ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Four years ago, it was difficult for the New Mexico coaching staff to really envision how Cameron Bairstow would evolve as a player.
"When he first came over he was 6-9, 205 and he could barely dunk," said Lobos coach Craig Neal. "We thought he could be good, but not like this, though."
Before this season, Bairstow had never scored 20 points in a game. Now the senior forward is averaging that much for No. 25 New Mexico, reaching 20 or more 16 times. He's dazzled opposing coaches and players with an array of moves that simply were not in his repertoire before and is considered one of the leading candidates for Mountain West player of the year.
Bairstow credits his experience in his native Australia last offseason with giving him a boost heading into this season. Bairstow starred for Australia in the World University Games in Russia then turned in a very solid performance with the national team in a three-game series against New Zealand.
"I was overseas, practicing twice a week in camps and then you go from the camps to playing against men in highly competitive environments," he said. "I think that I learned a lot. At the same time, I did fairly well and I kind of improved my confidence a bit."
Known as a tireless worker, Bairstow will frequently keep media members waiting after games while he gets in his reps in the weight room.
"He's worked harder than anybody else," said New Mexico center Alex Kirk. "Flat out, he's worked harder than anybody in the country. Every coach is going to say, 'Hey, this kid is the hardest worker in the country.' But they're lying. Cameron Bairstow is the hardest worker and he's proving it right now."
In his time at New Mexico (22-5, 13-1 Mountain West), he's added nearly 50 pounds of muscle — he's now listed at 250 — and has turned himself into a potential NBA player, Neal said.
"I was in the league for a long time and I did a lot of the drafts," he said. "I think he could get drafted and I think there's place for him to play in the league. But we'll just have to wait and see. He's improved as much as any college player as I've seen in a long, long time and I've been around a lot of them."
Playing professionally is a dream, but one Bairstow said he didn't really entertain until this past summer.
"It kind of gave me a better mindset about it all and a bit more positivity about moving forward in the basketball world," he said. "I wasn't really sure what I was going to do post-college and how it all was going to go. But I think after that I kind of realized that I can really do this and I can make a career out of it."
For now, however, Bairstow said he has his sights set on more immediate goals, like helping the Lobos sweep the conference and conference tournament titles for a third straight year and leading the program into the NCAA tournament.
"I'm looking forward to the challenges again and trying to do what we haven't done in the past," he said. "And we're in the hunt this year so we'll see how that finishes out. But then there's what we haven't done in March the last two years and to try to get some success there. That would be fun."