Last year, the best shooter in the NBA challenged one of the best shooters in college to a three-point contest, to be held at an unlikely locale: a cramped, plastic-tiled outdoor court in the suburbs of Toronto with a stone wall for a baseline, also known as the Stauskas backyard.
The impetus for the challenge was a video -- perhaps you've seen it -- in which Michigan shooting guard Nik Stauskas sinks 70-of-76 three-pointers on his home hoop in a steady drizzle while his father, Paul, films. The clip is five minutes long and consists solely of Stauskas catching and shooting, with two rebounders. This should be boring to watch but, due to Nik's accuracy, it is not. Instead, as Stauskas drains his first 46 shots, the suspense grows. He has to miss eventually, right?
Stauskas has made similar videos before. Lots and lots of them, as it turns out. But the timing of this clip, filmed just after his freshman season, spurred it to go viral. Soon enough, the Stauskas court was making a cameo on SportsCenter and whipping around the Internet until it found its way onto Stephen Curry's smartphone, at which point naturally Curry took to Twitter to challenge Stauskas to a shootout.
Nik couldn't believe it. Neither could his father. They accepted the challenge, of course, and began making arrangements. The contest would be in the backyard. TSN would broadcast. Curry kept his word. The Stauskases were thrilled. Not only was Steph Curry (!) coming to their house but Nik also would have an opportunity to display his soft touch to a broad audience.
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And then the NCAA stepped in. Something about amateurs competing against professionals, and television rights. The result: The competition was off. Stauskas was bummed, especially because both he and his father were pretty sure he would have won. Nik says he's competed in 10 to 15 three-point competitions, at camps and tournaments, and has never lost. And he's certainly never lost in his own backyard.
Still, even without the contest, the idea was now out there. Curry and Stauskas were linked. One great shooter acknowledging another.
This, it turns out, is both a wonderful thing for Stauskas and something of a challenge. Wonderful because Stauskas' shooting ability -- he hit 44 percent of his three-pointers in two college seasons -- is the primary reason he's expected to be a lottery pick in the June 26 draft.
The challenge arises because of who and what Stauskas is, or at least what he appears to be. Thin, not-exactly-sculpted physique. Pale as milk. Most likely to be found camped out in the corner, feet set and hands at the ready. (When Stauskas nailed 6-of-6 threes against Florida in the 2013 NCAA tournament, all but one of them came from the left corner.) Indeed, Stauskas appears at first blush to be a classic lead-footed, deadeye heartland hero, the kind of kid who grew up scraping snow from his driveway in Nowhereville, Ind., so he could loft thousands of jumpers. He brings to mind names like Alford and Bailey and Drew.
It would make for a great narrative if not for the fact that Stauskas is A) Canadian B) of Lithuanian descent and C) has a running vertical that measured 35½ inches at the NBA combine this month. Put into more relatable terms, that leaping ability means he can throw down a through-the-legs dunk, something that -- just guessing here -- Steve Alford never could do. At least the part about scraping snow off the backyard court is true. Stauskas did that all the time in Mississauga, Ontario.
Perceptions are hard to change, though. Stauskas is most often likened to that invaluable but inherently limited NBA species: the spot-up shooter. NBADraft.net lists Stauskas' NBA comparison as Jason Kapono. He is also compared to Kyle Korver and Steve Kerr in various places. There is no shame in these comparisons -- all these men had or have successful careers -- but they represent the pinnacle for spot-up shooters. For every Kerr there are dozens of Jimmer Fredettes who struggle to make the transition to the pros. Even those who succeed hit a ceiling. The next time a pure floor spacer is named an All-Star will be the first. (Spacers here are not to be confused with great-shooting scorers like Reggie Miller or Ray Allen in his prime.)
Thus Stauskas' goal leading up to the draft, and in the years to come, is to differentiate himself from the stereotype of the one-trick pony, no matter how great that one trick may be. Which is why his agent, Mark Bartelstein, argues that Stauskas is not comparable to Korver or J.J. Redick but rather closer to Curry, noting Stauskas' ball handling and quickness.
For his part, Stauskas is happy to embrace the Curry comparison -- who wouldn't? -- in particular because he's studied Curry's game extensively. At Michigan, the film coordinators compiled clips of Curry's collegiate games at Davidson. "With teams face-guarding me this year, they wanted me to study how Steph moved without the ball, going backdoor, as well as what he does off the dribble," says Stauskas. Even so, Stauskas doesn't choose Curry for his NBA analogue. "I think I'm more like Klay [Thompson] right now," he says, referring to Curry's backcourt mate in Golden State. "Though I actually think I put it on the floor and go to the basket more than he does."
The idea that Stauskas would ever be compared to any NBA player, whether it's Thompson or a 12th man, would have once seemed laughable.
For starters, there are his genes. Nik's father is 6 feet and his mother, Ruta, is 5-9. Paul isn't so sure his son didn't just will himself to his current height, so often did Nik announce during his youth that he would one day sprout to 6-6 (his current height).
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Neither does Nik come from a line of athletes. Paul was, by his own account, a "mediocre" basketball player who found his calling as a computer consultant, writing code and managing Web architecture. Likewise, Nik's brother, Peter, recently received his computer science degree from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. By most rights, Nik should have been a nerdy kid who topped out as an intramural star.
Then there's the geography. Somehow, Nik grew up in Canada and never played hockey. Born 10 years earlier, he might have settled on soccer instead. But Nik arrived on Oct. 7, 1993, seven days after the NBA moved to award Toronto an expansion franchise. He came of age alongside the first generation of Canada's basketball youth. He went to Raptors games and idolized Vince Carter. (When he was 10, Nik was called down to the court during an open practice at Air Canada Centre and got to play two-on-two against Carter, surprising his idol by swishing a three. In return, Carter tackled Stauskas and gave him a noogie.) At 7, Nik played organized basketball for the first time, with his uncle's local Lithuanian club. It wasn't the most exciting affair -- his team won 6-4 -- but Nik was hooked.
Soon, he got his own court. Canadian fans know the story well. How Paul was considering installing a putting green in the backyard until Nik begged for a hoops court instead. How Nik and Peter launched shots all through the afternoon and evening. How Paul had to remove two boards from the fence, so often did balls bounce into the neighbor's yard. How he and Ruta had to enforce an 11 p.m. curfew to get the boys to stop playing. How in the summers, Paul played two-on-two and three-on-three against Nik and his buddies, the father never letting up. "There are no fouls in the backyard," Paul explains. "I'd be beating his ass and he didn't like it."
Nik grew into an effective player, but he remained scrawny. Until he was 12, he shot three-pointers the way many boys do, heaving them from his chest. He made plenty, but his father knew it was fool's gold. "You're never going to go anywhere shooting chest passes," Paul said. So, just as Curry did at close to the same age, Stauskas remade his shot with his father's help. Nik spent hours flicking balls up into the air one-handed. The two deconstructed video of his shooting form. Nik began one-handed practice in close, at 10 feet, and slowly worked his way back out. Six months later, his form was nearly perfect.
Even as Nik improved, he remained anonymous in basketball circles. Paul decided to change that the only way he knew how. Using a Sony Handycam and boxes of tapes -- and later 32 GB memory cards -- he filmed his son. He filmed practices. He filmed games. He filmed workouts. (Paul estimates that he has taped about 90 percent of Nik's games.) Then, roughly five years ago, Paul began transferring the footage to his computer, editing it and uploading it to the Web.
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Not long after, the StauskasBasketball channel went live on YouTube. At first, Paul used the channel to try to get Nik's name out. Later, as Nik became better known, the clips served as the equivalent of video rebuttals. "They'd say he was shooting on a low rim, so we'd make a video of him shooting on a different basket," says Paul. "Then they'd say he had no handle, so we'd make a video of him breaking ankles. Then they'd say he couldn't jump, so we made a video of him dunking."
Explore the online archive today and you can watch a staggering amount of Stauskas. The clips bear titles like "Nik Stauskas -- Doubt no more" and "Nik Stauskas 3 Point Challenge!!!! (102 made in 5 min)." Some are static -- just a camera recording as Stauskas shoots three after three for up to 10 minutes. Some are highlight packages. A recent clip titled "Nik Stauskas showing his bounce!" begins with Nik holding up a tape measure to verify that the backyard rim is 10 feet (it looks closer to 9-11). Then Nik throws down a series of jams, including a two-handed 360, occasionally landing perilously close to the baseline stones. The video might as well be titled See, Nik Isn't Really That White.
Videos can only do so much, though. In high school, what Nik really needed was competition. However, the Canadian hoops culture at the time was not exactly thriving. During his seventh- and eighth-grade years, Nik essentially coached his teams, calling plays and making the substitutions because the school had no coach. (Two young female teachers who knew little about the game but were good sports sat on the bench so there would be an official faculty presence.)
When Nik was a high school sophomore at Mississauga's Loyola Catholic, the coach quit early in the year. No one else among the faculty was willing or qualified to take over, so the season was in danger of being canceled. In stepped Nik, who again offered to coach. When that didn't fly, he went around school begging teachers for help until he persuaded his French teacher, Ms. Pichanin, to agree to be a staff presence while Paul Stauskas voluntarily led the team. And so it went each afternoon, Paul running practice and Ms. Pichanin grading papers in the stands.
Shortly thereafter, the Stauskas's got more serious about hoops. Nik spent two summers on the AAU circuit, then transferred to St. Mark's School, in Southborough, Mass., where as a senior he made his name competing against players like Nerlens Noel, the sixth pick in the 2013 draft.
From there, the story becomes familiar. Stauskas started for two seasons at Michigan, inspiring fans to create a blue-and-yellow Canadian flag. He got stronger (he now weighs 207 pounds) and quicker. He threw down impressive two-handed, two-foot dunks in games. He scored 24 points in Michigan's Elite Eight loss to Kentucky in March. And he became part of an unlikely Canadian wave of talent alongside Anthony Bennett (the No. 1 pick last year), Andrew Wiggins (the potential No. 1 pick this year), Kelly Olynyk (the No. 13 pick last year), Tyler Ennis (a likely first-round pick this year) and others.
Now Stauskas, 20, must prove that his game can translate -- that he can defend at the pro level, finish at the rim and get his shot off against quicker, longer defenders. He's not concerned. "During the college season, I proved I'm a basketball player before I'm a shooter," he says. "Honestly, teams are still going to have their stereotypes, because I'm a shooter, and I'm white, and I'm Canadian. Being in the Big Ten, I know for a fact that as soon as you get on the floor, they immediately try to attack you. It's the same in the NBA. The stereotype is if you see a white guy on the wing who's a shooter, they assume you're a defensive liability."
Paul Stauskas calls this perception "the stigma, the white-men-can't-jump scenario." He says it was a disadvantage for Nik all through high school but that now it might provide an occasional edge. "I guarantee you that there are a bunch of guys in team workouts that are going to get their ass handed to them by Nik because they will underestimate him," says Paul. "He's not a ripped Adonis, but he can play."
Those who evaluate talent for a living are cautiously optimistic. "I don't agree with the Curry comparison," DraftExpress president Jonathan Givony says. "Curry played point guard in college and is a point guard in the NBA. Stauskas is a wing to me. He is big enough to see some minutes at small forward. If you had to pick a second position for him, he is more likely to see minutes there."
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Givony, however, deems the Klay Thompson comparison "not bad." Says Givony: "Thompson is a half inch taller and a little longer, but they have comparable skill sets. And Thompson exceeded my expectations for the type of NBA player he'd become based on what I saw in college."
For now, DraftExpress projects Stauskas as the 13th pick, to the Timberwolves. (SI.com has him going 14th, to the Suns.) Givony envisions Stauskas as a useful NBA cog. "Don't forget," Givony writes, "half of the players drafted in the first round never crack an NBA rotation in a meaningful way." If he becomes as good as Korver, Kerr or Redick, Givony says, "he'll have done very well for himself."
Givony is right, of course. But his job is to be a realist. And realism is for players five or six or nine years into their career -- men who've realized that to survive in the NBA you need to find your niche. That there is a certain glory in filling a role. Such players have long since let go the gauzy dreams of youth. They no longer expect to be All-Stars, or the face of a franchise.
Which is why maybe it's for the best that Stauskas never got to have that shooting contest. Sure, he might have beaten Curry. But he also might have lost, and on his home turf. And then where would he be? No longer undefeated, no longer king of his own backyard. Best to leave all things possible. To believe you can become an All-Star or the face of a franchise. That maybe, just maybe, you are better than the best shooter in the world.