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.
“This was just one of those things, he could be by himself and he was just happy as a lark, he didn’t need anybody, he could be there for hours, flicking shots. And you know how kids get, they start playing games in their head and they start fantasizing that they’re hitting the last-second shot in an important game. He’d just play games with himself, just very happy.”
Stauskas shared his backyard shooting exploits online, turning into a bit of a YouTube showman. In one video, shot on Christmas Eve of 2012, Stauskas, in tuque and track suit, dropped 45 of 50 three-point shots. In another, shot on a rainy day last spring, he made good on 70 of 76 attempts — including 46 in a row — in the span of five minutes. That YouTube video has over 500,000 views, and even caught the attention of Stephen Curry. Golden State’s star guard retweeted the video, and wrote: “3pt contest sometime (at)NStauskas11 ????? this is Impressive.”
Stauskas tweeted: “I love waking up to a challenge by the best 3 point shooter in the world!!! Today might be a good day HA!”
The Canadian quickly gained a fan following in his rookie year at Michigan. Paul Stauskas remembers it was a couple of tuba players on the school band that came up with the maize-and-blue version of the Maple Leaf that flew at games in Ann Arbor. The tuba players then created a T-shirt with the maize-and-blue flag. Underneath the Maple Leaf it read: “The best Canadian import since Molsons.”
For a pre-season game this past winter, Paul Stauskas and 50 friends, neighbours and family members chartered a Greyhound bus from Mississauga to Ann Arbor. They all wore the T-shirts.
“We were the Nik Stauskas cheering section,” Paul said.
He and his wife Ruta were regulars at Wolverines games, attending about 15 games in each of Nik’s two seasons.
“We’ve followed him all over the country, to Atlanta, to Dallas, all over the place, and those road trips for us were a ton of fun,” Paul said. “The whole point is, my wife and I, we’re financially secure. We never needed our kids to ‘Oh you’ve got to get this good job to get me out of a bad situation, go pro.’ It was always just having family fun. And Nik just happened to be really good at what he was doing.
“It’s been fun, the entire ride. You think Disneyland is fun. This is a helluva ride.”
The family is happily buckling up for what lies ahead. Most mock drafts have Stauskas going anywhere from 11th to 14th (Denver, Orlando, Minnesota and Phoenix). Next season’s NBA rookie scale has the No. 11 pick getting paid just under US$1.9 million in the first year.
“It’s really exciting to think of the teams he might play on, and the players he might play with and against,” Paul Stauskas said. “Nik has idolized LeBron James from the second LeBron stepped on the court. I was just saying to Nik ‘Nik you’re going to be playing against him!’
“The first time he steps out on the court, and he plays against LeBron, I think he’s going to be shell-shocked. He’s probably going to go up to him and ask him for his autograph,” he added, laughing.
Paul Stauskas can’t help but imagine the possible roster permutations. He’s heard the Chicago Bulls — who have the No. 16 pick — might like his son.
“We were sitting there thinking ‘Can you imagine Nik, you’re playing with (Derrick) Rose?’ WOW. . . I can just hear it now: ’Rose to Skauskas, Stauskas back to Rose, OH AND IT’S INNNN!’ That would be fantastic.”
He thinks Boston — which has both a lottery pick and the No. 17 pick — would be a good fit.
“With Rajon Rondo there, I can imagine Nik playing with Rondo,” Paul said. “When Rondo first came in the league, both me and Nik saw his very first game and we looked at each other and we go, ‘Wow, is this guy good.’ So imagine we see this guy and a few years later (Nik’s) playing side-by-side with him. It’s crazy.”
Rowan Barrett, the assistant GM of Canada’s men’s basketball program, saw Stauskas play in high school when he was a 15-year-old at Mississauga’s Loyola Catholic School.
“It was clear that there was talent, there was ability,” Barrett said. “The keys you wanted to know were: What was his mind like? And how much would he be willing to work at it? The great thing is he is excellent in both of those areas. Tremendous work ethic and definitely has the mind of a winner. You put those things together with size and length and skill, and you can find yourself a pretty good basketball player.
“I’m very excited for him.”
Wiggins, Ennis and Stauskas are all projected lottery picks, which would make this year’s draft the most successful, in terms of numbers, in Canadian history. Anthony Bennett became the first Canadian to be picked No. 1 overall when he went to Cleveland last year. Canadian Kelly Olynyk (Boston Celtics) was the 13th pick last year.
Barrett, 41, said the Canadian growth in the game is a product of opportunities and exposure that weren’t there when he was growing up in Toronto.
“Night and day,” Barrett said comparing the generations.
Wiggins, Stauskas and Ennis grew up watching the Raptors. Barrett aspired to be a track and field athlete.
“I played many of the sports but at that time in Canada, you just had some tremendous athletes in track and field who were bringing home medals from Olympics Games. So those athletes were the ones you wanted to emulate,” Barrett said. “But a funny thing happened, I kept growing.
“It’s a tremendous environment right now for these kids.”
The 60 participants in this week’s NBA combine will be tested on skills such as vertical leap, shooting, lane agility, and speed. Each team is also allotted a half-hour interview with 18 players of their choosing.