The Canadian connection

Michigan guard Nik Stauskas, an import from up North, has something to prove

Originally Published: March 7, 2013
By Adam Doster | ESPN The Magazine

Nik StauskasChip Litherland for ESPN The MagazineAs a kid, Stauskas loved basketball -- a rarity in his hockey-obsessed town.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 18 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!

This is an extended version of a story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 18 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!

WHEN NIK STAUSKAS was in fifth grade, his parents gave him and his older brother Peter a choice: on a small patch of land in the backyard of their Mississauga, Ontario, home they could install a swimming pool, a putting green or a basketball court. "I loved basketball, but not as much as Nik did," says Peter. "He really wanted a court."

Satisfied with the decision, their parents, Paul and Ruta, contacted a new company that specialized in modular sports flooring, a tile-based surface that reduces stress on the legs and, crucially, doesn't crack or get slick after it rains and snows. It took a while to set everything up; the tiles didn't lock properly right away, Peter remembers, and the backboard would occasionally tip to one side. But once the parts were in place, the Stauskas boys had access to something rare in their cold, hockey-obsessed country -- a personal court where they could shoot hoops.

Nik Stauskas spent his entire childhood doing just that. "I played a ridiculous amount," he says. "When I came home from school -- it wouldn't matter if it was winter or summer -- I would be out there three or four hours a day." The brothers would play 21 and H-O-R-S-E with their dad, or take each other one-on-one. Tempers occasionally flared. After dropping an intense game to his smaller opponent, Peter once chased his brother around the house with a shovel. Inevitably, Peter would head inside and Nik would plunk a space heater next to the three-point line to warm up his hands when the temperature dropped. Shoot, rebound, heat. Repeat.

It was in that chilly backyard that Stauskas fashioned himself into a minor Internet celebrity, filming and posting to YouTube a video of himself knocking down 45 of 50 three-pointers during a nearly four-minute shooting drill on Christmas Eve in 2012. (It's been viewed more than 75,000 times.) It was also in that backyard that the 6'6" wing honed his long-distance stroke, one Michigan's basketball team has relied on repeatedly during the program's best season in more than two decades. Take a late possession in the Wolverines' thrilling Feb. 5 win against rival Ohio State. Down two with three minutes to play, sophomore point guard Trey Burke corralled a rebound, dribbled to midcourt and whipped a one-handed pass over to the leaking Stauskas, who drilled a three from the left wing, a go-ahead basket Ohio State head coach Thad Matta would later call "huge." The freshman import from across the Ambassador Bridge was less heralded than some of his fellow Wolverines recruits, but shots like that have made Stauskas a crucial addition to one of the NCAA's most dangerous offenses. "The defenses don't leave him," says freshman guard Spike Albrecht, Burke's backup and Stauskas' roommate. "It opens up lanes and driving alleys for the whole team."

On Sept. 30, 1993, the NBA announced it was awarding its 28th franchise to a group of Canadian businessmen. Stauskas was born seven days later. Had NBA commissioner David Stern decided to open up shop in another city that year, Stauskas might never have laced up a pair of high-tops. "During my generation, we grew up wanting to be either hockey players or sprinters," says Rowan Barrett, 40, the assistant GM of the Canadian senior men's national program. "And then, all of the sudden, you have the advent of the NBA in Canada ... and [playing at a high level] is a little more believable for them."

Stauskas tried street hockey "a couple of times in my life, and that's it." He never skated. He did join a soccer league when he was 6, but broke his arm during a match and never stepped back onto the pitch. "I was really stubborn when I was young," he says. "Once I found something that I liked, I didn't want to try other things."

And so he played basketball, first for Ausra Sports Club -- a Toronto-based traveling team for children of Lithuanian descent -- and then in his backyard. Stauskas watched every Raptors game too; Vince Carter was his favorite player. When Stauskas was 8 or 9, his family attended an open practice the Raptors held for its fans, and Carter pulled Nik out of the Air Canada Centre stands to play one-on-one. "I was nervous because there were a lot of people there," Stauskas says, "and he started rubbing my shoulders and said, 'Don't be nervous, kid!'" Carter let the youngster score two early buckets before putting on a dunking display. "I already liked the game," Stauskas says, "but that put me over the edge."

The more time Stauskas spent on the hardwood, the more confident a shooter he became. "In middle school, he would score 50 points a game," his brother says. "He just had the talent, he just made crazy shots." And the taller and better Stauskas got, the more opportunities he earned to test himself. Ro Russell, the connected coach of Grassroots Canada, Toronto's elite AAU team, added Stauskas to his roster as a teen. He won bronze with Team Canada at the 2009 FIBA Americas Under-16 Championship in Argentina. After dominating Toronto's parochial league as a sophomore at Loyola Catholic Secondary School, where he averaged 32 points per game, Stauskas followed the lead of Russell's most talented pupils -- Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph -- and jumped over the border, first to a prep school in Connecticut and then to St. Mark's School, a basketball hotbed 28 miles outside of Boston. "I wasn't getting any attention or anything, and we kind of knew that colleges weren't looking in Toronto," he says. "I feel like you have to be really, really good to create any buzz up there."

The transition was difficult; the Stauskas family is a tight-knit clan, and Nik admits now that he wasn't ready to leave home at 15. To compensate, he studied hard and threw himself into the gym, mimicking fellow Canadian Steve Nash, with whom he ran drills in Phoenix for two days in 2009. "Nik's very single-minded and driven," says David Lubick, his coach at St. Mark's. Adds Nash, the Canadian national team's general manager: "He has a great hunger to improve, so it was fun working out with him."

That maniacal training paid off. In an exhibition game the summer before his senior season, Stauskas -- playing for a Canadian high school all-star team -- scored 27 points in an exhibition against Baylor. His senior year at St. Mark's, Stauskas' Lions upended Tilton 59-53 in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Class AA championship game; Stauskas scored 19 in the final -- one point short of his season average -- and was named the game's MVP over the nation's top recruit, Nerlens Noel. "He's not someone who was afraid of the moment," says Barrett, who has known Stauskas since 10th grade, "but someone who couldn't wait to display his talent at the NCAA level."

Michigan head coach John Beilein didn't promise him significant playing time when he made his official visit to Ann Arbor in 2011, but Stauskas figured a spot in the rotation was within his grasp; Beilein likes to have shooters on the floor, and the veteran coach would be losing senior guards Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, the latter of whom shot 41 percent from three-point range in 2012. "They never guaranteed anything to me," Stauskas says, "but they told me I was going to be an important piece."

How important was difficult to foresee. Stauskas -- ESPN Recruiting Nation's 21st-ranked small forward in the class of 2012 -- was expected to provide some perimeter depth and not much else. But then Stauskas stepped onto the floor and started bombing: scoring 15 points against Cleveland State, another 15 against Pittsburgh at the NIT Season Tipoff at Madison Square Garden and then 20 against North Carolina State in the ACC-Big 10 challenge, including 13 in the first half. His release was high and quick, his stroke pure. In November and December, he took 69 threes, draining 57 percent of them. Beilein slotted him into his starting five on Dec. 1, and he hasn't relinquished his spot since, scoring double-figures in 22 of his first 25 games.

The lanky Canadian lives in the left corner, where he waits for kick-outs from Burke or works off screens. He entered the Feb. 5 game ranked fourth in the nation in three-point percentage (48.2). The Wolverines, meanwhile, have scored 83 points on the 64 possessions that have ended in Stauskas ball screen action, according to Synergy Sports, posting a healthy 1.3 points-per-possession on those plays. And when defenses don't slack off him, it creates room for Burke and fellow guard Tim Hardaway Jr. to operate; Burke's assist percentage -- tops in the Big 10 -- has jumped nearly 11 points from his freshman season, and Hardaway's effective field goal percentage is nearly five points higher than it was in 2012. Overall, the Wolverines are scoring 1.21 points per possession, second behind only Indiana (1.24). And they are doing so with one of the youngest rotations in the nation; Hardaway, a junior, is the only upperclassman who averages more than 18 minutes per contest. Illinois coach John Groce, who knocked the Wolverines out of the NCAA Tournament last season while at Ohio, laments how many weapons Beilein has at his disposal. "You can't take away everything," he says. "No one can."

Stauskas is owning the moment. On the court, he's loose and cocky, quick to mean mug an opponent's bench or throw on his "three-goggles" when he makes a big shot. After taking a dribble handoff and cashing in a three -- his second of the night -- in the first half against Ohio State, he stalked back down the sideline, stomping his feet merrily before settling into defensive position. As an international player whom many American college coaches overlooked, he says he's "always felt like I've had something to prove to people." The theatrics don't carry over off the court; teammates and family members uniformly describe Stauskas as thoughtful, funny and comfortable in his own skin. Before home games, he bounds around Crisler Center like he runs the place, chatting with ushers and poking fun at assistant coaches, his diphthongs raised modestly like a born-and-bred Canuck. Every so often, he'll glance down at his phone and tweet out a corny joke or inspirational message to his 14,000 followers. In their dorm room, he and Albrecht watch movies and plot ways to meet Justin Bieber, their favorite musician. ("We just tell Stausky to pull the Canadian card!" Albrecht jokes.) And he makes sure to see his parents, who routinely drive four hours from Mississauga to watch him play, the proximity being a major reason their son enrolled at Michigan. "It's hard to see because he's got that swagger on the court," his brother says, "but he's a family guy."

Hoops fans both in Ann Arbor and Toronto sure love him like kin. Peter can't walk around his own campus in Waterloo without running into people who want to hear the latest news about his little brother. Back in Michigan, around the holidays, junior James Giardina put in an order at a custom flag website for a Maize and Blue Canadian flag. The economics and psychology major now waves his Maple Leaf at center court during every home game, and he says the company has already shipped into town four or five more. "We just really like [Nik]," he says. "He's Canadian, and that's pretty rare."

If Michigan has any hope of winning the national title this season, it will need Stauskas to continue delivering big plays in clutch situations. He has cooled off somewhat since Big Ten play began, shooting 36 percent from behind the arc during his first 16 conference games. Defenses are starting to pick him up at midcourt and raucous away crowds are breaking his rhythm. (He talks about Indiana's Assembly Hall like a boy would a haunted house: "It's packed, it's old, it doesn't look good.") He'll also need to get stronger and continue to broaden his game. He's quick and bouncy enough to get to the rim, for example, but needs to finish more consistently when he gets there, having scored on just 62 percent of his chances this season, the lowest of any Michigan regular. During a recent practice, after Stauskas tossed up a circus layup instead of attacking the basket, assistant coach Bacari Alexander bellowed at him to "Dunk on 'em" and "Be nasty!"

It's safe to assume he'll work hard to improve. Stauskas starts and ends every practice shooting with a team manager, and gets up more attempts during the team's water breaks. Three hours before Michigan was set to tip against Ohio State, while his teammates were napping in their apartments or in the locker room playing video games, Stauskas was hoisting up extra shots all by himself in Crisler Center, Beats by Dre headphones perched atop his cropped hair. The school's three-point field-goal percentage record of 51.6 percent, set by Glen Rice in 1989, is still within reach, after all. And this August, he'll travel back home to train with the Canadian men's national team, a program suddenly bursting with young talent. Nash notes that Stauskas is "high on our depth charts," and there's an outside chance he'll suit up at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, which will be held next year in Spain. "Having played for Canada as a college freshman, I can tell you it was one of the most important and impactful experiences in my career," Nash adds. "I hope Nik gets the chance to do the same."

Whether or not he'll represent his country at a major tournament, Stauskas knows where he wants to end up eventually: at his "dream house," five minutes from his parents' place in Mississauga. "I drive by it all the time," he says. "It's just the nicest house I've ever seen." The backyard features a big pool and patio, but no basketball court -- yet. He's not too concerned about that design flaw. "There's a huge open land of grass," he says, "and I could definitely fit a basket in there somewhere."

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