April 16, 2014
By Chad Shepard
When freshmen arrive on campus, intrigue swirls as those supporting the Wolverines seek to label a player and categorizing his style in an effort to calculate the contributions he can make to the Michigan lineup. When sophomore guard Nik Stauskas arrived on campus, he came already labeled: "just a shooter."
Two years later, he has elevated his game and himself to a new level, and leaves U-M as the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and a likely first-round pick in June's NBA Draft. The transformation for Stauskas didn't just come on the court -- he sculpted his body and carved his mind to be sharp and resilient, crafting himself a new label: "pro-ready."
"This is one of the main reasons why I stayed last spring and summer -- to put myself in this position," said Stauskas. "My body made a big adjustment; I put on 16 pounds, I'm faster, and my explosiveness has gotten better."
Stauskas saw the results of such dramatic physical changes almost immediately, but his transformation was not complete until he trained his brain the same way he trained his body.
"Mentally, I've changed a lot," said Stauskas, "I felt like making those jumps mentally would be the key for me, like maintaining composure in late-game situations, and it really paid off. I think that was one of the biggest parts of my success this year."
Stauskas was rewarded for his patience and confidence, seeing his role increase between seasons and watching his shot total balloon by nearly 100 shots more than last season. He seized the opportunity by averaging 17.5 points per contest, an increase of more than six points per game from a year ago.
"I wanted to put myself in a position where I could lead this team and be that guy that the coaches and the rest of my team looked to to make plays down the stretch of games," said Stauskas.
He also bumped up his assist rate, averaging better than three helpers every time he took the floor. Now sees his game as NBA-ready, especially after observing the immediate success of former teammates Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
"That was huge," said Stauskas, "Just talking with the coaches, they felt my game would translate pretty well. I feel like there's a good chance I can come in and do that same kind of thing from the very start."
Stauskas leaves U-M among the top three-point shooters in school history, ranking 10th all-time in attempts (390), eighth all-time in made threes (172) and fifth all-time in three-point percentage (44.10). In bolstering his sharpshooting abilities with added physical strength and a mental edge in the offseason, Stauskas built himself into a versatile pro prospect with a lot of long hours in the gym, but he credits the Michigan coaching staff with speed-tracking his growth and preparation.
"I think this coaching staff gets us prepared to play in any situation," said Stauskas, "The skill development they have is second to none. They develop guys real quick."
Fans will remember his trademark three goggles and the clutch shots like his step-back game-winner at Wisconsin, or knocking down six-of-six triples to overwhelm the Florida Gators in last season's tournament, but they should also remember the way he played the game with both a smile and a snarl, with swagger and humility. That can't be captured on paper
"This is truly what I love to do," said Stauskas, "I just hope people realize when you see me smiling out there, it's because I'm truly having fun and this is what I love."
His Twitter bio reads: "When you master your mind, you master your life" -- a reflection of the investment he's made into the mental aspect of the game. But it says something else, too: "Basketball is not who I am, it's what I do."
Stauskas still isn't interested in classifying himself as anything, whether it's related to the game he loves or not. The mental discipline he has committed to will help him beyond basketball. He may indeed have a label, but if he does, it hasn't been thought of yet, and if it's anything like the rest of his legacy at Michigan, he'll write it himself.