Sitting at 1-28 entering play Tuesday night, the Philadelphia 76ers certainly have nothing to play for but the future. One of the arguments for The Process is it affords young players amble playing time to work out their games at the NBA level. But what if a player has been so bad that he can’t even earn playing time in such an environment? Unfortunately, such is the situation for second-year guard, Nik Stauskas.
It wasn’t too long ago there was rejoicing over the arrival of the man affectionately dubbed Sauce Castillo. Following his offseason acquisition from Sacramento, Stauskas was expected to come in, lock down the starting shooting guard role, and be a prominent piece of a young core moving forward for the Sixers franchise. After an ankle injury cost him summer league, and a stress fracture in his tibia the preseason, expectations were lowered, but it was still largely assumed his role would grow as the season progressed. Instead, it’s been almost exactly the opposite.
Over the past three games, Stauskas has played a high of just 13 minutes. In Philadelphia’s last contest against Cleveland, Stauskas didn’t even get off the bench until the Sixers were down nearly 30 points in the second half. While he hasn’t exactly been lighting it up offensively (28.8% from three on the season), those numbers are better than guys like Jerami Grant or JaKarr Sampson, who haven’t found their way into Brett Brown’s doghouse. Stauskas has also been one of the few Sixers with the ability to get the ball to the basket, and his 12.1 AST% is solid for a secondary ball handler. Really, the fall of Sauce Castillo has more to do with his marginal play on the other end of the court.
It’s no secret that defense was not a strong suit for the former Michigan Wolverine. A DraftExpress report from a little under two years ago stated, “concerns still exist among scouts regarding his lack of upside defensively, due to his unappealing combination of poor length, average frame and mediocre lateral quickness.”
Stauskas himself made some somewhat controversial comments at the beginning of his rookie season in Sacramento on the subject.
“I understand that I’m a rookie and I’m white, so people are going to attack me at all times,” he said. “Just coming out there in the game, I felt it right away.”
A few months into his rookie season, I can confidently say opponents’ eagerness to attack him as nothing to do with Stauskas’ race, and everything to do with his having been a terrible defender. There have been some shocking low-lights, like when Paul George treated Stauskas like some joker on an And-1 mix tape.
We’ve also seen Nik play some terrible pick and roll defense and literally throw his hands up in the air.
The stats back up what the eye test shows, as Stauskas has the 4th-worst defensive rating on the team. The Sixers have their second-best rating defensively when Stauskas is off the court (Jahlil Okafor is first, which is a whole other topic of conversation), and Stauskas is in just the 39th percentile defending ball handlers in the pick-and-roll (avert your eyes from Kendall Marshall’s numbers).
It seems the recent benching has been a long time coming, as the former King’s defense has been a sore spot for coach Brett Brown all season long. Stauskas was initially benched for poor defense over a month ago, with Brown commenting:
“He just happens to be missing shots right now, and it can’t creep into his defense, which is the area that upsets me the most.”
Then, about a week ago, Brett Brown spoke again to Stauskas’ need to concentrate on the defensive end:
“Let [confidence] be generated through defense. Let him think, act, play through defense. It’s not all about you have to make a three. He’s got to be a two-way player.”
The Sixers’ record has been incredibly disappointing this season, but even more so has been the inability of a number of individual players to make any strides in their personal development. Nik Stauskas would be at the front of the line in that regard. For both his sake and that of the team’s, I hope he turns it around on the defensive end. As Frank Sinatra would probably say if he watched this Sixers team, “if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.”