Years from now, we’ll look back at the 2018-2019 season in a sense of wonder, recalling the moment everything changed, when a new hero was born. He rose from the ashes of mediocrity – or even worse, from the ashes of being forgotten – to become the legend and internet MVP who spoiled LeBron James’s Showtime debut.
His name is Nik Stauskas, former Wolverine, King, 76er, Net, and current Blazer folk story.
But before he became a king slayer, before he became a “Sauce Castillo” meme, Stauskas was almost a nobody, a kid from Canada in and out of the NBA. And he may still end up as a nobody. He may never become the cult hero Thursday night’s performance suggests he could be. He may still end up out of the league if he comes crashing back down to earth.
But we’ll always have that moment Thursday night. We’ll always be witnesses.
After the game where he scored 24 points in 27 minutes, Stauskas’s past began to resurface. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst tweeted a photo of a young Sauce posing with James.
LeBron and Nik Stauskas go way back pic.twitter.com/1gmxuWGy0G— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) October 19, 2018
But the 25-year-old didn’t always have the clearest path to one-up the legend he posed with.
The former Wolverine was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in the now-suspect 2014 NBA Draft. Before he even entered college, the former Sports Illustrated National Freshman of the Week was considered one of the best three-point shooters in the country. He became an NCAA All-American and Big Ten player of the year. Looking at his credentials, he was destined for something great.
Ranked ninth by Bleacher Report ahead of the draft, Stauskas was credited with hitting 44 percent of his three-pointers in his two years at Michigan. He was ranked as a top-10 prospect in other publications as well.
But Sauce Castillo never amounted to much. Having bounced around from team to team, and having the unfortunate position of being drafted by the Kings, he never lived up to his draft position. His high school credentials of being one of the top 25 3-point shooters ultimately wouldn’t save him.
Stauskas was famously part of the disastrous Kings trade with the Philadelphia 76ers that several involved pick swaps, just to make cap space to sign veterans Rajon Rando and Kostas Koufas. The trade was considered so poorly executed that ESPN’s Zach Lowe continues to malign it on the Lowe Post podcast to this day.
Stauskas became the victim of a front office that didn’t know what it was doing. After he went to Philadelphia along with Carl Landry, Jason Thompson and the rights to several picks, the Kings remained mired in obscurity. Stauskas hasn’t fared much better. The former lottery pick is now on his fourth team since 2014. No team has wanted to hold onto the former Wolverine long-term, and almost any reference to him involves the Kings mistakenly giving away several draft picks with him just to clear cap room.
For better or worse, Stauskas will forever live around the guys drafted ahead of him: Andrew Wiggins, for all his raw talent, so far unfulfilled. Jabari Parker, for his unfulfilled potential. Joel Embiid for acting like a superstar. Marcus Smart for being a do-it-all Swiss Army knife. Aaron Gordon for being a highlight dunk reel on repeat.
But there was a reason Stauskas was drafted in the top 10. Ahead of the draft, DraftExpress.com called him “a prolific shot maker from the perimeter,” and that he was “tremendously consistent” shooting off catch and shoot and off the dribble jumpers. In his two years at Michigan, Stauskas scoring jumped from 11 points per game to 17.5 points per game. He has the second highest free throw percentage in school history, and the fifth highest for three point shot percentage.
Baxter Homes, then with the Boston Globe, wrote that Stauskas had the talent of “an elite marksman.” “He’s the best pro shooter in the draft and he has the best pro jump shot in the draft,” said one league source familiar with Stauskas in Homes’s article. “If he adds other stuff to his game, I think he’s going to be good.”
So far, though, that hasn’t been the story in the NBA. Stauskas has averaged fewer than 10 points per game in each of his pro years, topping out at 9.5 in the 2016-2017 season with Philadelphia. He hasn’t been forced overseas yet, but it wasn’t hard to image a scenario where that might happen. European leagues are filled with guys who had the potential but could never live up to their billing.
Stauskas’s ability to stick around, to be a glue guy on several teams around the league, is fascinating. Looking back on the 2014 draft, there were plenty of guys who never lived up to their billing. Elfrid Payton was supposed to be the point guard of the future in Orlando, but seems destined to be a hanger-on. Noah Vonleh was the toast of Haverhill, Massachusetts, but hasn’t been able to find his groove. James Young is simply listed as a “free agent,” despite Bill Simmons pumping his fist when the Celtics drafted him.
Still, Nik Stauskas keeps going. CBS Sports gave the Kings a D+ for drafting the man who became Sauce Castillo, and while harsh, it’s not totally unfair. Bleacher Report listed him as one of the most disappointing draft picks of the last decade, saying he struggled early with the Kings and failed to make an impact on the team.
“Stauskas was always a questionable fit with the Kings, especially given that they’d selected Ben McLemore just one year earlier,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal. “Now that the Kansas product has improved rather significantly, it’s going to be even more difficult for the newer 2-guard to earn future playing time.”
It’s safe to say this version of Stauskas is the one we’ll remember. His legacy might not ever end up being more than a draft bust, and he may yet find his way to a European league sooner rather than later. But if only for a night, a week ago, he was something more.
Blazer’s Edge readers, please welcome Colin Ellis to the staff. His passion for “new” Nik Stauskas shows through. We look forward to sharing more memories with him.