When the Portland Trail Blazers signed Nik Stauskas early in July, the news was met with muted reactions, if reactions were had at all. Despite being a heralded lottery pick just four years before, all the hype was gone from Stauskas’ career. But is that perspective on Nik warranted, or is there more to him than people think? Can he possibly be a legitimate impact player for the Blazers next season?
Perhaps the single most important thing to recognize about Nik Stauskas is that he’s still young. He’s been in the NBA for a while, and didn’t leave college until his junior season, but doesn’t turn 25 until October. Additionally, he’s not someone who’s received a ton of minutes in his NBA career thus far (just over 5600). On one hand, he hasn’t been good enough to earn more, which is bad. On the other, he probably has more room for growth than someone like Andrew Wiggins, who’s younger and more athletic, but who’s also played over twice the number of minutes and is therefore more of a proven commodity.
The other primary reason for hope is equally as simple: Nik has already improved substantially since entering the NBA. Now, to be fair, the bar was low because he was bad his rookie season. But still, he improved his points, rebounds, and assists per 36 minutes in his following two seasons, as well as field goal and three-point shooting percentages. Those are real signs of progress, and moving from terrible to just average at various NBA skills is a big, big leap. He remains a below average rebounder, for example, but he’s no longer anemic in that area. Similarly, he’s demonstrated a greater passing ability in his last couple seasons, and while he can’t really create shots for others, he will move the ball and can find the open man. If he was able to improve almost across the board in his first four seasons, it stands to reason that he could make further leaps as he heads into his mid-20s.
Although his numbers dipped a bit his fourth season, Nik put forth a truly excellent season shooting the ball from distance, hitting on 40.4% of his threes on 2.8 attempts per game. That’s a somewhat limited sample size, but Stauskas was also a great shooter in college, he’d been solid the year before and his actual shooting stroke is extremely clean. Three-point shooting remains perhaps the most important ability for a wing to possess in today’s NBA, and Nik is established in that realm.
Finally, Nik has never really been in a good situation to develop into a true rotation player. He spent his rookie season on a miserable Sacramento Kings team with an angry DeMarcus Cousins (who bullied him relentlessly), making his awful first year more understandable. His second season was on a more disciplined, less volatile squad, but it was the last true year of “The Process” 76ers, and the team won just 10 games. Those teams were not exactly a great environment for growth; it’s difficult to develop good habits and NBA fundamentals on teams that bad.
The Blazers 2018-2019 squad is a completely different animal from any of his previous stops. They are a well-coached, veteran team with star players who are notorious for working hard and creating close team environments. More importantly, the Blazers should actually be good. On a team like that, a smart player such as Nik might be able to find his niche. He will be utilized better, his weaknesses will be hidden more cleverly, and he might just learn some things that he didn’t receive in his first few seasons.
There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about Stauskas. Even though he’s made legitimate strides in his NBA career thus far, he’s still a poor defensive player and is not adept at creating shots for others. There’s very little chance that he will become the starting-caliber player that people thought he could be coming out of Michigan. But he has real NBA skills, he’s smart, and he’s a hard worker. The right coach and teammates should be able to mold those talents into a useful piece on a playoff team. Hopefully, in his fifth season, Nik Stauskas will find a home in Portland.