A year ago it was Trey Burke throwing his name into the NBA draft early after leading Michigan to an impressive tournament run and winning Big Ten player of the year. This time around it is Nik Stauskas doing the same thing. Time is a flat circle, y'all.
Stauskas comes from a much different place — both geographically and in terms of his basketball past and future — than Burke did, but it is looking likely that the Canadian wing will go somewhere in the late lottery range like Burke before him. Nik "Not Just A Shooter" Stauskas has blossomed into a complete player, boasting a deadly outside shot (44% on 390 3PAs in college) and building an offensive arsenal that includes a quick first step to get into the lane, a deft passing touch, and an ability to finish at (and above) the rim. But he still suffers the fate of other players like him, players typecast into roles they may not necessarily fit. It has been going on his whole life.
Early Life and Prep Career
Nik Stauskas was bit early by the basketball bug, something that doesn't tend to happen as much north of the border. In his long look at Stauskas's development as a player, Chris Ballard at Sports Illustrated takes a look at these unlikely roots:
Then there's the geography. Somehow, Nik grew up in Canada and never played hockey. Born 10 years earlier, he might have settled on soccer instead. But Nik arrived on Oct. 7, 1993, seven days after the NBA moved to award Toronto an expansion franchise. He came of age alongside the first generation of Canada's basketball youth. He went to Raptors games and idolized Vince Carter. (When he was 10, Nik was called down to the court during an open practice at Air Canada Centre and got to play two-on-two against Carter, surprising his idol by swishing a three. In return, Carter tackled Stauskas and gave him a noogie.) At 7, Nik played organized basketball for the first time, with his uncle's local Lithuanian club. It wasn't the most exciting affair -- his team won 6-4 -- but Nik was hooked.
Stauskas would go on to develop as a basketball player largely on his own. His youth teams often didn't have coaches who were qualified to run things, so either Nik or his dad took charge. Nik would shoot baskets out back on his paved backyard court — the one you see in all the youtube videos featuring Stauskas — which is where he developed his incredible accuracy as a shooter.
As he got older he played on AAU teams to improve his game against better players, and his father started documenting his progress with the now ubiquitous backyard practice videos that are so popular. By the time he entered college he was a top-100 player nationally, but still somewhat on the outside looking in. Among his classmates he was third behind Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary in terms of recruiting hype. Michigan fans were happy that they would finally see a shooter fit for John Beilein's system. Stauskas would ultimately prove to be much more than that.
Michigan basketball was in a weird place when Nik and the rest of his class stepped onto campus. The previous season had seen the Wolverines claw their way to a share of the conference title thanks to Trey Burke's emergence as the alpha dog and Zack Novak and Stu Douglass status as wily veterans capable of coming up with a handful of important plays a game despite limited offensive roles (usage rates lower than 15%). But that team also took a big upset to the chin against Ohio in the first round of the NCAA tournament after a disappointing loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament. Bad turned to worse as Trey Burke flirted with the NBA draft.
Once the Burke drama settled things took a quick turn. All the sudden, the downtrodden 2012 team was replaced by a top-ten squad expected to challenge for a conference title and a deep NCAA tournament run. With Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. back for another year and a new cast of talented auxiliary players, the sky was the limit.
Stauskas was a big part of this. He didn't start from the outset, but instead worked his way into the starting lineup by December thanks to a hot shooting start from outside, and the ability to chip in on the boards and assist categories while not being a big turnover liability. It was a role perfectly cast for him, and something that Michigan's offense that year needed quite a bit of. Trey Burke was of course the engine driving the whole thing, but Stauskas (as well as GRIII)'s ability to effectively space the floor made life hard on opposing defenses.
Stauskas had limitations as well. His defense wasn't anything to write home about — not surprising for a true freshman wing — and he was occasionally prone to poor shooting nights. He was also prone to disappear in some of Michigan's bigger games. If things were going bad like they did in game one against Ohio State or in both matchups against Wisconsin, Stauskas was likely to struggle.
He finished the season averaging 11 points, three rebounds, and one assist per game. His turnover rate (14.6) was in the top-300 nationally and his True Shooting% and Offensive Rating were 35th and 36th in the nation respectively. It was a successful freshman season built around the offensive talents of Trey Burke.
When Burke and Hardaway Jr. decided to leave school early for the NBA, Stauskas was one of the players that was identified early on as important for Michigan's offense, although the real focal point of the offeseason chatter were Michigan's two other sophomores, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, both of whom turned down a chance to go in the first round to return to school. It was to be their offense the next year.
Problem was, nobody told Nik that.
If you watched most of Michigan's games this year there were a few cliched things you knew you'd hear about in every broadcast. While everyone likes to point to Spike's championship game and spitting game at Kate Upton in its aftermath, the big story was really the one about Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert staying on campus over the summer to work on their game. Broadcasters loved to show the before and after picture — as if each game was a Nutrisystem's commercial — without realizing that the real before and after picture was taking place on the court for 40 minutes a game. The leap in talent and ability that Nik Stauskas made over the offseason was as impressive as any a college player has made recently.
One of the hardest things to do as a basketball player is to remain efficient as your role expands. In year one Stauskas was able to play a very defined role in the offense, acting as the third or fourth scoring option, a relief valve for defensive pressure applied other places. He didn't have the ball in his hands many times where the outcome wasn't the foregone conclusion of a shot.
Year two wasn't like that. It was apparent early that Glenn Robinson III had improved in some areas, but one of those wasn't "ability to create for other people". Meanwhile, Michigan's starting point guard was a true freshman trying to get his sea legs, and as impressive at Mitch McGary looked igniting Michigan's transition offense, he was also not a realistic catalyst for Michigan's half court offense.
It was left then to Stauskas (and the aforementioned Caris LeVert) to run Michigan's half-court offense and try to divvy up all the mountains of responsibility that Trey Burke left open.
In his first year Stauskas had a usage rate of 16.2%, which is right in line with what is expected of a player in the role he played (lots of shots, not a lot of FTs — 29.2 FTrate — or assists — 7.6 ARate). He also had an offensive rating of 122.8 (good for 36th overall that year), which is pretty spectacular and trailed only Glenn Robinson III on that year's offensive monster of a team. So what do you think happened to Stauskas's advanced stats profile as he took on a greatly expanded role?
It got almost universally better.
Last year, as one of Michigan's main offensive weapons, Stauskas's usage rate jumped to 23.9%, which was highest on the team among players who played the whole season (sorry, Mitch). Despite a greatly expanded role, Stauskas's eFG% and TS% both stayed remarkably similar (around one percentage point of change for each, statistically inconsequential), his assist rate more than doubled from 7.6 to 18.8 while his turnover rate actually dropped two-tenths of a percent from 14.2 to 14.0. He drew almost twice as many free throws as his FTrate jumped to 51.8 and he did that while still being a dangerous three point shooter (44% from three both years). Because of all of this, his offensive rating actually went up last year, from 122.8 to 124.1, and he only slipped to 63rd best ORtg overall due to an uptick in offensive play overall.
To put it in more simple terms: Nik Stauskas was asked to do a lot more and did it without making any more mistakes than he had the year before. That kind of improvement is very hard to come by in basketball.
Of course there were struggles. It seemed midway through the Big Ten season that opposing teams had figured Stauskas out. The plan was simply to throw a small guard at him on defense, deny him the ball, and beat him to the spot so he couldn't get penetration into the lane to open up passes. After a few games of struggles, Stauskas adjusted to this to and simply backdoored and shot over the smaller defenders.
By the end of the season with Michigan winning the Big Ten by a big margin, it wasn't ever really a question of who would be the Big Ten player of the year. It was Stauskas, the remarkably improved, "Not Just A Shooter" Canadian that was supposed to cede control of the team to GRIII and McGary.
I refuse to give out comparables in this section. Nik Stauskas isn't Kyle Korver with a point guards mentality or a poor man's Steph Curry. He may be, but those are too rooted in biases and I don't watch enough NBA to do anything but stab in the dark. What I will tell you about is his game as I see it.
- Three Point Shooting. Obviously, this is the starting point. To succeed in the NBA you don't have to be good at everything, but you can be really great at one or two things. If Nik Stauskas has one thing that should help him find a role on an NBA team, it is his outside shot. And this isn't a shot like Ethan Wragge of Creighton. No, Stauskas can get his own shot. He can go up over players off ball screens and get enough separation to get his shot away — just ask Gary Harris, who spent the second half of MSU's game in Ann Arbor this year watching Stauskas shoot over him. Stauskas is equal parts pull up shooter and spot up nightmare. A lot of three point specialists are hindered once forced to put the ball on the ground. Stauskas isn't one of them.
- Pick and Roll. This became a staple of the offense when Darius Morris was still running the point and worked well with Trey Burke controlling the offense, but neither of those guys could threaten defenses in as many was as Stauskas could in the PnR. Stuaskas showed a knack for finishing in traffic, getting free throws, forcing rotation to open up passes to the low block, and his ability to pull up and shoot the jumper from just about anywhere made the soft vs.s hard hedge decision a pick your own poison proposition. These skills should translate well to the NBA where the pick and roll is still oft-used.
- Offensive versatility. One thing that should make Stauskas a hot commodity in the NBA draft is the fact that he can fit so many roles on offense. He can be a corner gunner, run fast breaks, or set up the offense as a point forward. While using him exclusively as the offensive centerpiece might be a bit much (at least early in his career), the ability to move Stauskas around in the offense and match him with other players could be a big help for any team needing an offensive spark.
- Defense. Nik was never a great defender in college, and while he has the advantage of not being a very hacky type defender (just 1.5 fouls/40 last year), he will still need to be hidden to an extent on defense (i.e. not matched up against the other team's ace on the wing).
- Rebounding. Of Michigan's backcourt/wing players only Zak "Just A Shooter" Irvin and Spike Albrecht had worse DR%s. Stauskas, for being a 6'6 guard with really good athleticism, wasn't ever a big rebounding threat. Against bigger wings in the NBA this could be exploited even more.
Where Will He End Up?
Of course, that doesn't mean he will end up being taken 11th. Different teams have different needs and Stauskas could rise and fall dependent on that. He is in the process of working out for four teams right now: Charlotte Bobcats, LA Lakers, Boston Celtics, and Phoenix Suns. Boston and LA both pick in the top ten (6th and 7th respectively). Minnesota has also shown interest with the 13th pick. Phoenix picks 14th.
Given this level of interest, it is hard to see Nik slipping past the lottery, and with an exceptional workout for the Celtics or Lakers could propel him into the top ten.
Not bad for a kid from Canada.