(Toronto, On) The 2021 G League season tips off on Feb. 10, and it will take place in the same bubble that the NBA successfully navigated the latter portion of the 2020 season in, when they registered zero positive COVID-19 cases in three months.
The Raptors 905 roster features a unique blend of guys on second chances, and youngsters eager to prove themselves. Dewan Hernandez and Jalen Harris, the Raptors’ most recent second-round picks, will likely play a prominent role this season. Henry Ellenson, Alize Johnson, and Matt Morgan are G League veterans that will contribute solid minutes.
But there’s one name that sticks out above the rest, to the fans and to the other guys in the locker room, and that’s Nik Stauskas. Thanks to the pandemic, the NBA instituted a new rule, informally known as the Jeremy Lin rule.
With it, teams can recruit players that have had over five years of experience to fill up one of their G League roster spots. The Raptors used theirs to bring in Stauskas, a Mississauga boy who will be experiencing a home (away-from-home) coming by playing on the 905 this year.
During the 905’s media availability, Stauskas reiterated how grateful he is that the team has given him this opportunity to showcase his talents, and to get back on the court after undergoing knee surgery last February. After spending a season playing in Europe, though, there was a lot more that played into his decision to sign than just the hometown factor.
“A lot of those teams in Europe [were] starting back up in August, and I just finished getting married. At that point, I felt like I still wasn’t fully recovered from my surgery, and so I just felt like, between the pandemic, between the rehab process, [and] getting married, it just didn’t make sense for me to kind of move myself back overseas and kind of go right back into a season.”
Stauskas called playing in Europe a humbling experience in a career full of them. The Sacramento Kings drafted him eighth overall in 2014, over guys like Zach LaVine, Dario Saric, and T.J. Warren. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive also described him as “big like Klay, shoots like Steph”, which almost certainly added an unnecessary amount of pressure to him at the start of his career.
But Stauskas himself also acknowledged how having so much success at a young age meant he expected things to work out all the time, which made facing adversity, whenever it came his way, that much harder. That, in turn, led to him taking his position as an NBA player for granted a lot of the time.
“There are only 450 [NBA players] in the world and just sometimes going through personal struggles or, when I’m not playing as well as I wanted to, I… really didn’t cherish those moments,” Stauskas said.
Indeed, even though Stauskas wound up playing for five different teams in five years, he was still a fan favourite and earned the beloved moniker “Sauce Castillo.” NBA fans will welcome him back with open arms if he ends up earning another shot.
“The last couple of years for me have just given me a different perspective where, when I do get back, I think, mentally I’ll be a lot more appreciative of the opportunity and I think, in turn, it’ll just make me play that much harder.”
He also said that playing in Europe helped him grow as a person and as a basketball player, and that he’s as hungry as he’s ever been.
Stauskas, and the rest of the 905, will be led by Patrick Mutombo. Even though he has been around the Raptors organization for five years, this will be his first time being a head coach, and he described it as an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I have a passion for leading men, I have a passion for leading people, and when this opportunity came about, it was a no-brainer,” Mutombo said.
While he hopes to lead his team to success in his first year, he’s also aware of the human-interest aspect of being a G League head coach. As someone who has both played and coached in the G League before, and as someone who has “been hopeful and had [his] hope denied”, he’s well aware that this isn’t the path most players envisioned when they decided to go pro.
“Beyond the Xs and Os, these are people. People with dreams, and aspirations, and goals. And I find myself in this leadership position to be able to help them reach those goals and achieve those goals. I’m not imagining. I’ve been where they’ve been… As far as I’m concerned, it’s part of my job to make sure that guys are hopeful as they’re chasing their dream.”
To help him prepare for this new challenge, Mutombo said he watches several games a day and studies the in-game decisions that coaches make. That’s important since, as coach Nurse told him, “those decisions are best made before you have to make them.”
The biggest challenge of this G League season is the truncated schedule. The 905 will be playing 15 games in 24 days, which includes five back-to-backs. According to Mutombo, they only have five practices during the season, so a lot of work needs to get done now. In addition, a lot of guys on Mutombo’s staff are young, and haven’t done a scout before. In terms of accompanying and helping people grow, he’s not just looking out for his players, he’s looking out for his fellow coaches as well.
As the 905 play this season during a pandemic away from their loved ones, while also navigating an uncertain future, the rest of the roster would be best served by taking Stauskas’ words into account.
“Basketball isn’t who I am. It’s just something that I’m good at. The way I think about myself, the way I feel is kind of dependent on how I’m playing and, obviously, if you do that, there’s so many ups and downs throughout the course of the season, it’ll drive you a little bit crazy.
“There’s a lot more to life than just basketball and just always counting your blessings. Just being appreciative of the fact that I have a wife, I’m healthy, I have an amazing family and friends and a great support system.”
Written by David Rouben