Nik Stauskas made his preseason debut for the Sacramento Kings on Sunday, and while the No. 8 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft made an impression with his shooting from the 3-point line, he also did so by shooting from the hip.
While he scored 12 points on 4 for 8 shooting (2 for 4 from 3-point range) in front of a friendly Canadian crowd in Vancouver, the Ontario-born-and-bred Stauskas admitted to feeling a bit nervous in his first NBA action; it showed at times, as the former Michigan Wolverine committed four turnovers and four fouls in his 26 minutes of work off the Sacramento bench. After the Kings' 99-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors, though, Stauskas offered another plain-and-simple admission, according to Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee:
“It helped just hearing the love that I had from the crowd and seeing my family in the stands,” Stauskas said. “It was cool.” [...]
The former Michigan star said nothing surprised him about his debut.
“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.”
This is, of course, not exactly the kind of thing that you can exactly review on the videotape. ("Well, Jim, you can see that as Lou Williams comes off the screen, he recognizes he's one-on-one with a Caucasian, so he takes it right to the tin.")
It's likely that the "rookie" part of the equation had more to do with Stauskas getting targeted on the defensive end than the color of his skin. Opposing vets are just about always going to make first-year players prove they can handle the grown man's game rather than simply take it on faith, after all. As Eric Koreen of The National Post noted, Stauskas "frequently got caught up in a web of Raptors screens" and was lit up by third-year swingman Terrence Ross "for eight quick points in the second quarter, including a dunk that was a result of a poor pass from Stauskas."
It's also worth remembering that while he showed good size, ball-handling ability and athleticism to go with his dead-eye stroke at Michigan, Stauskas didn't exactly burnish his defensive reputation at the NCAA level. After reviewing his college tape, many scouting breakdowns pegged Stauskas as a prospective defensive liability in the pros for a number of reasons — subpar foot speed, unremarkable wingspan, poor awareness when navigating screens and tracking his man off the ball, tendency toward poor closeouts, struggles at stalling penetration at the perimeter, etc.
It's a sound bet that all those notes have made their way into advance reports across the league, and Raptors head coach Dwane Casey knows full well how to find and exploit weak links in the opposition, even in comparatively meaningless preseason affairs. Besides, it's not like white players are the only ones who suffer from any of those shortcomings.
And yet, there's an element of Stauskas' assessment of the way he's looked at that's almost certainly right. It's a size-you-up evaluation seen on courts in every city and laid out by Justice B. Hill in his SB Nation Longform piece about James Reed, a white ballplayer from Gas City, Ind., who spent a formative year playing college ball at historically black Morgan State University:
Basketball is basketball. A player has game or he doesn't — there is no ethnicity thing to it, really. All James Reed needed to do was to show he had some game. He didn't need to be the next Larry Bird or Steve Alford; no one expected him to be. Reed could shoot, which was why Coach [Butch] Beard had given him a scholarship, and that's what he needed to do.
Still, Reed's teammates wanted proof. So before the start of the season, when they all played unorganized pick-up games and one-on-one, they would sneak a black student into the gym to test Reed. "Everybody wanted to play the white kid," remembered one teammate.
One after another came in and lost to Reed, and his teammates soon found humor in seeing him win time and time again.
In an overall, official sense, no, there's no racial or ethnic differentiation or discrimination. Pick your preferred cliche: If you can play, you can play; game respects game; and so on. But as basketball has changed from a sport played primarily by white people to a sport played primarily by black people over the last few decades, and as the NBA has become a predominantly black league — 77 percent of all NBA players last season were African-American, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport's 2014 Racial and Gender Report Card — the burden of proof that you can play and that you do have game has shifted somewhat.
This isn't breaking news, of course. It was a bubbling topic of conversation all the way back in 1997, when the Washington Post ran a feature under the headline, "Race Reversal: Whites in NBA Face Ironic Twist on Diversity," in which "some white players talked of being anonymous pros who can't get into competitive summer pick-up games in black neighborhoods because no one will choose them," among other perceived slights:
If black players sometimes believe their careers are confined to the court, white players sometimes feel their on-court success is hampered by tough-to-beat stereotypes.
"Oh, yeah," says Rex Walters, a 6-3 guard with Philadelphia. "The perception is different of a white guy. The first thing you think of with Rex Walters is I'm a shooter."
The Bullets' Tim Legler, who won the league's three-point contest at the All-Star Game, can definitely shoot the ball. But the rap on Legler indeed on most white guards "automatically from Day 1," he says is that he's not quick enough, a defensive liability. "You can stop your man nine times in a row and if on the 10th time your man gets around you and dunks on you, you're too slow," he explains. "It's a form of labeling that goes around in the league."
Legler echoed his stance years later, after his playing career had ended and he'd become an NBA analyst at ESPN, telling then-WaPo scribe Michael Wilbon, "For a white player to succeed in basketball, he's got to have a backbone. He's got to have that competitive mentality and play with a chip on his shoulder."
That doesn't make him different from black players, of course — or Asian players, or Spanish players, or players of any other racial or ethnic background. You don't get and keep a job in the best, most competitive basketball league in the world without having both talent and drive, although how much of each you've got obviously varies from individual to individual.
But just as there can be differences in the way scouts evaluate black and white players and writers write about black and white players, there can be differences in the way players themselves look at black and white players. From playgrounds through AAU to the NBA, "Everybody wanted to play the white kid" has been an understood and unspoken truth for long enough that the only really surprising part about this is that Stauskas actually said it.
Whether opponents are going to attack him because he's a rookie, because he's white, because of some combination of both or for another reason entirely, Stauskas' task is clear. He must respond to every challenge, prove he can hold up defensively, knock down enough shots and do enough table-setting with the ball in his hands to earn playing time on a Kings team that already features 2013 lottery pick Ben McLemore at the two-guard spot.
"This is professional basketball," Stauskas said after Sunday's game, according to Israel Fehr of Y! Canadian brother blog Eh Game. "Everyone's competing for minutes, everyone's competing for a job. When we're in practice we go at each other. It's all about competition."
Well, at least we know he's got the "competitive mentality" thing down.
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