Playing under three different head coaches during his first NBA campaign, Canadian-born sharpshooter and hot sauce spokesman Nik Stauskas struggled to find stable minutes or a consistent role. Often times, weeklong stretches of him playing 15-20 minutes per game would be broken up by DNPs and relegation to garbage time. But in Philadelphia, under the tutelage of Brett Brown and perhaps the most development-focused coaching staff ever assembled, the 21-year-old is already showing signs of the offensive potential that made him a consensus lottery selection coming out of Michigan as a sophomore in 2014.
When details of the Sam Hinkie’s merciless summer ransacking of Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings emerged, I, like everyone else, was ecstatic. I mean, the right to swap picks in each of the next two drafts AND a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick from one of the most dysfunctional teams in recent NBA history? Sign me right the hell up. "Oh, and they get Stauskas too," I thought. "He probably won’t really be much of anything, but another young shooter can’t hurt."
I, like many others, was guilty of allowing the stale stench of Sleep Train Arena (it’s actually rather pleasant) to taint my perception of a player who one year prior I had hoped would end up in Philadelphia on draft night. Stauskas had already been driven off the proverbial auto lot, and his blue book value had taken a hit with each and every bricked jumper he helplessly hoisted as a rookie in Sacramento.
Last season, the former eighth-overall pick played just over 15 minutes per game and averaged 4.4 points on 36.5% shooting from the floor and 32.2% from deep. On the year, he made exactly one three-pointer taken while a defender was standing within four feet of him… he attempted 33 such shots on the year.
Stauskas missed Summer League in July because of an ankle injury and also sat for the entirety of preseason play as well as the Sixers’ regular season opener with a stress reaction in his right leg. In the two games he has played, he’s been a desperately needed floor-spacer for a team hoping to run their offense through rookie big man Jahlil Okafor, as well as an impressive secondary ballhandler.
Sauce was the lone bright spot in Friday’s home opener, dropping 12 points on 3-of-6 shooting (2-for-3 on threes) and dishing out a pair of assists in 21 minutes off the bench. And against the Cavaliers on Monday, he scored a cool 15 points, going 4-for-10 from the floor and knocking down three of the nine threes he attempted.
The sample size is small, but in two games Stauskas has already established himself as a perimeter threat for which opposing teams must account. In the 35 minutes in which the sophomore guard has been on the floor with Jah so far, Okafor has averaged 14.4 shot attempts within five feet of the basket per 36 minutes versus just 6.0 per 36 when Stauskas is on the bench.
In basketball, the term "gravity" is defined as the tendency of defenders to be pulled to certain areas of the floor, in this case wherever Sauce happens to standing. For the Sixers, getting as many high-gravity shooters on the floor at the same time as Okafor is imperative to the success of their offense.
Take a look at the two plays in the video below. In each clip, Okafor misses a shot from about 10 feet out, but ignore the result of the plays and instead pay attention to the respect Cleveland’s defense has to give Stauskas in the second clip versus the overwhelming lack of spacing created by JaKarr Sampson in the corner in the first clip:
If that were Stauskas in the corner instead of Sampson against Boston, that’s an easy kick out to the corner for an open three. Instead, Sampson, a career 21.3% shooter on corner threes,, abandons the spot and instead runs aimlessly into the paint, where Okafor is attempting to operate. In the play against the Jazz, we see Stauskas’ man, Alec Burks, remain glued to the sharpshooting wing, avoiding the temptation to help on Okafor. Jah settles for a tough shot over a dude with a 7’9" wingspan, but the paint was far less clogged in this example.
Since Sam Hinkie took over the reins of the franchise in 2013, a lot has been made of the team’s analytical approach to shot selection, and for good reason. The Sixers ranked near the top of the NBA in expected points per shot last season, in large part because of their aversion to the enemy of this website and bedfellow of Doug Collins, the long two. Just look at the evolution of the Sixers’ shot chart since Collins was hired in 2010 through the first two years of Hinkie/Brown:
The Sixers' three-and-rim system fits right in with Stauskas’ skill set, even beyond his ability to create space for Jahlil Okafor to create easy looks for himself around the basket. Through two games with the Sixers, he’s attempted 16 shots, all of which have come either from three-point range or from within five feet of the hoop. Last season with the Kings, though, almost 30% of his shots came from between five feet out and the three-point line. From that distance, he converted at just a 37.5% clip, averaging an abysmal .750 points per attempt. Within five feet, he shot 44.8%, and he converted 32.2% of the threes he attempted, bringing his efficiency on those shots to a respectable .942 points per attempt.
Beyond his ability as a scorer, Stauskas offers value to the Sixers as a secondary ball-handler. In his sophomore season at Michigan, he was called upon to help fill the massive hole at lead guard left by Trey Burke. Serving as the team’s de facto point guard for much of the year, he averaged 17.5 points on 47.0% from the floor and 44.2% from beyond the arc to go along with 3.3 assists to 1.9 turnovers per game. He’s an interesting player to use in the pick-and-roll because of his outstanding ability as a pull-up shooter and underrated vision and precision as a playmaker, and I fully expect to see him teamed up with Nerlens Noel as a roll man early and often this year.
We talk a lot around here about "The Process" – what exactly it is, whether or not it’s working, and why we should continue to trust it. We rail publicly against those who question the NBA legitimacy of players like JaKarr Sampson and Hollis Thompson while secretly wondering whether the Sixers’ lack of veteran leadership really is a problem like so many traditional media members loudly declare it is.
The Sixers happily ignore a dogma that places player-to-player mentorship and feigned competitiveness high upon its mantle, instead valuing roster and cap flexibility. It was that financial pliability that allowed them to acquire Stauskas, a future first-round pick, and two pick swaps in return for cap space (roughly $15.8 million of it) and the rights to two foreign dudes whose names I hadn’t even bothered committing to memory.
Nik Stauskas is an embodiment of the process, and he’s also one of a handful of players on this roster who could still be here when it is complete.