PORTLAND, Ore. – The math is daunting; nearly impossible to get your head around sometimes, but if you don’t — as a young NBA player — it can get into your head too.
It goes like this:
There are only 450 full roster spots in the NBA, distributed among just 30 franchises. Every year, the basketball universe selects 60 new draftees from millions of applicants. They then compete with thousands of existing elite pros from all corners of the globe for perhaps 100 open spots in the best league on the planet. Change is constant, opportunities fleeting.
Five years into his up-and-down career that has him on his fourth team already, Toronto’s Nik Stauskas has come to understand the math all too well and is slowly working to turn it in his favour after landing with the Portland Trail Blazers, who host his hometown Raptors on Friday night.
“For me, this year – not just this this year but throughout my career – has been humbling for sure,” he said in a phone interview this week. “My time in Sacramento and Philly and Brooklyn – it’s been humbling. It definitely teaches you that everything in this league is earned, nothing is given.”
Since leaving the University of Michigan after his sophomore season in 2013-14, Stauskas has gone from a lottery pick to spare part to nearly forgotten. Where draft night was a fresh suit and hugs from Mom, this past summer he was a free-agent grateful to get a one-year deal for the veteran minimum from a good organization. Not long ago he was an unknowing kid figuring NBA stardom was the next step. Now he’s a 25-year-old pro with a clear understanding of what it takes to succeed in a league where there are thousands more applicants than jobs.
Growing up in Mississauga, Ont., Stauskas had the magic touch. When he was a kid, he was the little guy pulled out of the crowd at a Raptors open practice to shoot threes with Vince Carter. As a teenager, he rode the wave of an exploding Toronto AAU scene to get on the NCAA recruiting map. In a family of mortals, he grew into a 6-foot-6 athlete with rare hops.
When he came home after his first year at Michigan, it was his remarkable backyard shooting video – where he made 96 threes in five minutes – that caught the eye of Steph Curry, who in turn challenged him to a shooting contest. It was deemed against NCAA rules, but the video went viral and helped generate buzz around Stauskas. The next season he was Big-10 Player of the Year and his combination of shooting, playmaking and length seemed to be a perfect fit in the ‘new’ NBA.
He didn’t realize exactly what he was up against.
“When I first came in the league I didn’t watch film the way I do right now because I didn’t think I needed too,” he said, almost embarrassed at the thought. “It’s crazy because when you’re that young you definitely need to watch film but you just don’t. You don’t know what you don’t know. For me I thought I would figure everything out easily and that’s just not the case in this league.”
He was traded after a rookie season on a dysfunctional Sacramento Kings team that won 29 games and then spent two full seasons at the low ebb of ‘The Process’ years in Philadelphia, winning 10 and 28 games, respectively. Just as the Sixers turned the corner in 2017-18, he fell out of the rotation – appeared in just six of 27 games – before being traded to the rebuilding Brooklyn Nets. He burst out of the gates there with 22 points off the bench at Scotiabank Arena; 15 points in 15 minutes a few nights later and seven triples in 23 minutes a little after that. But as the Nets roster returned to health, Stauskas was cast aside again on his way to free agency this past summer.
No longer a lottery pick, he was out of work, having been passed on by three teams. Not ideal.
“It was very interesting man,” he said as July 1st rolled around with no clear view of what his NBA future would look like. “I didn’t know what to expect at all.”
His story isn’t unique.
While Canadians were getting drafted in record numbers, sticking in the league was proving a challenge. Anthony Bennett, taken No.1 in 2013, Andrew Nicholson (19th in 2012) and Tyler Ennis (18th in 2014) are playing professionally outside the NBA after brief careers that didn’t break their way.
Stauskas ended up getting an offer from the Trail Blazers shortly after the midnight deadline passed to come off the bench behind all-stars C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.
At first, Stauskas hesitated: Where would he fit in a backcourt staffed by two established stars?
“This was my ego talking, me being the eighth pick, me being in my early twenties,” he says. “I was still set on ‘what do I have to do to be the man and get all these touches and all these minutes’”
It was his long-time agent Mark Bartelstein who clarified things.
“He said ‘look, we’re not coming in anywhere to be a starter and be the go-to guy’,” recalls Stauskas. “‘This is where you build your reputation, on a winning team that’s been in the playoffs five straight years and you come in off the bench, you have a significant role, you play good minutes and you earn your reputation from there.”
Bartelstein had had other clients come through the Trail Blazers organization and rave about the culture and thrive in the environment.
“I’m glad I trusted him and made the decision to come here,” said Stauskas. “it’s been an enjoyable experience.”
He’s averaging 18 highly predictable minutes a game and getting lots of freedom to work as part of the second unit. He memorably put the league on notice as he exploded for a career-high 24 points in 27 minutes to spoil LeBron James’ debut with the L.A. Lakers on opening night and is on track for career highs in multiple offensive categories.
“This is the first time coming into the game I know what to expect, I know what it’s going to look like,” he says. “Mentally it just puts you in a different place … It’s put me in a calm place … I just feel comfortable and free out there. I’m not over-thinking anything, I’m just playing my game.”
Off the court, he’s studying film, picking out defensive trends, breaking down upcoming opponents. His role models aren’t necessarily all-stars now but players like JJ Reddick or Kyle Korver – high-end shooters who have leveraged their skill into long careers as elite role players. For the first time in his career, Stauskas has a clear plan to work from.
A confident, emerging Stauskas couldn’t be a better development for Canada Basketball after the Senior Men’s national team qualified for the World Cup in China next summer. Stauskas’ talents could make him a valuable piece of Canada’s puzzle and the FIBA game is well-suited to his skills. As a 21-year-old, Stauskas may have been Canada’s best player at the Tournament of Americans in Mexico. In a six-game stretch preceding the do-or-die Olympic qualifying game against Venezuela, Stauskas averaged 14.5 points, 3.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds while making 16-of-24 triples.
Then, disaster struck. Stauskas says some under-cooked salmon at the team hotel resulted in a violent bout of food poisoning. “I woke in the middle of the night and it was mayhem. It might have been the worst 24 hours of my life.”
He tried to play in the must-win semi-final but had no legs and could only watch as Canada blew a seven-point lead down the stretch, delaying their Olympic dreams for another four years. His uncertain contract status and NBA role has kept him from playing for Canada since, but he wants to be part of the mix going forward.
“I hope I don’t jinx myself or whatever but since we qualified I’ve been telling my close family and friends: I’m going to China this summer,” he says. “I’m fully planning on being there … I know there’s a plethora of guards and wings to choose from so I don’t want to assume ‘oh yeah, I’m on the team’, but 100 per cent I would love to be a part of that team and it’s something that I still value, being part of Team Canada.”
Given the competition to make the roster and for minutes on whatever team heads to China in 2019 and hopefully to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, Stauskas’ more developed outlook about what it means to find a role on a team at this stage of his NBA career could be a vital quality.
NBA math boils down to this: starring roles aren’t for everyone; not everyone gets to be the ‘man’.
But if you’re willing accept and ‘star’ in your role, good things can happen.
“To this day I’m dealing with that shift in mindset,” he says. “I’m always hungry for more, but [accepting a role] is just the reality of the league. There are 24 all-stars and then some borderline all-stars and guys who really contribute and after that everyone is almost replaceable … it’s tough for a lot of people to accept because your ego comes into play, so the NBA is definitely a physical battle but it’s a mental battle as well.
“I’m always aspiring for more,” he says. “But I’m enjoying this whole thing [in Portland] and I’m having fun out there, which is something I haven’t been able to do over the last couple of years.”
Spoken like a clear-headed NBA vet. The Trail Blazers have benefited and Canada Basketball could well too.