Stauskas steps up his game

While he had always some ability to drive to the hole off a shot-fake, Stauskas worked hard to improve that skill for this season.

Marilyn Indahl/Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike many of Michigan’s student-athletes, Nik Stauskas wasn’t excited about the Winter Classic coming to the Big House.

After all, it combined two of his least favorite things — hockey and cold weather.

That makes him a very unusual Canadian, but since he avoided those things by spending all winter in a basketball gym, the people in Ann Arbor are happy to deal with some slight eccentricities. 

"Can I move to Miami??" Stauskas tweeted during Thursday’s snow. "This weather is horrible!"

When asked if, as an Ontario native, he shouldn’t be used to winter weather, his replay was immediate.

"I’m used to it, but I hate it!"

And while Stauskas loves to tweet, his only comment about the Winter Classic was that, even though he’s not a hockey fan, it was nice to see so many Maple Leaf jerseys in Ann Arbor.

Even growing up outside of Toronto wasn’t enough to sway Stauskas from basketball. He spent summers shooting at an outdoor rim and winters in the gym, playing when there were enough people to play, shooting when no one else was around. That led to YouTube videos where Stauskas would hit endless strings of 3-pointers, and it also led him to Michigan, where he was a gunner on the team that came within one game of a shocking national championship.

This season, though, Stauskas knew he had to do more than just bomb away from the outside. Yes, the Wolverines were returning most of the key players from the team that made it to the title game, but Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. weren’t going to be easy to replace. Burke was the best point guard in the country — possibly the best player — and Hardaway was a phenomenal athlete who could help Michigan score in many different ways.

Then, before the team could even being fall practice, Mitch McGary injured his back. At first, it didn’t appear that the injury would be a major problem, but it never healed properly, and when he tried to play through the pain, he made it worse. That put him on an operating table and meant that the Wolverines now had a third gaping hole in their lineup.

Stauskas knew he didn’t have Burke’s ball-handling skills and he didn’t have McGary’s size, but he might be able to help out with some of the things that Hardaway could do. While he had always some ability to drive to the hole off a shot-fake, he worked hard to improve that skill for this season. 

I knew I had to get better both physically and mentally

Nik Stauskas

"I knew I had to get better both physically and mentally," he said. "I have to be able to do whatever it takes for us to win games. That might be scoring, it might be rebounding or it might be passing, so I need to be able to do all of that."

The hard work paid off, as Stauskas is finding more and more opportunities to drive past a frozen defender for uncontested layups.

"He’s got a great combination," John Beilein said after Stauskas scored 21 points in Tuesday’s win over Penn State. "He can really shoot, but now he drives and he passes. He’s really become a good driver, and that’s huge for us. Teams have to take him seriously on the perimeter, and how he’s taking advantage of that to get to the rim."

There’s another facet to his game, though. Last year, Stauskas spent too much time stationary on both ends of the floor. Not only was he waiting for a 3-point shot that might never come, his defense was not nearly good enough for the Big Ten.

This season, though, that’s changed. No one is going to confuse him for Ohio State defensive ace Aaron Craft, but he’s making guys work for baskets that came all too easy a year ago.

Stauskas isn’t a complete player yet, and he knows that. He’s saying the right things and so far, it has paid off in a greatly improved game. He’ll have to keep working, but there’s one important reason to believe that he will do it.

They keep the heat on in the gym.