Stanford is currently sitting in a do-or-die situation as they face their last three games of the season. The Cardinal’s NCAA tournament aspirations are fully dependent on executing in this stretch.
It’s been quite the rollercoaster ride for Cardinal basketball. The team raced out to a 6-2 conference start en route to an impressive 15-5 overall record at the end of January. Some of that momentum has now withered away and the recent slump of games means Stanford has some work to do to fulfill their hopes of making it onto a March Madness bracket.
The most stable Cardinal player this season has far and away been Stefan Nastic. The fifth-year center from Ontario has started every game and given Stanford a comforting consistency (at least when he’s not in foul trouble). Though he’s not the most imposing, Nastic is a good basketball player. Stanford is in dire need of good ball right now and can lean on him in the twilight of the season.
Nastic opens up additional options to complement Stanford’s two stars, Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown. The offense runs through the perimeter, but Stanford has had trouble with over-aggressive defenses in its past six games. Opponents are forcing the guards toward the baseline on the pick-and-roll, where they can double without compromising the weak side.
Nastic’s high screening can alleviate some pressure from the perimeter. He’s smart enough to recognize the double team and floats towards open space, typically near the baseline. From there, the weak-side post defender is forced to choose between the third perimeter player and Nastic. Stefan can pick and pop or drive the lane if no help comes to cut him off.
In addition, an underrated part of Nastic’s game is his passing ability. He’s no Marc Gasol, but Stefan is willing and capable of finding the open man quickly as the defense is scrambling. His vision has progressed tremendously since last year: he has dished out 36 assists this season, good for third on the team.
The big man can also score in the post, though not in a traditional way for a center. His go-to move is a running hook, which he loves to execute towards the middle of the paint. Still, Nastic lacks a complete arsenal of post moves, which has become apparent at times when the Stanford offense goes cold and feeds him in desperate search of a bucket. He’s shooting 49.3 percent from the rim, below average for starting centers.
Even so, he’s skilled enough to exploit mismatches against smaller players. He’s not very explosive, but finishes well through contact and shoots 71.7 percent from the charity stripe.
What Nastic lacks in offensive prowess, he more than makes up for with his defensive presence. He has a great grasp on team concepts and rotates on time against dribble penetrations. He guards the pick and roll relatively well for a big man, shuffling his feet to stay in front of the drive.
At the rim, Nastic is elite. He has accrued a team-high 27 blocks going into this week thanks to his superb positioning. He’s great at staying on his feet and not biting on pump-fakes. He avoids reaching and stays vertical when he challenges anything close to the hoop. His 6-foot-11, 250-pound frame makes it hard for other bigs to bully him, and opponents finish at a .462 clip when he’s five feet from the rim.
He could still improve some of his defensive principles (which is saying a lot). At times, he gets caught upright, which opens up opportunities for skilled bigs to blow by with him a good first step. This is where his biggest problem lies: He racks up fouls when he’s dragged away from the rim, and Stanford has had depth issues as Reid Travis works his way back from injury.
He has the capacity to defend well in isolation away from the rim if he works on maintaining a solid stance at all times. That will come in handy against the quicker fours in the Pac-12 come tournament time. It will also help him stay on the court, where Stanford needs him most.
In short, basketball is much more than star power. There are plenty of skills that translate to success, and Nastic has shown that every game this season. He’s not exploding for 35 points anytime soon; still, the Cardinal can ride their rollercoaster into the amusement park in March with his rock-solid game.
Contact Irving Rodriguez at irodriguez ‘at’ stanford.edu.