Nik Stauskas conquered Big Ten with help from his notebook

March 13, 2013

The secret is hidden in the notebook.

Every few days, Nik Stauskas takes it out and reads it.

And it explains everything, how he became the Big Ten player of the year and led Michigan to its first outright conference championship since 1986 and the No. 1 seed in Big Ten tournament.

That notebook offers a glimpse into something deeper, a look into his confidence and swagger, and a road map on how Stauskas has been transformed at Michigan, going from a backyard, trick-shooting, YouTube phenom to the best player on the best team.

Finding his motivation

After Michigan lost to Louisville in the 2013 NCAA championship game, Stauskas broke down in tears. “I didn’t feel like I played my best,” he said.

Stauskas struggled in last year’s Final Four, shrinking on the biggest stage, missing all five of his shots in the semifinal game against Syracuse and making just one of the two shots he took in the championship game from three-point range.

“I felt like I let my teammates down,” Stauskas said. “The motivation I had after that game, it was at an all-time high. That kicked off my spring and summer.”

After the championship game, he got a notebook and copied down the names and statistics of every player who beat him out for the All-Big Ten freshman team, every player who was named first-team All-Big Ten and every player who was in the conversation for national player of the year.

“If there was a day that I didn’t feel like working out, I would look at that page, at the names of the players who people thought were better than me,” he said, “and that kind of motivated me to keep going and working, where I could be in contention for those kinds of things.”

He was obsessed with proving everybody wrong. He lived with a chip on his shoulder that weighed him down. Basketball defined him, his success and failure. But that wasn’t the transformation. No, that was still the old Nik Stauskas. A player with a weakness.

Stauskas wasn’t invited to several, high-caliber, high-profile summer camps, which was another source of fuel for the fire smoldering in his gut. He worked out like crazy last summer, getting stronger and more explosive. He learned to get rid of the ball quicker, trying to mimic Ray Allen and Steph Curry.

“There were a lot of days when I was aching and I felt like I couldn’t move,” he said. “Throughout the summer, you don’t see yourself getting better.”

But he still had the old mind-set.

A flawed mind-set.

A mentor’s influence

Last fall, Stauskas started meeting with Greg Harden, a counselor in the athletic department who was hired by Bo Schemblechler and has worked with almost every elite athlete at Michigan ever since, from Tom Brady to Desmond Howard.

Harden looked at Stauskas and saw somebody who was driven and confident but had some internal demons. Harden tried to convince Stauskas that he belonged. To stop comparing himself to others and obsessing about the stats of others. To stop being defined by a game.

“The competition is between the ears,” Harden said. “There is no competition except a man against himself. We had to figure out his strengths and his weaknesses and figure out what he has to conquer. The demons that he has to conquer are in his head. If the enemy within can’t beat you, no one can.”

After two meetings with Harden, Stauskas got it. He started to change and mature, and that’s what college is supposed to be about, right? After all the years of training his body to shoot, he was learning how to train his mind.

“I never expected him to be this hungry about the mental game,” Harden said. “He has a burning desire to understand the mental aspects of what it takes to be the best.”

Stauskas became obsessed with becoming mentally stronger. He carried around that notebook, writing down inspirational quotes and thoughts and ideas, and it was forming a different kind of road map, and he developed a different kind of confidence.

“He began capturing everything that anyone ever said to him to give him an edge,” Harden said. “Come on, man, this kid is hungry. … I’m telling you, this kid is serious, and this is not the normal, especially with this generation.”

Harden gave Stauskas books to read, and then Staukas found other books on his own.

Harden had seen this kind of hunger only one other time.

“It’s a rare bird,” Harden said. “The closest to it, I swear to God, was Desmond Howard, one of the best students I ever had.”

Stauskas and Harden still meet at least once a week. Most of the meetings are in an office for about 45 minutes, but sometimes Stauskas meets with Harden right before the game in the arena. “Coach Beilein has given me permission to talk to individuals prior to a game,” Harden said. “Sometimes we’ll have a one on one to reinforce what we talked about and to recapture the vision.”

Expanding his game

Coming out of high school, Stauskas figured he knew everything. “I remember thinking, ‘What else is there to know about basketball?’ ” Stauskas said. “I thought I pretty much knew it all. But after watching film with Coach Beilein, I understand there is so much more to offensive basketball that I didn’t have a clue about.”

Beilein taught Stauskas about spacing, pace and rhythm. And then, Stauskas had to learn how to carry a team after Mitch McGary was injured.

Midway through the season, Stauskas went into a slump when other teams started to defend him by using smaller, quicker players trying to deny him the ball. He stopped shooting, and Michigan lost three games.

Beilein urged him to shoot. “I don’t know what you are waiting for,” Beilein said. “If you come off a screen and they are not in your face, why are you not shooting it?”

Stauskas has unmistakable confidence and toughness. He is willing to take the shot under pressure at the biggest moment, but there are times when he doesn’t shoot enough. It’s like his swagger and confidence are wrapped in a blanket of humility.

“Isn’t that weird?” Harden said. “You see he’s got the swag. At the same time, he has the humility. You see patience. You see him try to stay in the rhythm of the game and you have to convince him to shoot.”

Stauskas finally realized that he had to work harder to get open and he could shoot over smaller players. It was no different than shooting in his backyard with his dad.

“Once I understood that, in the last few weeks, I started getting more shot attempts per game,” he said. “If I can raise up over a point guard, 15 to 20 feet, that’s going to be a really good shot.”

‘Born to lead’

No education is ever complete, and Stauskas is still evolving. He is trying to become more even keeled, to smooth the highs and lows and be more consistent — in the eyes of Harden, more like Brian Griese.

“Last year, there was a huge gap between my highs and lows,” Stauskas said. “You could just read it. I think the biggest thing for me this year was being confident but tightening that gap from when things were going well versus when things weren’t, so people couldn’t tell.

“I’m shooting the same way whether I’m missing or making. I act the same way. Obviously, I still show emotional occasionally, but I think I’m doing a better job of not showing what I’m feeling.”

Like Brady and Howard before him, Stauskas is now giving all kinds of credit for his success to Harden. “He’s helped me a lot,” Stauskas said. “That’s the main reason why I would say I’m a different person and a different player. I have a different kind of confidence now and a different mentality.”

Winners play defense; winners are unselfish; winners lift their teammates; winners are tough; winners care about only one thing.

“You have seen a guy who is totally committed to making sure that he is seen as a total player and not as a trick-shot artist,” Harden said. “You see him making magnificent passes and getting rebounds. It’s crazy. You see a guy who is pushing his teammates and getting them to believe that he believes in them.”

All of this was inside Stauskas from the start. Beilein has an uncanny knack to see potential and toughness in players who lurk under the radar.

And then, he brings it out of them.

“Now, you see him buying into Coach Beilein’s philosophies and approach to the game,” Harden said. “You seem him evolving into a complete artist. Now, you see him understanding the game, the rhythm of the game. You see him playing defense. He’s playing defense! So, yeah, I’ve seen some changes.

“This kid was born to lead. He was born to be unique. He’s going to be amazing no matter what he does. You see it paying off. He was no longer obsessed with being the player of the year. He was obsessed with being the best that he could be and being the best teammate.”

Instead of focusing on winning an award, Stauskas took a different path. He chased a championship, and the awards followed in due time.

That’s the secret in that notebook.

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