Judging by the 15 bottles of hot sauce lined up on his kitchen countertop, Nik Stauskas is either a burgeoning chef or an NBA rookie endorsed by Musashi Foods.
After a closed-captioning error referred to Stauskas as “Sauce Castillo” in March, the Sacramento Kings guard has experienced a whirlwind of attention surrounding his infectious nickname. There are shirts dedicated to the mishap, and he even has his own line of Sauce Castillo hot sauce through Musashi.
He not only didn’t see the nickname coming, but he’s not even a fan of legitimate, spicy hot sauce. After getting over the initial weirdness, though, he was able to embrace it.
“I was so confused, I didn’t really get it,” Stauskas said. “It happened during the game, so I didn’t really figure it out until afterwards on Twitter because everyone was Tweeting at me like, ‘Good game, Sauce.’
“The first time I heard it, I thought it was a little weird. I didn’t love it. Once I saw how much everyone else liked it though, I was like, ‘You know what, I might as well roll with it.’ ”
The moniker followed him everywhere on the road, where fans shouted “Sauce” at him rather than Nik, and his teammates stopped calling him Nik altogether.
With the nickname came more confidence.
“It was almost like an alter-ego type of thing, which I enjoyed, like going on the court and playing as someone else and just having fun with it.”
Both the nickname and the sauce have followed him back to Ann Arbor (fans can now buy his mild sauce at The M Den and even meet “Sauce Castillo” on June 5 from 6-8pm in the store), where he’s training with Michigan basketball strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson for the summer.
Two years ago, Stauskas spent the summer with just Sanderson and Caris LeVert. He believes the summer following his freshman season changed his body, and the results showed.
His sophomore season, Stauskas increased his average points per game by six points to become Michigan’s leading scorer at 17 points per game. Expanding his role from shooting specialist to team leader, Stauskas also surprised many by winning Big Ten Player of the Year.
He attributes those gains to Sanderson’s emphasis on building body mass and adding size. Sanderson, a former Ohio State basketball player, has six years of coaching at Michigan under his belt, and he believes in the basics of weightlifting to get players to reach their full potential.
Stauskas decided to return to his old stomping grounds when Sanderson called him in the beginning of March — before the Sauce Castillo madness began — about training in Ann Arbor for the summer.
“Coach Sanderson just called me randomly out of nowhere,” Stauskas said. “He was just like, ‘Man, you’ve gotta come back to Ann Arbor, we’re going to have a big summer and we’re going to work really hard.’ The more I thought of it, the more it made sense to me. Just being back where I’m comfortable, working with people I know, it just all seemed like a pretty good idea.”
He also returned to work with Greg Harden, the Director of Athletic Counseling at Michigan. Harden, who has worked with Tom Brady, Desmond Howard and Michael Phelps, specializes on the mental aspects of the game.
Stauskas values the psychological facets of athletics as much as the physical, so the joint effort made the choice to return to campus easy.
Along with working with those he’s already familiar with, Stauskas has also gotten to know the younger players on the current Michigan squad, and his eyebrows raise and eyes widen when talking about next season’s potential.
“I’m in the weight room with them every day, so it’s just good to be around those guys,” Stauskas said. “They make me work harder and I make them work harder.
“I think next season is going to be big, especially if they can get everyone back and healthy. It’s going to be a tough team to face. Now the team has been together for a little while, and I think next year is going to be a good year.”
After making the jump from being an unheralded college recruit to a lottery draft pick in the NBA, his former teammates have bought into the importance of summer conditioning.
“It’s crazy to see how far the spring and summer sessions have come for the Michigan basketball team,” Stauskas said. “Two years ago, when Caris and I stayed for the spring, we were like the only ones staying to work out with Sanderson, and now, virtually the whole team is here working out with Sanderson every day. Everyone is here and wants to put in the work.”
Among those is sophomore Duncan Robinson, who will be eligible this upcoming season after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Before even playing one official minute for the Wolverines, people are already trying to compare him to Stauskas.
The comparisons might not be completely unheralded, though.
“(Duncan Robinson) can really shoot,” Stauskas said. “We need to schedule something. He might even beat me — at least that’s what the guys have been telling me.”
After taking just two weeks off, Stauskas has returned to his roots, and he’s not afraid of the competition the younger players might bring.
Though Stauskas only averaged 15.4 minutes per game for the Kings, a measly number compared to the 35.8 minutes he averaged in his final year at Michigan, the demanding travel schedule still took its toll on the rookie.
But even after he adjusted to the professional lifestyle, the higher level of competition was unlike any physical challenge Stauskas had ever faced. He averaged 4.4 points per game — far from how he wanted his rookie season to go.
After being the big man on campus just a year before and having attention from even the most casual of Michigan fans, he struggled to get noticed in Sacramento.
“I think the toughest thing for me, as far as transition goes, was just the physicality of the game,” Stauskas said. “Guys are six, seven, eight years older than me a lot of the time, and they’re just grown men. They have 10, 15, 20 pounds on me. Just putting on the extra size will help me with a lot of confidence and help me battle harder out there.”
Whether he makes those gains from the extra time he puts in the gym or from a “Sauce Castillo”-heavy diet (he enjoys it with grilled chicken the most), he hopes an Ann Arbor summer will lead him to success once again.