On a Monday morning in April, Nik Stauskas returned to his childhood home, went out into his parents' backyard, and began playing a game of H-O-R-S-E with his rookie teammate T.J. McConnell. The Philadelphia 76ers were two nights away from finishing another disastrous season, and a visit to the Toronto Raptors was looming the next day, but in the Mississauga backyard, on a court framed by a brown wooden fence and evergreens that billow and shake in the wind, this was the only game that mattered. "You have no idea how many good memories I have in this backyard right here," Stauskas told his teammate. "I've spent literally thousands of hours here."
There's a famed video of Stauskas on this court on YouTube. He's back from his freshman year at the University of Michigan, decked out in his team issue warm-ups and launching three-pointers in the rain. His dad, Paul, a computer consultant, hovers at the perimeter with a camcorder to his eye. You can hear the sluicing of the rain, and a plastic bag rustles as it protects the camera. Stauskas takes 76 shots in all, and 70 of them go in; when it's done, he shouts, a little sheepishly, "I hit 46 in a row!" The feat was impressive enough that Steph Curry, then in the middle of the first round of 2013 NBA playoffs, tweeted the video and challenged Stauskas to a shooting contest. Stauskas was elated, and up for it, but the NCAA squashed the idea before it got much further.
A year later, Stauskas was drafted into the NBA eighth overall by the Sacramento Kings, a franchise that hasn't posted a winning record since Stauskas was 13 years old. He would play for three different head coaches in his rookie campaign alone and then be traded to Philadelphia, along with two other players, as part of a salary dump after the season ended.
In Philadelphia, Stauskas got more of a chance to show off his skills, and they appeared in short, sputtering bursts of potential. He played better basketball in the second half of the season, but there were also longer stretches, earlier in the year, when he was effectively invisible in an offense that consisted largely of throwing the ball to Jahlil Okafor and getting out of the way. On one of the league's youngest rosters, Stauskas still had to find his place.
His place, he has always said, is the NBA. He spoke of his basketball dreams as a kid, and did so in the pyrotechnically optimistic ways that kids do. Despite routinely being the smallest member of his elementary school teams and hailing from a family where no one topped the six-foot mark, Stauskas would proclaim that someday he would grow to be 6-foot-6. Then, over the course of two years in high school, he grew eight inches, to ... 6-foot-6. "Our honest opinion," his brother has said in the past, "is he willed himself to grow."
Now, in his second NBA offseason, Stauskas is trying to grow some more. This will be the most important summer of his young career. Next season is the final year of his rookie deal, and he still has much to prove. His coach in Philadelphia, Brett Brown, says Stauskas needs to come back stronger and tougher. "There's a cocky side that I want to see from him," Brown says. "A physical side that I want to see from him. We want to grow him to be a two-way player, this league is about two-way players." Stauskas' future, Brown says, will be based on his body and his physicality. Whether he can get hit and keep moving forward.
Back in the yard, one game of H-O-R-S-E turned into another, then four more, until an hour and a half had passed and the series was tied at three games apiece. Stauskas and McConnell decided to leave it tied, a diplomatic finish. It was easy to imagine the two being called inside for dinner. When they left the court the sky was shifting above them. It looked like a storm, and then it didn't.
On Tuesday, the next morning, Stauskas is sitting courtside at the Air Canada Centre. The team has just finished their morning walk-through and the players are sunk into plush cushioned seats near center court. Stauskas sits in a row that includes Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Christian Wood, and the veteran Elton Brand, who rests with his arms spread across the backs of the open chairs on either sides. These are the dull, dragged-out days at the end of a season that's left the Sixers with little to play for beyond self-preservation, and whatever pride remains for a team that loses 72 times in 82 games.
Stauskas first came to this arena when he was eight. He was just a fan in those days. He was nine when he was plucked from the crowd at an open practice and brought onto the court to shoot baskets with Vince Carter and Morris Peterson. There's a photo from that moment of a giddy Stauskas, wearing a purple headband, his body engulfed by an oversized Raptors shirt. He stands near the three-point line and Carter looks on, waggish and side-eyed. The young man had just hit a three-pointer on the NBA superstar. Carter respond by playfully tackling him to the ground and giving him a noogie, Stauskas' father told The Globe and Mail. "That was the tipping point I think."
In about eight hours, Stauskas will be back on this court, playing his second-to-last game of his second NBA season. There will be a few hundred people, family and friends, here to see him—people that know what he can do because they've seen it in driveway battles and high school games and on the biggest stages of the NCAA Tournament. They can afford a level of patience that those in NBA front offices cannot. Right now, and going forward, it's hard to know how much patience Philadelphia's front office has with him. Sam Hinkie, the general manager who brought Stauskas to town, resigned in April, which meant another new chain of command, another new boss to convince.
The NBA is a business, and each NBA team is a business, and both deal in business decisions. Players are discussed as assets, variously fungible human capital that will either appreciate in value or not; they're treated like that, too. The NBA, like every sport, deals in potential. Stauskas' family and friends, free of these judgements, see something different in Stauskas than what is visible on the floor, or in the stats. They know him as something else, and entirely more human, and they see a kid realizing a dream.
It's easy to see that, as it happens. "I've been here so many times as a fan," Stauskas says, standing underneath the basket, looking up into the stands. "To come back as a player is surreal."
Stauskas is the only player on the court, which is something he's used to. The first half of the season, he struggled, and that's putting it lightly. His shooting, which was supposed to be his greatest strength, was erratic. Still, he was getting an opportunity to play, and was lucky enough to do so for Brown, a coach who finds a way to preach patience in a field that functions on immediacy. Given how much of a shooter's game depends on confidence, and how easy it is to get backed into a corner in this most competitive of leagues, that counts for a lot.
"For me, the first year, year and a half in this league, part of me ... you start thinking about it," Stauskas says. "'Do I belong in this league? Am I cut out to be successful here?' You can play mind games with yourself sometimes. It can have a negative effect on you."
Stauskas answers these questions in the same way that he always has. He goes to the gym early in the morning, by himself, and puts in the work. "I just like clearing my mind that way," he says. "There's nothing better than me being in the gym by myself, sometimes."
Later that night, with family and friends watching, Stauskas finds his way to the basket four times, for four dunks against the Raptors, the most he's ever had in a game. He dunked four times in the entirety of his rookie season. "It's not my forte but I'll take it," Stauskas says after the game. It's a different side of him, the side the coach wants to see; aggressive, determined, confident.
One of those dunks happens in the second quarter. Stauskas catches the ball at the right elbow, takes one dribble and three steps, and then raises up into the air, his right arm extended behind his head. In front of the basket, Bismack Biyombo, a player who is about to become very rich because of how good he is at blocking shots and playing defense, soars to meet him, but doesn't get quite high enough. Stauskas throws the ball through, and starts roaring before he hits the floor. The veins in his neck bulge and for a moment the stadium feels still and airless. Then he lands on his feet, on the same hardwood floor he's been dreaming about since he was eight.
The professional life of an NBA player can be brief. There are not quite 500 roster spots in the league, and the same dumb luck, nepotism, chance, and other cosmic mitigators that shape careers in every field exist in the NBA, too. Two players that Stauskas gets compared to are Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick, and while neither fit is ideal, there really are some similarities. They are all shooters, active off the ball, and better passers and defenders than they generally get credit for being. Stauskas is not in the same universe with either in terms of accomplishments, but all three started their careers in a similar way. Neither Korver or Reddick peaked until their late 20s, after they found franchises that gave them the time to figure it out.
"When I hear stories like that, guys like J.J. and Kyle Korver, those are guys who are really good players in this league now," says Stauskas, who turns 23 in October. "And when you hear about their struggles their first three, four, five years in the league it makes you realize it's a process and it's going to take some patience and take some time to get to where you want to be. "
When Stauskas was in fifth grade, he tried out for his elementary school team. He was the smallest kid there but his coach, Wells Davis, saw a unique devotion to go with what was even then an unmistakable talent. At the end of the tryout, Stauskas asked the coach, "Do you think I'm good enough to play here? Will I make the team?" He'd been the best player in the gym.
That talent, and that hunger to do as much with it as he humanly can, has gotten Stauskas this far. It's what has kept him gunning in the backyard through summer storms and winter snow and the hail and sleet and rain that blew in between, day after day, week after week, for months and years, as the runt from elementary school cracked the world's best basketball league. Now all he has to do is continue to overachieve until that becomes his new normal, and then keep growing from there. Stauskas is the most ordinary of NBA players, which is to say that he's pretty extraordinary—a singular talent from the start, motivation that's frankly unnatural in its ferociousness, the right luck at the right time. He can become what he's always dreamed to be. He will just need to do a few more extraordinary things to get there.
"If I see I'm improving that's all I need," Stauskas says in the locker room before the game. "Just continuous improvement over the next couple of years and hopefully I can get to the position that those guys are in."
Stauskas finished the Raptors game with 13 points, three assists, and two rebounds. The Sixers lost, but that's sort of the point. Still, Stauskas got extended minutes in front of his hometown crowd, and other than a knee to knee collision that sidelined him for a few minutes in the first quarter, it was a good night in a season that hadn't had too many of them. The following day, in the last game of the season, in Chicago, Stauskas was a late scratch with knee soreness.
That meant that the final seconds of Stauskas' sophomore season play out like this: the Sixers run an inbounds play to get the ball to Stauskas for a quick shot. Instead, Raptors rookie Norman Powell knocks the pass out of the air and chases it down. With Stauskas on his heels, Powell bounds up court and punctuates the win with a windmill dunk. The buzzer sounds, the crowd erupts, and Stauskas walks off the floor. It's anything but a perfect ending, but it's something Stauskas can use. He can use it because it's the type of play that lingers in memory, that can be used as a source of motivation, that can drive a player deeper still into his routine.
After the game, a reporter asks Stauskas about a fellow Canadian NBA player, Tyler Ennis, who, like Stauskas, progressed and improved on a losing team as the season went on. Ennis and Stauskas have known each other since they were kids; the reporter wants to know what's changed for Ennis, what's allowed him to get better. "Tyler's getting an opportunity," Stauskas says. "And I think that's all he needed."
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