MORE THAN an aggressive defender or even an injury, lack of confidence often is the biggest enemy for a struggling player.
Nik Stauskas will readily admit that he is often his own worst enemy. The struggles he faces usually aren't due to the techniques of his jump shot or a lack of effort, but mostly because he allows doubt to creep into his mind about his game. When that happens, he settles. He becomes less active at the offensive end, simply looking for an open shot on the perimeter, usually behind the three-point line. A miss from there 70 percent of the time isn't unexpected, so that becomes sort of an easy way out. A drive to the basket could be far more taxing to the mind if it ends up being a blocked shot or a miss from close range.
Stauskas came into the league with the reputation of a sharpshooter. Following his Big Ten player of the year performance in his sophomore season, Stauskas was gobbled up by the Sacramento Kings with the eighth pick of the 2014 draft.
The Toronto native's confidence level was at an all-time high, but it quickly turned south during his first season, which was littered with DNP-CDs (did not play-coach's decision) and missed shots (36.5 percent overall, 32.2 percent from three). In addition, the Kings were in chaos - Stauskas played for three coaches that season.
The move to the Sixers the next season via trade seemed to be the perfect remedy for the 6-6 swingman, as Philadelphia was/is the land of opportunity. Stauskas started last season well, scoring in double figures in his first five games for a 14.6 average. But his next 11 games proved troubling, as Stauskas made just 13 of his 50 three-point attempts and the team fell to 0-18 (Stauskas missed two games). Any optimism that Stauskas brought from Sacramento disappeared as quickly as his jumper.
Brett Brown never saw the Michigan product as simply a shooter. During his time with the Wolverines, Stauskas demonstrated an ability to take the ball to the basket and finish strong. His sophomore year, Stauskas went to the foul line close to six times a game, proving his ability to draw contact. Brown has talked since training camp of his desire for Stauskas to play with a swagger, a toughness. When that was accomplished, confidence would surely follow.
Stauskas has shown all of that of late, having scored in double figures in each of the last six games, averaging 14.5 while hitting 15 of his last 28 three-point attempts (53.6 percent). During Saturday's 120-105 victory over visiting Phoenix, Stauskas shot 8-for-9 (5-for-6 from three) and scored 21 points. Again, he came off the bench, which is most likely a role that will best suit him throughout his career. If he can prove to be a valuable scorer as a sub, it could prove to be a big boost for the Sixers in their rebuild.
"A lot of times all it is, is that you need to see a couple of shots go in and the basket starts getting bigger and your confidence starts to grow," Stauskas said. "Once I was able to put together a few solid offensive games I kind of just try to build off of that and keep going with it. Now it's just one of those things where I'm enjoying myself again, I'm having fun out there, and I think that's when I'm most effective, when I'm having fun and, like coach Brown says, being a little bit cocky and playing with swagger. That's when I feel like I'm at my best.
"(Saturday) most of my shots came from outside the three, but if you look throughout this season I feel like a lot of my stuff has been going to the rim. That's where I feel like I can be tricky for people to guard, sometimes, when I have both of them going. When I have the three going and am able to get to the basket, the defense kind of doesn't know how to play me. They don't want to close out too hard because they know that I'm going to go by them, but they also don't want to close out short because they know I can hit that three. That's the kind of game I've tried to build for myself over the last couple of years, and I'm glad it's just kind of coming together right now."
The sample sizes have been too small during his three seasons to know what kind of player Stauskas can become. When his confidence is as high as it is right now, however, perhaps a strong spark off the bench will be how he is defined.
"If we go on a 100 percent type of compass to judge it, (confidence) is 95 percent of his world," Brown said. "When he's got confidence, it all spins off from that. I think he's attacking. I think he's shooting the ball freely and I think it carries over to defense and it carries over to him feeling good about himself."
Following a knee procedure in early October, center Nerlens Noel had spent much of his time recovering in Alabama. He returned here this weekend and was in the Sixers' practice facility on Sunday. Though still "at least a few weeks away" from returning to basketball activities, Noel watched tape with the team and worked with the training staff.
"We want him to come into this and draw his own line into the sand and reclaim minutes that he will want," Brett Brown said. "This is going to be on a deserve basis. We have a lot of people at that spot. We will help him. I will coach him. I will put him in an environment where he can succeed and get him back in shape and integrate him with the team. And then the team will tell me who is on the floor and who isn't. Those things sort of rule my day, rule his day, and have been completely transparent and declared to him with private meetings that he and I have had."
The Sixers listed Joel Embiid as questionable on Saturday with an ankle sprain he suffered in Minnesota on Thursday. Embiid did indeed play Saturday against Phoenix and deposited 26 points in just over 20 minutes. The 7-2 center sat out practice on Sunday, partly due to his normal recovery schedule from two foot surgeries, partly due to the ankle. The team listed him as probable for Monday's game against visiting Miami . . . Jerryd Bayless, who hasn't played this season due to ligament trouble in his left wrist, did some drills but was not a full participant in practice. His debut would still seem to be, as the Eagles like to say, on a week-to-week basis.