Last summer Nik Stauskas had a decision to make. Should he spend his summer travelling the globe representing his country or remain at school to train toward his ultimate goal, becoming an NBA player?
Oh, and there was a catch: Passing on playing for Canada meant he’d have to say no to Steve Nash, his friend and mentor, and the GM of the men’s national team who had once hosted Stauskas for a mini-training camp in Phoenix when Stauskas was still in high school.
But the all-world shooter and scorer from the University of Michigan by way of his backyard hoop in Mississauga—made famous in his sharp-shooting YouTube videos—swallowed hard and told Captain Canada thanks, but no thanks to playing for the Canadian men’s development team in China and Russia.
“It was really tough,” said Stauskas. “Steve felt strongly about me going and developing underneath the senior team and getting some experience on an international level. “To have the two-time MVP ask you to play for the country and you say no and give him a reason like, ‘I want to work on my game’—I think it was tough for him to understand that because I don’t think he understood how committed I was to put myself through hell, pretty much, last summer, to get myself better.”
Thursday night at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn Stauskas figures to have the most compelling evidence possible that he made the right call as NBA sources expect the six-foot-six shooting guard to be drafted anywhere between seventh by the Los Angeles Lakers and 14th by the Phoenix Suns—higher than Nash was taken back in 1996—and just the fourth Canadian ever taken in the lottery, or the top 14 picks.
“It’s staring to hit me a little bit,” he says. “But it’s crazy. I still haven’t fully taken it in.”
By spending eight weeks with the strength and conditioning staff in Ann Arbor and supplementing that with skill work to tighten up his ball-handling he sought to expand his game. He was able to return for his sophomore year a stronger, bouncier and more versatile player. He was named first-team All-American and Big 10 player of the year not just because he shot 44 percent from the three-point line but because he attempted nearly six free throws a game and dished out more than three assists. He opened eyes at the NBA combine with a 35-inch vertical jump.
But some of the most important growth Stauskas did had nothing to do with his skills or adding muscle mass. It had nothing to do with basketball.
Stauskas began to work on his mind.
Now, being mentally strong had never been a problem for Stauskas—it takes a certain steel to be able to say no the Steve Nash. And when he started playing for the Mississauga Monarchs, his club team while in primary school, his head and heart for the game were his calling cards.
“He was like five-foot and 90 pounds,” says Anthony “Huggy” Otto, who coached Stauskas all the way through his AAU years with Grassroots Canada. “He was the runt of the litter. But he had a big heart and from the beginning was like: ‘This is what I want, I want to be in the NBA. How do I get there?’”
His will and focus are legendary. Otto recalls taking him to tournaments in the U.S. on teams stacked with future Div. 1 players including Andrew Wiggins—co-favourite to be the No. 1 player picked on Thursday night—and watching as Stauskas would assert himself and become the go-to scorer in difficult situations.
And how did he grow to six-foot-six in the first place?
“I’m telling you he willed himself to be that tall,” says Otto, who will be in Brooklyn for the big night with a large contingent of Stauskas’s friends and family. “His mom is 5-8, his dad is 5-10, his brother is 5-10—so where does 6-6 come from? It makes no sense. But I’m telling you, Nik was so determined to be that guy, it was mind over matter.”
But after his freshman year at Michigan Stauskas found himself struggling with worms of doubt. After coming up flat in the Final Four in 2013 he burst into tears. The guy who would write motivational notes to himself and post them on his bedroom wall “just to keep himself on task” was wavering.
“I felt like there was a point where I had mastered a lot of the physical parts of the game. I could shoot the ball really well, I know how to play, but then you go to Michigan and there’s 20,000 people watching you play and there are times when the mental demons, they get you,” he said. “You begin to doubt yourself: Am I good enough to do this?”
In finding the answer he received help from Greg Harden, the director of athletic counselling at Michigan who similarly helped the likes of Tom Brady and Desmond Howard over the years.
They began meeting in the fall and continued on a weekly basis all year. The doubts didn’t disappear, but Stauskas was able to quell them. He emerged with a mantra: Master you mind, master your life.
“If you master your mind, you master the game of basketball,” he says. “If I can’t hit a shot, I’ve found a way to almost laugh about things, and found ways to regroup and get my mind on track. A lot of times this year it was clear it was happening—I’d be having a horrible first half and second half I’d come back and go off.”
He’s become the draft darling in a lot of ways, steadily working his way up into the lottery. He’s shined in interviews and his marksmanship is a highly sought-after commodity as the NBA gets more three-happy every year.
He’s on the cusp of his tightly held dream coming true, one that those close to him say he willed into existence and justified his decision to say no to Steve Nash. As it all unfolded it was Nash reaching out to him with congratulatory texts and messages. Canada, after all, could use some playmaking and three-point shooting in their program. Canada could use a world-class player like Nik Stauskas.