Nik Stauskas has come a long way since that backyard basketball court in Mississauga, and getting to play former Toronto Raptors all-star Vince Carter while in elementary school.
Stauskas was discovered as a basketball talent at an Episcopal prep school west of Boston; received a scholarship to the University of Michigan; forced his way into the starting lineup as a freshman for the new No. 1 men’s college basketball team in The Associated Press poll; became a YouTube shooting sensation; and developed into a fan favourite at Crisler Center, where the students hold up a Canadian flag remade in the school’s colours of maize and blue to honour him.
“It’s all been unbelievable,” said Stauskas, 19. “I never anticipated it all becoming this big, this fast.”
(He hopes his new-found fame might lead to a meeting with his favourite singer, who also hails from Ontario. “I have not yet met Justin Bieber. Maybe if word gets to him that I’m doing well, that meeting will happen.”)
Stauskas is averaging 12.7 points a game and is second in the Big Ten Conference in three-point shooting accuracy (.490). He also leads the Big Ten in free-throw shooting percentage (.833) and three-pointers made (51).
His last name is pronounced STOWS-kiss, as in kiss the nets.
Television analysts almost instantly fell in love with Stauskas, who became a starter in the 2012-13 season’s seventh game.
“Stauskas to me is the best shooter in college basketball,” said ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes, a former NBA scout who has served as a collegiate assistant coach at Kentucky and Arkansas.
Shon Morris, the former Northwestern star now working for the Big Ten Network, called Stauskas “my favourite Canadian import since Molson’s.”
In the Jan. 28 issue of Sport’s Illustrated, Seth Davis ranked the top eight U.S. college players he would choose to take the last shot in a game: Stauskas was No. 5, and the only one not a junior or senior.
And he can do more than shoot for Michigan, which improved to 19-1 (6-1 Big Ten) after winning at Illinois, 74-60, last Sunday to move atop the AP poll for the first time since 1992 – when the Fab Five led future NBA mainstays Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard were sophomores.
Stauskas was second on the Wolverines with 14 points against the Fighting Illini, and chipped in two rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot.
“Nik’s got instincts for the game and is very slippery with the ball,” Wolverines head coach John Beilein said of his hard-to-guard, 6-foot-6 shooting guard. “And he’s trying to be everything he can be. He’s a kid who loves basketball – I mean loves basketball. And he really works hard at it. … He’s improving like crazy on defence.”
Despite being born (Toronto) and raised in Canada, Stauskas has never once played hockey.
Can he skate?
“No,” Stauskas said, shaking his head and pursing his lips. “I’ve never played any organized sport but basketball. My dad played basketball some. But that’s not the reason. Basketball and me were just meant to be.”
And he can pinpoint the moment basketball became an obsession.
“I really started to fall in love big-time when I went to a Raptors open practice in Toronto,” Stauskas said. “I was randomly selected from the crowd to go 1-on-1 with Vince Carter. I was 8 or 9 at the time, and it was crazy. I hit my first two shots.
“But I lost.”
He loved Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant before LeBron James, and dreams of some day, too, playing in the NBA. And he harbours the goal of being on the Canadian national team in the 2016 Olympics.
Stauskas was 15 when he left Loyola Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga to go south of the border. After missing the 2009-10 season at South Kent School in South Kent, Conn., due to injury, he attend St. Mark’s School, a 140-year-old prep school in Southborough, Mass.
“I thought it was best for me to go to the U.S.,” he said. “I wasn’t really ready to leave, but felt I had to. But a lot of kids are better off staying in Canada. If you are working hard, they will find you. My whole career, I’ve had something to prove. That’s fuelled me to work harder.”
Kansas, Wake Forest and Iowa State joined Michigan “in my Final Four for schools,” Stauskas said.
He made two unofficial visits to Ann Arbor and one official one, opting against visiting anywhere else. His mind was made up.
“It was the perfect fit,” Stauskas said. “They showed me what these new, top-of-the-line facilities would look like when finished. I loved the relationships I formed with everyone on the coaching staff, and they had an offence that I fit right into. And it’s only a four-hour drive for my parents to get to games. No place I wanted to go to was closer.
“Coach Beilein is one of a kind, too. The stereotype of college coaches is that they are all in your face, but I love his patience with all of us. And he’s very knowledgeable. He’s one of the best coaches anywhere, and a great person, too.”
(Beilein had passed Stauskas a few minutes earlier while he was being interviewed, and stopped to point to his freshman sensation, saying: “He’s a good man.”)
The support he’s received in Ann Arbor from his coach and everyone on campus has blown Stauskas away. He was flattered when a group of students in the “Maize Rage” section asked if he wouldn’t mind them having a Canadian flag made in the school’s colours to hold up during games.
“The support means a lot,” he said. “My relocating from Canada and getting this support has been amazing.
“The flag was cool and, obviously, means a lot to me. Showing me that love meant so much.”
And fans outside of the Big Ten discovered Stauskas when he went onto that backyard court (less than half-court size for U.S. college) the family built when he was in Grade 5 and shot a video that went viral. Stauskas made 15 consecutive – and 45 of 50 – three-pointers with his father rebounding and tall evergreens as the background.
“My dad and I got bored on Christmas Eve,” Stauskas said. “So, we decided to go out and shoot. We’d made a ton of videos of me shooting over the years, but not since I came to Michigan.
“It got over 75,000 views on YouTube, and I was surprised by all the attention. After the next game, all the questions from reporters were about that.”
If Stauskas can continue making progress, NBA talent scouts won’t need a YouTube video to move him up the draft charts. He scored a season-high 20 points against then-18th-ranked North Carolina State, and has made five three-pointers in games against both Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan.
And he is learning to get defenders to respect him on the perimeter by driving inside and showcasing a powerful two-handed dunk.
Against Iowa, he stood with the ball near the three-point line and a defender tightened up to deny him. But he saw an open lane to the basket, drove past his man with a quick first step and hung on the rim after slamming the ball through it. The players on the Michigan bench went wild.
“That play against Iowa was the first time other teams realized that I’m not just a shooter,” Stauskas said. “I definitely need to develop my all-around game, and keep going to the basket.”
Before long, even Bieber will have to take notice.