commitment from the No. 55 ranked recruit in the nation, regardless of what had been going wrong on the court in previous years.

“The opportunity to see the floor and get a chance to have an impact on a team as early as possible was attractive,” Nunez said.

After all, it’s hard to ignore the attractiveness of a school that’s known as “Guard U,” if that is still the case.

“Austin has a tremendous upside,” Hurley told Sun Devil Athletics. “He fits the mold of what I look for with our guards. He loves the game, so I just have high hopes for him and what he’ll bring here to Arizona State.”

“Austin just gravitated towards coach Hurley and how he allows his guards to play,” Lupe said.

Unlike a lot of highly recruited high school players, Nunez understood his place in Tempe from day one. Transitioning from star to role player was something he had gone through before, and he was prepared to do it again.

“I’ve been on teams where I’ve been the worst player and the best player,” said Nunez. “It’s been an easy transition for me. Whatever opportunities I have, I’m taking advantage of.”

Take advantage, he has. As Arizona State’s stock has surged out of the gates to a 10-1 start, Nunez’s contributions off the bench have opened up a bull market on the freshman, whose long-term value has plenty of college basketball’s sharpest minds raving on the guard’s potential.

“He’s got a super-high IQ,” Lupe Nunez said. “He’s always had a great feel for the game. He’s a very skilled kid. He still has a high ceiling once he grows out.”

With only 37 total minutes in the team’s first three games, Nunez got his first big break at the Legends Classic preseason tournament in Brooklyn. Nunez’s 10 points against VCU were critical in ASU’s comeback victory. In the next game against then-ranked Michigan, Nunez dropped a career-high 15 points with three deep balls and two assists. His efforts earned him a place on the All-Tournament team.

While Nunez started to bear the brunt of the college game in the next few contests, he remained determined to produce. When he needed to step up against Creighton, Nunez poured in 10 points on some big-time buckets in a gutsy win for the Sun Devils.

While jumping at every chance he gets in a crowded backcourt, Nunez doesn’t discount his older and more experienced teammates. Backcourt mates DJ Horne and Frankie Collins have built portfolios in their time that the freshman looks to emulate with three and a half years of eligibility remaining.

“I’m trying to learn as much as I can from them,” Nunez said. “They’ve been in college and played in bigger games than I have.”

“This particular team right now is probably one of the better situations Austin can be around because of all the older kids,” Lupe Nunez said. “I think all those guys’ experiences have really meshed and it helped Austin.”