It was July 1st, a little after midnight, when Nik Stauskas’ fiance Alex turned to him with a curious query.
“Are you nervous?” she asked, as Stauskas brushed his teeth.
The couple had been enjoying a quiet vacation at Alex’s family beach house in Avalon, New Jersey, just as NBA free agency opened and Stauskas, for the first time in his professional life, was in control of his own destiny. After spending three turbulent seasons languishing on some of the most dysfunctional and downtrodden teams in NBA history, during which his lifelong love of basketball had been tested, Stauskas would finally be given the chance to join a winner, reigniting his joy for the game.
But he figured this chance would have to wait a few days. The NBA’s most coveted player, LeBron James, was on the market and Stauskas figured players like him, those who had been cast aside and were looking to resurrect their careers, would have to wait for the dominoes of James’ decision to fall. Stauskas expected it to take a good six or seven days for suitors to come calling.
So when Alex asked about his nerves, Stauskas scoffed.
“Nervous for what?” he replied.
“For where you’re going to end up,” Alex said. “For how this is all going to go.”
“Oh,” Stauskas said. “Not really. I moved away from home when I was 15. So I’ve pretty much been on the move since I was a kid, bouncing from city to city. At the end of the day, it’s going to be another destination, another stop on the road.”
Just as he finished that sentence, at 12:15, Stauskas says his phone started buzzing. It was his agent, Mark Bartelstein, calling with some unexpected news.
“He was like, I have the Blazers on the other line,” Stauskas said. “I need you to talk to them right now.”
Stauskas grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, a city perched just outside Toronto along Lake Ontario. Like most of the kids in his neighborhood, he was supposed to play hockey.
But besides a little street hockey with his buddies, it was never his thing. Instead, when he turned 8, Stauskas discovered basketball and his life was forever changed.
“Immediately, I had such a love for it,” Stauskas said. “I decided I would rather be doing this than anything else. I loved it more than my friends. I loved it more than watching TV or playing video games. I loved it more than anything.”
Before long, his father Paul decided he should nurture this love, so he built a basketball court in the backyard, and Stauskas and his older brother Peter spent virtually all of their free time back there. The stories of some of their exploits have been chronicled on YouTube, but, really, they’re better suited for Disney.
The brothers would play year-round, no matter how cold, how snowy or how rainy the Canadian elements became. They shoveled snow away off the court too many times to count. And when they discovered basketballs suffered in extreme cold, they stowed a portable heater nearby.
“We would heat our hands, we’d heat up the ball,” Stauskas said. “It would get so cold the ball would stop bouncing. So, every five minutes, we’d have to take a break, heat up our hands, heat up the ball, to keep going. We had some good memories out there.”
Peter was three years older, bigger and stronger, so he manhandled Nik in the early years. But the younger Stauskas developed a lethal jumper on those snowy courts and, after leaving home as a sophomore to play at a prep school, he sprouted to 6-foot-6 and developed into a Division I prospect. Stauskas signed with Michigan, playing in the 2013 NCAA Championship Game as a freshman and the Elite Eight as a sophomore, after earning Big 10 Player of the Year honors. In between his two college seasons, back on his home court, Stauskas really put his name — and his shooting prowess — on the map.
His first day back home following his freshman season, Stauskas stepped into the rain on his childhood court and challenged himself to a simple shooting contest: make as many three-pointers as he could in 5 minutes.
Stauskas made his first 46 shots and 70 of 76 overall, a feat captured on video by his father and uploaded to YouTube.
The clip became a sensation when two-time MVP Steph Curry stumbled across it during the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs and tweeted it to his followers, challenging Stauskas to a shooting contest. NCAA rules squashed that, so Stauskas told himself there was only one way to answer Curry’s challenge.
“I feel like it’s only right that it has to happen All-Star Weekend, during the Three Point Contest,” he said. “I have to make it to All-Star Weekend in order to get that face-off.”
After a prolific college career, Stauskas was selected No. 8 overall in the 2014 draft by the Sacramento Kings, and it seemed like he was on his way to earning a chance for that three-point face-off.
But there was a lion-sized problem: The Kings were a chaotic mess. Two months into his rookie season, coach Mike Malone was fired and assistant Ty Corbin was promoted to interim coach. Two months after that, George Karl replaced Corbin. By the end of Stauskas’ rookie season, the Kings had finished with the third-worst record in the Western Conference and Stauskas had played for three coaches.
“It was crazy,” Stauskas said. “I just remember wondering: ‘Is this how it is in the NBA? Is this how it is for everyone?’ I would look at other teams and it looked like they were having so much fun. I’m like, ‘I’m not having that much fun. I wish I could experience that.’”
Things only got worse. The following summer, Stauskas was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, who were in the midst of “The Process.” Stauskas saw an uptick in playing time and production — he averaged 9.5 points, 2.4 assists and shot 37 percent from three-point range in 80 games during his second season with the 76ers — but competed on some historically bad teams. His first year in Philadelphia, the 76ers finished with the second-worst record in NBA history (10-72).
In college, Stauskas grew accustomed to playing in marquee games before sold-out arenas. He feasted off the emotion and the moment. His college highlights don’t just include driving baseline dunks over Florida State defenders, powerful two-handed jams against Northwestern and three-pointer after three-pointer after three-pointer. They also include plenty of passion, complete with celebratory chest-bumping, first-pumping, screaming and flexing.
“When I was coming out of college, my whole career, I was a guy that played off of emotion,” Stauskas said. “My confidence and my swagger came off of emotion. There was nothing more I enjoyed than playing in close games in front of big crowds where everything was on the line. I perform better in those situations. When I got to Philly, I feel like I lost my swagger. It’s hard when you’re down by 25 in the fourth quarter ... to hit a shot and get hyped up about it. It’s hard to play with swagger, because everyone looks at you like, ‘Dude, you’re down 25 points. What are you doing? Why are you talking trash? You look like an idiot?’”
Homes games in Philadelphia were littered with empty seats. And the few fans who did show up often booed.
“It took a lot of the joy out of the game,” Stauskas said. “Part of the reason I play basketball is because I love those big moments, I love the heat of the moment. And I kind of had that taken away over the last four years, playing on the teams I played on. It was really difficult. For me, that’s honestly been the biggest challenge of my NBA career, finding the balance of playing with swagger and confidence — creating my own energy — when it’s not there in an actual game.”
So when Stauskas’ cell phone buzzed a quarter past midnight on July 1, he was excited to hear that a playoff team with an obvious need for shooting and playmaking on its bench was interested.
When news broke that the Portland Trail Blazers had agreed to a deal with Stauskas, he was perhaps best known in Rip City — and the NBA — for his unique nickname: Sauce Castillo.
Stauskas inherited the moniker late in his rookie season in the wildest of ways. During a television broadcast of a meaningless matchup between the lottery-bound Kings and 76ers, every time announcers uttered his name, “Stauskas” was transcribed on closed captioning as “Sauce Castillo.” A notable 76ers fan noticed the gaffe and revealed it on twitter. A day later, #saucecastillo was a trending twitter topic in Sacramento and Stauskas was in negotiations with Musashi Foods for a deal to make and distribute “Sauce Castillo” hot sauce.
“I think it’s funny,” he said. “It happened so randomly that you have to embrace it. I think it’s a cool nickname.”
Of course, Stauskas is looking to become more than a catchy nickname. He signed a one-year prove-it deal with Portland for the veteran minimum, hoping that playing for a winning team would rekindle his love of basketball and that stepping into a defined bench role would boost his basketball stock.
Coach Terry Stotts has placed an emphasis on shooting more three-pointers this season and there appears to be a budding chemistry between Evan Turner, Seth Curry and Stauskas on the Blazers’ second unit. Stauskas has quietly played well throughout camp, perhaps solidifying a spot in the rotation. But while shooting might be Stauskas’ most noted skill, Stauskas says he hates simply standing in the corner to “space the floor” and insists he can offer more, which he teased Sunday night in the Blazers’ first home game of the exhibition season.
Late in the first quarter, Stauskas dribbled through the heart of the Utah Jazz defense, drawing a big man at the hoop, and tossed a pretty pass to Meyers Leonard for a wide open dunk. Then, early in the fourth quarter, Stauskas embarrassed Grayson Allen at the top of the key, breezing by him with a slick crossover dribble and driving unabated to the hoop for a two-handed dunk.
“I can knock down shots,” Stauskas said. “But that’s not how I’m most effective. I’m most effective when I’m making plays and I’m active and I’m being aggressive, when I’m looking to attack and get to the basket. That’s when I feel like I’m playing with confidence and swagger.”
It’s only been a couple weeks, but the Blazers already can tell Sauce is having a little bit of fun.
“It’s good seeing him have a good time,” Jusuf Nurkic said. “He’s a new player, with a new team, and he’s just having fun out there. It’s good.”