ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Nik Stauskas could have been like most Canadian kids and devoted his life to earning a shot at the NHL.
Luckily for John Beilein and the Michigan basketball program, Stauskas went in a different direction.
“I don’t really like hockey. I never really got into it,” Stauskas said. “I just wanted to play basketball.”
So Stauskas put in endless hours perfecting a jump shot instead of a slap shot, and the end result has turned him into one of the biggest weapons on college basketball’s best offense.
“I’m always confident in my shot, no matter where I am and no matter who is guarding me,” Stauskas said. “I’ve spent my whole life working on it in the backyard. Shooting is what I do.”
The rest of the team has noticed.
“Our guys know that if they look for No. 11 (Stauskas), he’s going to give them a chance to pad their assist stats,” Beilein said. “He’s such a pure shooter that we’re all surprised when a 3-pointer doesn’t go in.”
Stauskas, just a freshman, is shooting 53.7 percent on 3-pointers in Michigan’s 15-0 start. Opposing coaches try to come up with unusual defenses to stop him. When the Wolverines faced Central Michigan in their final nonconference game, the Chippewas focused so much on Stauskas in the first half that his teammates scored at will.
“I don’t know what you would call that defense they were playing, but I loved it,” Michigan point guard Trey Burke said. “I couldn’t get the ball to Nik, but everyone else was wide open. They changed back to something more normal at the half.”
Beilein wasn’t about to criticize a fellow coach for his game plan, but he agreed that CMU coach Keno Davis’s respect for Stauskas made things a lot easier for Burke, Glenn Robinson III and the rest of the Wolverines scorers.
“They were really focused on stopping Nik, and they did a great job of that,” Beilein said after the game. “But that opened everything up for Trey, Glenn and everyone else. That’s a good tradeoff for us.”
When Central Michigan went back to a normal defense in the second half, Stauskas hit five consecutive 3-pointers and finished with a 19-point game.
“He’s our automatic sniper,” Michigan shooting guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. said. “Shooting is his life, and he just knocks everything down.”
Although no other team has changed its defense to the same extent that Central Michigan did, Stauskas has been getting blanket coverage ever since opposing coaches received their first looks at him. So far, nothing has worked.
Part of Stauskas’ success comes from the number of weapons around him. He’s in the starting lineup with three future NBA players in Burke, Hardaway and Robinson, and Michigan finally has a post presence with Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary. The Wolverines, who scored a combined 189 points in their first two Big Ten games, are averaging 82 points a game, which ranks seventh in the country through Monday.
It also helps that Stauskas is playing with one of the country’s best point guards. Burke is such a deadly scorer that he forces teams to focus on stopping him and then he’s able to find open teammates while rarely turning the ball over. In Michigan’s last 10 games, Burke is averaging 19.1 points, 7.9 assists and just 1.1 turnovers.
“I know I’ve got a green light to shoot, and I know Trey is going to get me the ball,” Stauskas said. “The rest is just doing what I always do.”
Stauskas has more than a jump shot, though. In Sunday’s blowout of Iowa, when Hawkeye defenders overplayed him to take away his 3-pointers, he put the ball on the floor and drove for a dunk, then did the same thing for a finger-roll on the next possession.
Stauskas’ ability to score at the rim is what makes things hardest on opposing coaches.
“Obviously, he can shoot the ball, but when he gets to the hole like that, it means you can’t just play him for the 3,” North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried said after Stauskas unveiled a behind-the-back dribble and a pump-fake to get himself easy 2-point baskets. “That makes it tougher, especially when you’ve also got to worry about Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.”
Stauskas acknowledges that, although he loves shooting 3s, he knew it was important to put more moves into his arsenal.
“When I drive to the basket or use a pump-fake, it puts some doubt in the opposing players,” Stauskas said. “They can’t just know I’m going to shoot a 3, and that gives me some extra space.”
The package is clearly working. Stauskas has already won three Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards and convinced the student section at the Crisler Center to order a maize-and-blue Canadian flag.
Even if he doesn’t really care about the hockey season starting back up, he’s true to his roots in one way.
“I really like Justin Beiber,” Stauskas said. “He’s a great guy, and his movie was really good.”
Beiber doesn’t get a lot of airtime at Crisler, where Kanye West rules the playlist. But if Stauskas keeps shooting and hitting, he’ll remain popular — even if he starts singing the praises of Celine Dion.