by Daniel Friedberg (@danfriedberg)
Most players earn their nicknames because of how they look when the play: the Glide, the Matrix, Air Jordan, and the Round Mound of Rebound. But in today’s technological zeitgeist, a mere, quirky closed captioning error can dub someone, and the internet handles the rest. In a moment, Nik Stauskas was Sauce Castillo. And not to squander the opportunity, a new business venture appeared, and a new spokesman was born.
When Stauskas was drafted #8 by Sacramento in the 2014 NBA Draft, it wasn’t considered much of a stretch following projections of #10 on nbadraft.net and #12 on DraftExpress.com. Stauskas had just come off a sophomore season at Michigan putting up 17.5 points per game and shooting 44% from deep, increasing his points per game average by 6.5 from his freshman year and mirroring his three-point percentage. Nik was primed to bring that robotic long ball to Sacramento and give oft-maligned behemoth Boogie Cousins that sorely needed floor spacer.
Remember this incredible glimpse into the Kings front office? Vivek Ranadive made an entire room of grown men feel uncomfortable by prompting a unified “Nik Rocks!” chant. The overly meddlesome franchise owner got his man, after scoffing at a Sam Hinkie offer for the 76ers’ #10 pick and two 2nd rounders for the #8 pick (potentially targeting Stauskas).
Stauskas’ disappointing rookie year was easily written off due to an unstable front office, replete with a rotating door at the top coaching position. Nik had three head coaches in his first season: Mike Malone, Tyrone Corbin, and George Karl. Combine that turmoil with a notoriously immature, high maintenance player in Cousins, and you’ve got a recipe for underperformance. When Vlade Divac was given full control, Sam Hinkie saw a trembling, wide-eyed fawn, and pounced. The trade was widely considered one of the most lopsided transactions in recent NBA history.
It was a fresh start for Stauskas, on a team where he’d have an opportunity to start. At the time of the trade, the excitement was more about the Kings seemingly giving away Stauskas for nothing, but then saying, “Here! Take more!”. When Nik hit the very first shot he took as a 76er, and Sixers PA announcer Matt Cord proudly exclaimed “Sauuuuuce Castilllllloooooo!”, the jubilation hit its apex. His underwhelming rookie performance was really a product of his environment. He was actually a good player if not for that Demarcus Cousins incessantly putting him down and destroying his confidence. That was a thrilling few minutes.
Because then, Stauskas struggled yet again in his sophomore season, finishing with 8.5 ppg and shooting a barely improved percentage from three (32.6% compared to 32.2% as a rookie). Naturally, it becomes problematic when a guy whose primary NBA skill is shooting can’t really, you know…shoot.
So what happened? It isn’t due to a lack of effort or a lack of athleticism either, which was always a known quantity coming out of college. It’s more that even when he had wide-open looks from behind the arc, he only knocked them down at a 36.1% clip last season. His recent Summer League performance (albeit only two games), where he shot just 35% from the field when he should be dominating as a 3rd-year player, did not inspire much hope either.
Although the 76ers are still weakest in the backcourt, their recent free agent acquisitions of Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, and Sergio Rodriguez have created a roster crunch. The 76ers may have to choose between Stauskas and Hollis Thompson. Stauskas is still on his rookie contract with a club option in 2017-18. Yet, Thompson is cheaper and has a career average of 39.1% shooting from three, which ostensibly makes him a better compliment at this stage to Ben Simmons. But the Hollis you get is the Hollis that will remain – a fringe NBA player at best, with considerable physical limitations. In maintaining the Hinkie spirit of upside and taking the long view, I think Stauskas is the correct choice.
Nik was once described as a fierce competitor, firing up shots without hesitation. At the NBA level, we simply haven’t seen that same player. Even if he makes the final roster, this season could be make-or-break for the former Michigan star. If Stauskas doesn’t turn things around, he could end up making more money going forward selling hot sauce than playing basketball.