Nik Stauskas was nine years old and already thoroughly smitten with basketball when a chance meeting with Vince Carter sealed his fate.
Stauskas and his family were at a Toronto Raptors open practice at the Air Canada Centre when he was plucked out of the crowd to shoot hoops with Carter and Morris Peterson.
“He hit a three-pointer on Vince Carter, so Vince tackled him to the ground and gave him a noogie,” dad Paul said, laughing. “We got pictures of all of it, it was great. That was the tipping point I think.”
The sweet-shooting 20-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., is one of six Canadians at the NBA pre-draft camp this week in Chicago, hoping to catch the favourable eye of league general managers and scouts. The others are Jordan Bachynski of Calgary (Arizona State), Khem Birch of Montreal (UNLV), Tyler Ennis of Brampton, Ont. (Syracuse), and Toronto’s Melvin Ejim (Iowa State) and Dwight Powell (Stanford).
Canadian star Andrew Wiggins, considered a top-three prospect in the June 26 draft, isn’t attending the combine.
Stauskas is part of a growing crop of Canadian kids making their mark on the game. The six-foot-six guard earned Big Ten player of the year in his sophomore — and final — season with Michigan, leading the Wolverines to their second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.
Stauskas, who had a career-best seven three-pointers at Illinois in March, is known for killing defenders with his quick step-back and release. It’s “. . . so fast, you’re not going to (defend it). He’s quick. He’s like a cat,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said of Stauskas after his team’s loss to Michigan in January.
Stauskas’s accuracy was developed over thousands of hours chucking up shots, first in their driveway and then on their custom-made backyard basketball court.
The day nine-year-old Stauskas squared off against Carter, Paul Stauskas said his son already “had range. At the time he would shoot with two hands, he only developed his one-handed shot probably when he was 13, 14. So it was more of a chest pass. But he was very accurate doing it.”
Stauskas first played when he was seven, on a Lithuanian club team in Toronto coached by his uncle Vic Simkus. Even then, he was three inches taller than any kid on the court, so he played centre. He scored four points in first game — a 6-4 victory.
“Nik had this big smile on his face, because we were all so enthusiastic, we were cheering for him, ‘Go Nik go!’ He just had such a good time. That’s kind of what started it,” Paul Stauskas said. “And if a kid enjoys doing something, whether they’re golfing or skating or whatever, when you do it enough times, you become really good at it.”
Stauskas became really good after the family moved to their Mississauga home when he was in Grade 5. His dad wanted to install either a pool, a putting green or a basketball court in the backyard. They went with the court, because Nik was “just so enthusiastic about basketball and went above and beyond the call of duty to work on his game,” Paul said.
The dad wanted the best for his boys — Nik has an older brother Peter — so had the court installed by a company that specializes in modular sports flooring. The backyard court, the first by this company in Canada, is made of interlocking tiles that both gives the feel of a real court surface, and help prevent ankle problems and shin splints.
Good thing, because Stauskas would practically live on that court for the next several years. In the winter, he would plug in a space heater to warm his hands.
It’s also a good thing, Paul said, that he chose the court over the putting green.
“Maybe I’d be a much better golfer,” he said. “But I’m 100 per cent convinced Nik would not be where he is today if we had not done that.