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HOLDING COURT: Nik Stauskas’ growth into a sharpshooter

Adam Glanzman/Daily
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By Colleen Thomas, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 20, 2013

In the rear of a Mississauga, Ont. home, there’s no frozen pond for a young Canadian athlete to skate around, nor a pool for kids to enjoy in the summertime. Instead, a green and red, half-length basketball court sits in the yard waiting for someone to pick up a basketball and play.

Lined by a fence and surrounded with trees, the court was built in lieu of a swimming pool or a putting green. The two boys at that house just loved to play hoops — it was an easy choice.

It’s an unfamiliar sight for a household in a nation where hockey dominates youth sports, but at this house, in place of a hockey stick or helmet, there are basketballs and a backyard hoop. Welcome to Nik Stauskas’ playground.

Basketball has always been a large part of the Michigan freshman guard’s life — his brother, Peter, and his father, Paul, both played hoops. Both had immense influence on his life. But then there’s the backyard court where Nik would spend hours a day working on his game.

He’d go out there to shoot or play some one-on-one and relentlessly practice shooting drills there on Christmas and Thanksgiving.

It’s on that court where Nik became one of the best shooters in Canada.

None of that would’ve happened if he didn’t have that backyard hoop. So when most Canadian boys were tying their skates, Nik was spending his time perfecting his shot — a shot, and a game, that took over his life.

***

For Nik, choosing basketball as his sport of choice took a matter of moments.

Nik joined Ausra Sports Club in Toronto, a Lithuanian basketball team coached by his uncle, Vic Simkus, when he was 7 years old. Joining a bunch of his friends that he knew from Lithuanian Saturday school, Nik was introduced to his first taste of organized basketball.

Paul had played in the same league when he was younger, so Nik was bound to join at some point. And it helped that Nik was tall for his age.

So as a part of his first team, Nik and Ausra Sports Club traveled across the United States to play against other Lithuanian club teams, and Nik loved playing games with his friends from school.

Then Nik began to take to the court on a regular basis. In 2002, the summer before fourth grade, Nik started working on his shot. Every day, he’d go outside for three or four hours to shoot and dribble by himself. Nobody forced him to practice — Nik just played for the love of the game.

And Halloween 2003 sold him on his newfound passion. Nik, in fifth grade at the time, went to a Toronto Raptors game at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors were holding an open practice for fans before playing the Washington Wizards that night.

Sitting front row at open practice, Nik was approached by a team official and asked if he’d want to shoot around with Vince Carter, and of course, the elated 10 year old agreed. Nik went on to sink a 3-pointer and a couple of free throws against one of his favorite players, and after that, he knew he wanted to play in the NBA.

“The crowd cheering and him playing with one of his childhood idols put him over the top and fell in love,” Paul said. “From that point on, he literally didn’t go anywhere without a basketball.”

***

Since he was so tall in elementary school, Nik didn’t really have to work on the aesthetics of his shot. If the ball went in, his coaches were happy. So Nik just chucked the ball up.

“Back then, I had a really weird and awkward form,” Nik said. “It was a really ugly shot but it would go in. Up until high school, I was shooting with two hands. It worked, but it was a really weird-looking shot.”

Paul understood that elementary-school boys weren’t big or strong enough to shoot the ball with one hand, but Nik continued this form into middle school. Even as he got stronger, Nik was still shooting with two hands at age 13.

Both Paul and Nik knew that if Nik was going to continue on in the basketball world, the weird-looking shot had to go.

So when Nik would go outside to work on his shot, Paul followed. While Nik started to work on shooting with one hand, Paul gave pointers. While Nik did shooting drills, Paul was his rebounder. While Nik worked on his range, Paul was there to catch his airballs.

Even as early as fifth grade, Nik impressed coaches. When Nik joined an AAU squad, Grassroots Canada coached by Ro Russell and Anthony Otto, they immediately noticed Nik’s drive and had him compete in intrasquad games against some of the older players.

Nik would face guys like Tristan Thompson, a former Texas center now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Myck Kabongo, a sophomore guard for the Longhorns, in practice.

Though he was challenged, Anthony could see how badly Nik wanted to improve.

“We sat down with Nik and told him, ‘Obviously, you’re not blessed with the genetics some of these other guys have, but that means you need to work harder in other areas, make up for the deficiencies.’ ” Anthony said. “There are many ways to play this game (and) he took to that philosophy, and it worked really well for him.”

Nik was tall at the time — he eventually grew to 6-foot-6 — but playing against bigger, stronger players had always given him trouble. So he learned better ways to drive to the lane and started to perfect his outside shot.

Whether it was staying after practice, getting individual attention from Ro or Anthony during practice, or the hours spent in his backyard taking shot after shot, Nik wouldn’t stop working. Ro called him a “gym horse.”

“A gym rat is too small for him,” he said “You always have to tell him to leave the gym because they have to turn the lights off. So fine, he’ll go home and go outside and be out there for hours upon hours.”

That extra work paid off. In the Adidas Super 64 AAU Tournament in Las Vegas during Nik’s junior year, the team was down by 10 points in pool play. Facing a team that knew how to defend Nik — they were faceguarding and putting more physical defenders on him — Ro called his star over during a timeout.

He told Nik that he had to make the plays and take over the offense if they wanted to win the game.

“You’re our guy,” Ro said. “You have to come through for us this game.”

And, like always, Nik came through.

“The biggest thing was you could push Nik,” Ro said. “You could yell at him, get in his face, push him to the highest level, and he’s not going to lose his confidence or be disrespectful and talk back. His coachability was the biggest thing — you could always coach Nik and tell him what needs to be done. ‘Yes coach, I got you,’ he said. That was his favorite line. And he would get you.”

Even though his coaches thrust the playmaking responsibilities on Nik, nerves or lack of confidence weren’t ever issues for him. “It’s just hoops,” Nik would say. “It’s just basketball.”

***

After years of being challenged by older, tougher players and putting countless hours into working on his shot, Nik gained swag.

“He learned he could go at whoever, it didn’t really matter,” Anthony said. “That really developed in his junior year of the AAU circuit, where he was going at a lot of tough guys and having tremendous results.”

Ro and Anthony kept feeding Nik positive reinforcement, and they could see it reflected in his shot. Nik became the best shooter on the team and a natural leader on offense. By the end of his junior year, Nik wasn’t only the best shooter on the team, he was able to drive in the lane, dunk and handle the physicality of opposing teams’ defenders.

That confidence only increased his senior year. Nik was the only returning player from the previous year’s U-17 team, so Ro and Anthony knew Nik would be the natural leader of the team’s offense.

“We built the team around him at the time,” Anthony said. “And we’d push him, we would tell him, ‘Nik, this is your shot to take, these are your decisions to make.’ We would see it in him and then we’d instill it in him so he’d believe it in himself more.”

The confidence started to appear in middle school. Nik and the Monarchs were playing for the Ontario Basketball Association Championship, down two points with seconds left. The coaches drew up an inbounds play and the ball would go Nik — he would hit a 3-pointer, and the game would be over.

It worked, and the Monarchs won.

“For me, it’s not just, ‘OK, he hit the shot,’ ” Paul said. “It proved to me at that point he wasn’t scared of being in the limelight, taking the important shot and he wasn’t going to fold under pressure. I knew he had the confidence in his shot, and from that point on, he played aggressively with confidence and I never saw fear in his eyes again.”

And it’s never disappeared.

***

Nik had no idea what he was getting into when he went to St. Mark’s Preparatory School in Southborough, Mass.

After spending a terrible year in 2010 at South Kent School (Conn.), where Nik was sidelined with an injury and was benched when he recovered, Nik and his dad contacted David Lubick, the basketball coach at St. Mark’s, whom they had met at an AAU tournament the year before.

Dave noticed Nik’s talent and immediately wanted him to play at St. Mark’s, but having already agreed to attend South Kent, Nik had to decline.

Nik found he didn’t like South Kent, so he gave Dave a call.

“That guy’s foolishness not playing Nik Stauskas was my good fortune,” Dave said.

But when Nik arrived at St. Mark’s, he was in for a surprise.

Dave was a calm man off the court — Nik said his calmness is reflected in his love for jazz music — but in the gym, Dave is “insane.” Paul compares him to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Dave challenged Nik on offense, making him not only a deadly shooter, but a team player as well.

St. Mark’s featured a bevy of other talented players, so Nik didn’t have to run the offense and take every single shot. Dave said that one thing he instills in his players is that a bad shot is like a turnover — something easily avoided by finding the best shot for the team.

But Dave knew that at certain points, he had to let his best players create offense for themselves in some situations.

He saw that ability in Nik, and he kept pushing Nik to become a better, smarter player. Instead of destroying Nik’s confidence, like brash instruction might have for most players, Nik took Dave’s instruction as a challenge.

“He definitely pushed me in a lot of ways,” Nik said. “Coming in, I hated playing defense. I hadn’t really ever played defense at all, and he made sure every time I stepped on the court, I didn’t play unless I played defense.”

Dave said he had to “pound it into him” because he wasn’t used to playing much defense.

“I remember after the very first practice, he came to us the next day and said ‘I won’t be able to go today because my knees really hurt,’” Dave said. “We just laughed at him and said, ‘Nik, get ready, your knees are going to hurt the rest of your life.’

“If you’re a basketball player, they’re going to hurt. So we asked him, ‘When’s the last time you did running like we did yesterday?’ He said never, and we said, ‘That’s why your knees hurt, so start learning.’ ”

***

As one of the underdogs in the Adidas Super 64 Tournament in Las Vegas, the Grassroots Canada squad wasn’t expected to make it far. But after seeing Nik dominate the opponents, Ro and Anthony knew.

“We won some grueling games, and he brought us all the way to the semifinals,” Ro said. “After that, the fact that he was able to put the team on his shoulders, that’s when me and coach Huggy knew. After that tournament, we talked about it and said, ‘This kid is going to be an impact player in college and had an opportunity to go in the NBA.’ ”

Dave knew even before Nik went to St. Mark’s.

“It was an AAU game,” he said. “(Nik) was playing with some pretty elite AAU teams, and I was on the bench and pulled the bench — tried every single kid on the team to guard him. One after another, I said, ‘Stop him. Don’t let him shoot threes and don’t let him attack the basket.’ Every time they backed off because (if before) he came down and dunked, he hit a deep three (the next time).

“He was just killing us. We just couldn’t stop him, and I thought, ‘Wow, he’s one of the most skilled players I’ve seen.’ ”

And Nik knew he was going to make it, too. Nik bred confidence on whatever court he played, and between his junior and senior seasons at Grassroots and St. Mark’s, Nik knew he’d be able to make it to a successful Division I program and continue to work at his dream of making the NBA.

***

After all the work he’s put in at the Player Development Center during Michigan basketball practices, Nik hasn’t forgotten where his love for basketball began.

During winter break this past year, Nik went back to that backyard court for a short workout on Christmas Eve. Nik was attempting to make 45-of-50 3-point shots, and Paul was his rebounder.

It was just like old times.

But instead of Paul having to correct Nik’s two-handed form, Nik’s now a better shooter with a crisp, smooth release. And Paul doesn’t have to catch any airballs anymore.

Though Nik’s in Ann Arbor for most of the year working with the Michigan coaches, he never gives up an opportunity to go play on his backyard court.

In the backyard, he’s the same player as always — a determined, confident shooter that fell in love with the sport on that same court.