Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Stauskas’ all-around game intrigues Kings

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

Nik Stauskas either has terrible luck or a terrific sense of timing. Check back next spring. The Kings’ first-round draft choice, who was introduced during a series of community functions Saturday, joins a team that needs more than a few hugs and a new downtown arena.

Deep shooting? The Kings rank near the bottom. Defense? Erratic at best. Passing? Last in assists.

If overdribbling were a fine art, the Kings would be the Picassos of basketball, not the most consistent rock pounders in the business. But the wild rumors are true. The San Antonio Spurs – the team that painted all those pretty pictures in the NBA Finals – are trending, influencing front office executives and, in a sense, empowering other clubs to spurn the one-on-one, me-me-me, AAU-advocated plague that has overwhelmed much of the league.

Why Nik Stauskas? Why not learn from the best?

“Just look at the Spurs,” Kings coach Michael Malone said after Stauskas met with media members at the practice facility. “All those guys shoot it, pass it, defend. They are fundamentally sound. Then when you look at our team, the things we lacked on the court offensively, defensively, culturally. Nik addresses so many things we are weak in. Creating plays for teammates, terrific shooting, ballhandling, spacing. To me, he is a complete basketball player.”

Stauskas, 20, sneaks up on people. Though he stands a legitimate 6-foot-6 and has long arms and a strong lower body, he was never the first player chosen in pickup games, never regarded as a prep phenom and only recently projected as a mid-lottery pick. A native of Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, he dropped his hockey stick almost the moment he first touched a basketball. Former Raptors star Vince Carter was his boyhood idol, but he was a fan of the Lakers and Kings and particularly fascinated by a flashy point guard named Jason Williams.

“He was fun to watch,” Stauskas said, smiling.

After his parents, Ruta and Paul, built a miniature basketball court in the backyard, Nik rarely ventured far from home; his mother describes her son as sort of a gym rat of the outdoors.

“He would shovel the snow off the court and then play in minus-20-30-degree temperatures,” said Ruta, a human resources administrator. “We bought him gloves and cut the fingertips off so he could handle the ball. And we got heaters and blasted them onto the court so he could stay warm. But he never wanted to stop playing.”

When the basketball coach at his nearby high school resigned and no other coach was available, Paul volunteered for the remainder of the season. This is hockey country, remember.

“If I didn’t step in, Nik wasn’t going to get to play,” said Paul, a computer consultant. “He averaged something like 30 points and 10 rebounds, but there wasn’t any buzz about him. I thought, ‘How is he ever going to get a scholarship?’ ”

Through his contacts with Team Canada, Stauskas was directed to South Kent prep school in Connecticut for his sophomore season. After putting up prolific stats, he was offered a full scholarship and transferred to St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass.

“Two weeks in, he’s calling me on the phone, bawling like a baby, telling me to ‘get me out of here,’ ” Paul said while his son stood nearby, grinning and nodding in agreement.

By the time he was recruited to Michigan by coach John Beilein, the tears had long since evaporated. Playing alongside Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. during his freshman season, he helped the Wolverines reach the Final Four for the first time in 20 years. As a sophomore and team leader, he averaged 17.5 points and 3.3 assists, was named Big Ten Conference Player of the Year and finished his career among the school’s all-time leaders in several offensive categories.

“I won’t say Nik was underrecruited,” Beilein said Saturday, “but he was undervalued. He hardly had lifted weights until he got here. So what you see in Sacramento is not what you’re going to get. He had to get stronger, get used to people keying on him, so he became more imaginative. He became better at scoring in traffic. He can jump out of a gym, too, and he’s a good passer. He won’t let the ball stick. Guys are going to love playing with him.”

The pre-draft scouting reports listed Stauskas as one of the top two shooters (with Doug McDermott) available and referenced his expanding offensive repertoire, but there was another element that intrigued the Kings at No. 8: his fearlessness.

Though he spoke only Lithuanian at home during his boyhood to accommodate grandparents who didn’t speak English, Stauskas is an admittedly accomplished trash talker. He chirps and plays “with a chip” on his shoulder partly because he was overlooked for so long in a country most college coaches visited only on fishing and hunting expeditions. Increasingly, though, recruiters and NBA scouts are crossing the border and fishing and hunting for players; the last two overall No. 1 draft picks (Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins) are Canadians.

But back to Sacramento and the search that landed Stauskas with the Kings. “For where we are,” general manager Pete D’Alessandro said, “we say we like passing and shooting at every position. Playmaking and shooting. Those are skills we really value, and skills Nik has.”

Asked whether he anticipates making additional moves via trades or free-agent signings, still seeking a rim protector and a facilitating point guard, D’Alessandro nodded forcefully.

“We have to make moves, absolutely. This is just one piece. We can’t come back with the same team (as last year). We just can’t.”