Stauskas overcomes midseason selflessness to find selfish balance

Teresa Mathew/Daily
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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 14, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — With a one-point point deficit and another disappointing Big Ten Tournament showing bearing down on the Michigan men’s basketball team with just 19 ticks left, Nik Stauskas knew exactly what he was going to do.

Walking out of the huddle, the sophomore guard turned to his teammates, including fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan and told them that he was “gonna shoot it regardless.”

He curled around the top of the perimeter, took a handoff from sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht, rubbed off a Morgan pick and, with one foot on the line, rose for a long jumper.

In midair, he hesitated. Less than a half-minute had elapsed since he declared he would “shoot regardless,” but with his defender, along with an Illinois big in his face, all had seemed to go awry.

And yet there was Stauskas — who just days earlier was named Big Ten Player of the Year, but had failed so many times throughout conference play to handle the offense as the Wolverines’ go-to option — still in mid-jump limbo, reading, recognizing and breaking down the defense to find a wide-open Morgan piercing through the paint. The veteran forward went up awkwardly, perhaps because as he would later admit, he “wasn’t necessarily ready for the pass,” and got two fortunate bounces before the ball rolled in.

Illinois missed a would-be winner at the other end, as Michigan survived another late-game situation, 64-63.

“I just think it goes to his maturity,” Morgan said of Stauskas, “I just think that’s a pretty good example of his unselfishness.”

But at an earlier point in the season, those two statements would’ve been perhaps contradictory rather than complementary.

It’s no secret that Stauskas went through a rough midseason stretch. In a three-game, seven-day span in early February, the sophomore scored six, nine and 10 points — a win over Nebraska sandwiched by the team’s first two conference losses.

Though it’s easy, and in a way, correct, describing Stauskas’ play as simply poor fails to tell the full story. The guard, typically a high-volume shooter who averages close to 11 field-goal attempts per game, took an average of five shots over the three contests.

It had become clear by then that Michigan went as Stauskas did, so opponents, beginning with Duke in December, began denying him the ball, often by pitting him up against smaller, quicker guards that he couldn’t free himself from either with or without the ball. A frustrated, yet unselfish Stauskas recognized this and began to deflect. He’d stay put in the corner or on the wing with his defender standing by, giving teammates more room to operate in a four-on-four layout. More often than not, when he got the ball, he’d pass rather than shoot contested jumpers.

“Nobody expects him to be selfish,” said freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. “Everyone on the team knows that if someone’s open, he’ll make the pass.”

But one month ago, that was precisely his problem: be selfish and take contested shots, or be unselfish and try to feed teammates for better looks.

As it turns out, the answer lay somewhere in between the two propositions. It’s one Stauskas has since figured out and why Morgan was correct in calling it a sign of maturity.

Stauskas doesn’t always need to be the guy to shoot it, but, as Michigan coach John Beilein alluded to on Friday, he still needs to be the guy.

“I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” Beilein said of Stauskas’ pre-play proclamation. “He doesn’t really predetermine like that, but I wanted him to think that way coming off (the screen), ‘I’m going to shoot it in.’

“I don’t want him going off that screen looking to pass and then being wide open, so he had the right idea. He came off looking to score. If he doesn’t have his eyes on the rim, he doesn’t get double coverage and then Jordan’s not wide open.”

Unlike earlier in the year, Stauskas made the unselfish play while, in a sense, selfishly looking to score.

It’s a situation that is likely to present itself again, and a Stauskas who understands that balance makes the Wolverines all the more dangerous.