July 7, 2014
By Chad Shepard
For most organizations in professional sports, the draft represents an opportunity to retool your franchise, develop your roster and take a step in the right direction. Executives work with a checklist of traits their top players must have -- physical skill, mental toughness, intangibles, a record of health, etc. -- in order to determine the best fit for their franchise.
But with so many viable options, the weight of choosing just one player from a number of talented assets can be burdensome, and it is often difficult for a team outside of the top few picks to pursue a player with any sort of continuity in the front office.
That made it all the more exciting for the Sacramento Kings when they reached a consensus for their top selection in the 2014 NBA Draft. They knew their guy, and they went out and got him, taking former Wolverine Nik Stauskas No. 8 overall.
"When you have a front office and a coaching staff that feel the same way about a player, that's unique," commented Kings GM Pete D'Alessandro, "It feels great as a general manager when you have a unanimous feeling in a draft room and that was clearly the situation."
Grantland.com took the public inside the Sacramento organization with a three-part video series detailing the team's approach to the draft. In the penultimate episode, they go inside the Kings' war room and get a look at the normally private discussions between Kings' owner Vivek Ranadivé, D'Alessandro and other team executives on which direction the team will go with their selection.
Sacramento took a unique approach to this year's draft, regarded by many as the deepest in years. They did some crowdsourcing, enlisting the services of nine of the brightest amateur minds in NBA analytics in the hope of nailing their first-round selection. Without a second-round pick, the team's margin for error was even slimmer.
"With all the data that's out there now, the challenge is in processing it," D'Alessandro explains in the video, "Our crowd that we put together is processing it as a group. As they go through their process, it's changing the way we feel about some of the picks and about our own team."
"I think the ideal situation is when your old-school scout watches a player and has a sense of what he's doing, and then you go to your analytics people and those numbers back it up," added former NBA player and current Kings advisor Chris Mullin.
Sacramento hoped that their analytics team could help narrow down some of the options, if not confirm the front office's evaluations of some of the top players. In short, the metrics were supposed to validate the eye test.
For Stauskas, both methods of evaluation were eye-popping. He sizzled through his sophomore season, shooting 47 percent from the field while more than doubling his assist total on his way to conference player of the year honors. Sacramento's analytics team lauded Stauskas for his distribution rate, economical efficiency, ability to create his own shot off the dribble and of course his lethal accuracy beyond the arc.
Perhaps the Kings weren't the only team that turned to analytics as a pre-draft-aid. As draft day came closer and more and more teams met with him in person, Stauskas saw his stock rise.
"In the workouts and interviews I was really showing the kind of person and basketball player I am," he said.
While some clubs moved Stauskas up their draft boards late in the process, Sacramento was bullish on him from the get-go.
"(Coach Mike Malone) was telling me that all season long I was his number one target, the guy he wanted to draft," said Stauskas, "It's going to be a lot of fun to pick his brain and get working."
Ranadivé corroborated Malone's story.
"Even before we began this process, going back to last season, Coach and I would talk late at night, and I would say 'who do you really like in this draft?', and he would say 'I really like this kid from Michigan," recounted Ranadivé, "He's a winner."
The Sacramento brain trust pinpointed certain areas where their team needed to improve -- most urgently, three-point shooting -- and determined that Stauskas could help them plug nearly every hole.
"Shooting, passing, ball-handling, creativity; I think Nik Stauskas brings a lot to the table," said Malone at the team's introductory press conference.
In the minds of Kings executives, Stauskas has only scratched the surface.
"I think he's only going to get better," continued Malone, "Talking with the coaching staff at Michigan and Coach Beilien, they feel he has only reached the beginning of that potential we all think he has."
Stauskas says returning to Michigan for his sophomore season helped him experience growth in all areas of his life, beginning on the court.
"Reading the floor and reading defenses, that's one thing that Coach Beilein has always been big on," said Stauskas, "We watch a lot of film at Michigan because that's the best way to learn those things."
Stauskas says Beilein is "exceptional at a number of things" and has "a great eye for talent." He has praised the coaching staff at Michigan in the past for teaching him so much about the game.
"Within the first week, I learned more there than I had learned in my whole life playing basketball," Stauskas told BTN before the draft.
Stauskas made leaps and bounds in his physical game but also improved dramatically from a mental standpoint.
"Especially being able to meet with (U-M associate athletic director) Greg Harden," he noted, "I like to label him as my mental coach more than anything, and this last year he really helped me mature."
Kings front-office officials were impressed with Stauskas' growth on and off the court from his freshman year to his sophomore season, and when their suspicions of even loftier potential were corroborated by Beilein, Sacramento's comfort with Stauskas grew.
During the video, when it became apparent that Stauskas would be available at No. 8, the once-growing consensus in the Sacramento war room becomes a unanimous one.
"For me, it's Stauskas," said Ranadivé with restrained excitement.
"I say Stauskas," echoed D'Alessandro.
The rest of the room exchanged glances, nodding or murmuring in approval without a single voice in dissent. Whispers and moments of tension gave way to handshakes, hugs and fist bumps. The Kings had their man.
Back at the draft, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver made it official, and in a moment of perfect symmetry, another round of handshakes, hugs and fist bumps was exchanged.
This time it was Stauskas making the rounds; he hugged his mother Ruta and launched into a well-rehearsed handshake with his father Paul, ending in both throwing up his trademark three-goggles. Then he came in for a swooping hug with Coach Beilein, who had joined the Stauskas party in Brooklyn.
"It was really cool," he later said of his draft experience, "We had a lot of fun just sharing that moment together."
Stauskas took the stage donning a navy blue suit with thin white squares stitched into the pattern and sporting a pink patterned tie outside his white shirt. The getup later placed him on several "best-dressed" lists, including atop a BTN.com poll, but it drew its share of criticisms as well. Never one to worry about ruffling some feathers, Stauskas happily claimed ownership for the design.
"That was all me," he later admitted, "I had a stylist that I worked with, but I didn't want to go in there with a plain suit. I wanted to be a little different and make a bit of a splash."
Even with regard to his suit, Stauskas refuses to fit the mold.
Sacramento likes him that way, and the organization may see him as a mold-breaking guard. They have expressed interest in seeing Stauskas on the court at the same time with last year's first-round pick, Ben McLeMore, who is also listed as a shooting guard.
While he believes that he will experience the most success at the pro level playing the two, Stauskas is open to doing whatever will be best for the team. No doubt his experience in Beilein's system will once again come in handy.
"I'm prepared to play there if that's what's needed," he said, "At Michigan, a lot of times we had four guards out on the court, so we got really used to playing on the perimeter and having a lot of guards out there."
"I think that's the way the NBA is heading," added Stauskas in reference to Beilein's heavy employment of ball-screen action, "Having the success I did last year off ball screens, I feel it will transfer very well to the next level."
Before he ever arrived in Ann Arbor, Nik Stauskas had been whittling away at his own checklist, a long-reaching series of goals that would crescendo into an NBA career if all went as planned. One-by-one, he made them happen until his list grew short and his trophy case grew full.
Even though it had been his dream since childhood, the reality of being chosen in the draft didn't really set in on him until he had some time to reflect during his flight to Sacramento.
"That's where it really hit me," said Stauskas, "This is a dream come true for me."
While on the plane, Stauskas crafted a message to Kings fans on Twitter, promising that he wouldn't grow complacent just because he had achieved a life-long goal.
"I just want people to know that I'm not satisfied just being an NBA player," said Stauskas, "Now that I'm here I have to re-evaluate things and make new goals."
The long flight also gave Stauskas an opportunity to watch the video series Grantland had put together, and it only made him more excited to get started with his new team.
"It just really made me smile," he said of the team's genuine excitement to add him to their organization, "It was an awesome feeling watching that."
"This is what I've worked hard for," he continued, "I worked hard to put myself in this position, where a team would fall in love with me and want me on their roster."
Not just the team, but the fan base, too. Energetic Sacramento fans awaited Stauskas at the airport ...
...and downtown, eager to get a glimpse of their team's newest addition.
"I've never been to Sacramento before," Stauskas remarked before he took the flight to California last week to begin his career as a King.
Time to update that checklist again.
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