AMHERST, Mass.—So many times over the summer, Nik Stauskas fired up YouTube under orders from Brett Brown, searched for early clips of one of the toughest and most cerebral players from those dynastic San Antonio Spurs teams, and marveled at Manu Ginobili's ability to snake into the lane to make the perfect play.
"He was almost slippery out there," Stauskas said late Tuesday morning, after the 76ers finished a shootaround at the Mullins Center here. "That was the thing I noticed more than anything. He would get into the lane, and people would step in front of him, and all of a sudden he would slip by them and finish at the rim and get all kinds of crafty.
"Also, his playmaking ability—he was a great passer. He would get into the lane and throw passes to his teammates and make plays—not to mention he could shoot the ball, too. Just seeing all those different things, that's something I can aspire to."
Gradually, the more Stauskas watched the clips, the more his mind expanded with the possibilities of the NBA player he could and had to become. No longer could he merely stand on the perimeter and consign himself to being a spot-up shooter. In fact, his future at basketball's highest level depended on his doing more.
So just hours before the Sixers announced that Ben Simmons — in a phrase now treated with skepticism when it comes from them — "had undergone successful surgery" on the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, Brown gave a surprising answer to a question about what the Sixers would do without Simmons' ball-handling skills. With guard Jerryd Bayless likely to miss Tuesday's preseason opener against the Boston Celtics, with rookie guard Cat Barber having suffered a right wrist injury Monday at practice, Brown said he might hand off some point-guard-style responsibilities to Stauskas against the Celtics and in games to come.
For all those years that Brown, the Sixers' head coach, was at Gregg Popovich's side in San Antonio, the Spurs had wielded Ginobili in the same way: not as a full-time point guard, but as a playmaker whose adeptness at running the pick-and-roll freed him to create shots for himself and his teammates and made him a giant of international basketball and a surefire inductee into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Stauskas had played a similar style in a similar system at Michigan. There, coach John Beilein had used him frequently in pick-and-roll situations, and at 6-foot-6, Stauskas could either shoot over or zoom past the smaller, slower guards of the Big Ten.
"Obviously, the NBA is a different story," Stauskas said, "and I still haven't adjusted fully like I did in college, but there's no reason why I can't eventually get there."
You have to admire Stauskas' optimism, based on the available evidence. Over his two seasons in the NBA, he had grown passive, his 3-point percentage a ghastly .325, his confidence fading with each front-rimmed jumper. Throughout the offseason, whenever he spoke to Stauskas, Brown challenged him to return for training camp with thicker emotional and physical hides. It was more than getting in the weight room and adding bulk to his body. It was about the understanding and the willingness to put himself in uncomfortable positions on the court, to withstand the hellacious contact that accompanies every drive to the basket. If he wanted to justify, finally, the Sacramento Kings' decision to select him with the No. 8 pick in the 2014 draft, somewhere within himself, Stauskas had to find the same tenaciousness and intelligence that Brown saw from Ginobili every night.
"He's going to have to, or he's not Manu, and we can all just walk away right now," Brown said. "We're all born different ways, and I want him to be Cocky Nik. I want him to have an edge to his game."
But does Stauskas have that edge?
"I know you can extract it," he said. "If people were born with those qualities, it sure helps. You might get to it sooner, but I think we're talking about what confidence does as a launching pad to those other things we're talking about. It's the fuel to it all. You start making shots and making plays, I think there's a bravado and a carryover to everything. We've talked a lot with him about coming back physically—feel good about going shirts and skins. Then you've got a little bounce. You make a shot. Give me the ball. I see all those things being a recipe to producing more cockiness, more swagger."
Nobody mentions Stauskas among the players who are supposed to be here when the Sixers, after all this rebuilding and all those injuries, start to coalesce into a competitive basketball team. His exclusion from that core speaks to how deep a disappointment he has been so far, especially for a lottery pick. In that trade in which Sam Hinkie acquired the Kings' 2018 first-round pick and the right to swap first-round selections with the Kings this year and next year, Stauskas hasn't been much more valuable to the Sixers than the two throw-in veterans who came with him: Carl Landry and Jason Thompson.