Wolters following road less traveled
Bucks rookie guard enjoys hero’s homecoming, challenging intro to NBA
Nate Wolters seems bound and determined to keep taking his exclusivity to higher and higher levels.
The Milwaukee Bucks rookie guard was given a state hero’s homecoming welcome before he even played his first National Basketball Association regular-season game.
A few weeks later, that first game took place in one of the game’s most storied arenas and Wolters responded with nine points and four assists in the Bucks’ 90-83 loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He became one of just five Bucks – and the only one drafted in the second round – to play at least 30 minutes in the first game of his professional career.
With teammates Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour sidelined by injuries, Wolters averaged 32 minutes over his first four pro games. He responded with averages of 9.8 points and 6.5 assists, logged an assist-to-turnover ratio of 26-4 and helped Milwaukee to victories of 105-98 at Boston on Nov. 1 and 109-104 over visiting Cleveland on Nov. 6.
“This hasn’t been what I expected to start my career,” Wolters said. “Coach (Larry) Drew has shown a lot of confidence in me down the stretch. I’m just thankful for the opportunity I’ve been getting. I’m going to try to make the most of it.
“I don’t know what will happen when everyone gets healthy. For right now, I’m just trying to enjoy it and do what I can to give my team a chance to win.”
Drew, the Bucks’ first-year head coach, designated Wolters as a surprise starter in the Bucks’ Oct. 10 exhibition game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The game was the first public event ever staged at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., located 50 miles down U.S. Highway 29 from Brookings, S.D., where Wolters spent the past four years helping put South Dakota State University on the map of Division-I college basketball.
The sellout crowd of 3.250 included a throng of Wolters’ family members and friends.
The experience was quite a thrill for Wolters, who had no idea until game day that he would start. He contributed 10 points, two rebounds and two assists in the Bucks’ 98-89 loss to the Timberwolves.
“The SDSU beat writer from the Sioux Falls paper let me know shortly after I was drafted that the Bucks were going to be playing a preseason game in Sioux Falls, and I was pretty excited,” Wolters said. “It was a lot of fun. I have a lot of good memories in South Dakota.
“One of my best friends, Matt Farb, came in from St. Cloud (Minn.), which is about four hours from Sioux Falls. My parents (Bonnie and Roger) were there, along with my AAU coach, my college coach and a lot of my former teammates. The people of South Dakota support me real well. They don’t have pro sports teams there, so South Dakota State’s kind of the main deal. The people there are really nice. They’ve been awesome to me."
Wolters’ exclusivity weighed in on a much smaller scale just four years ago.
During Wolters’ senior season at St. Cloud (Minn.) Tech High School in 2008-09, he became the Tigers’ all-time leading scorer and was named to the St. Paul Pioneer Press all-state first team. But he probably would have fit into a phone booth with the scant number of Division-I college coaches who were recruiting him.
Wolters’ college choice was South Dakota State University, where the basketball program had only achieved Division-I status in 2004 and didn’t become eligible for the NCAA Tournament until 2009.
Wolters made 11 starts and was named to the Summit League All-Newcomer Team during his freshman season.
“In my freshman year, our attendance wasn’t great,” Wolters recalled. “A lot of people were wishing the program had stayed in Division II, because it had been a power in Division II (even winning an NCAA College Division championship in 1963). People weren't really fond of going Division I when the program wasn’t having any success.
“Once we started winning a little bit, the fans really started rallying around us. We started getting sellouts for games. It was pretty cool to watch.”
Wolters not only won a starting role as a sophomore, but led the team with an average of 19.5 points per game, 188 assists and 41 steals became the first Jackrabbit ever to be named First-Team All-Summit League.
Wolters duplicated that selection twice, averaging 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and with 5.9 assists as a junior and 22.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists as a senior.
More importantly to Wolters, the 6-foot-4-inch point guard helped lead SDSU into a bold new frontier.
“The school made the NCAA tournament for the first time ever in my junior year and we made it again in my senior year,” Wolters said. “Those two years were an amazing experience. The fans really rallied behind us.
“The program is still fairly new to Division I. It really struggled at first, but the last three or four years, we really turned it around. Coach (Scott) Nagy did a great job of recruiting. We got a good group of guys, a lot of whom are still there.
“Some schools that make the move from Division II to Division I never have success at all. But our program is going in the right direction now, and I’m really proud to have been a small part of it.”
The Jackrabbits began receiving national notice on Dec. 18, 2011, when they rode a 34-point outburst by Wolters to a 92-73 road victory over the University of Washington in Seattle. Three months later, SDSU won the Summit League Tournament to earn its first-ever automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
The Jackrabbits got a game-high 19 points from Wolters and gave highly touted Baylor a run for its money in the teams’ opening-round game before falling to the Bears 68-60.
“You dream of playing in March Madness when you’re a college athlete,” Wolters said. “The fans just loved it. I wish we could have won a couple of games in the tournament, but it went as well as I ever could have hoped for.
“Everywhere we went around town, people knew us. I guess we were kind of like rock stars. People just loved it.”
Wolters believes his career reached a new echelon that season, when he developed a lofty aspiration.
“Honestly, in high school I was pretty under-recruited,” he said. “I only had a couple of Division-I offers. It probably wasn’t until my junior year in college that I thought I had a chance to play in the NBA.
“After our game with Washington -- there were some NBA scouts at the game -- I started getting more notice and it actually became a possibility.”
One year and four days after SDSU’s victory at Washington, the Jackrabbits went into “The Pit” in Albuquerque, N.M., and knocked off the University of New Mexico Lobos, who were ranked 16th in the country at the time. Wolters helped pave the way to the 70-65 stunner with a game-high 28 points.
He set a single-game SDSU scoring record with a 53-point binge against Indiana University Purdue University-Fort Wayne on Feb. 7 – the highest output in the NCAA Division I ranks last season.
The Jackrabbits proceeded to win the Summit League Tournament for a second consecutive season and thereby punch their ticket to a second straight NCAA tourney, where they fell to Michigan 71-56 in the opening round.
Wolters averaged 22.3 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game during his senior campaign, ranking fourth nationally in scoring and 21st in assists.
He became the first player in this century and only the third since the NCAA began keeping assists as an official statistic in 1983-84 to average 20 points, five assists and five rebounds in two separate seasons.
He also became one of just six NCAA players to collect 2,000 points, 600 rebounds and 600 assists in a career, and his 2,363 points represent the highest scoring total of that elite group.
Wolters left SDSU as the Jackrabbits’ all-time leader in points (2,353), assists (663) and free throws made (644). He and teammate Tony Fiegen both played an SDSU record 128 games in their careers, helping their team amass an 85-46 record in their four years at SDSU.
Wolters was named an Associated Press Third-Team All-American – the first player in SDSU history to earn D-I All-American honors – and when he was chosen by the Washington Wizards with the 38th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, he became only the eighth South Dakota State product drafted into the NBA.
The only two players in that group who played an NBA game were Tom Black, a graduate of West Salem (Wis.) High School who was chosen in the second round of the 1964 NBA Draft; and Steve Lingenfelter, an Eau Claire (Wis.) native who was taken by the Washington Bullets iun the second round of the 1981 NBA Draft.
Black didn’t make his NBA debut until 1970, averaging 4.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 71 games with Seattle and Cincinnati during the 1970-71 season. Lingenfelter averaged 1.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in seven games with the Bullets in 1982-83 and .7 points and 1.6 rebounds in three games with the San Antonio Spurs in 1983-84.
Wolters’ draft rights were traded twice on draft night, first to the Philadelphia 76ers and then to the Bucks, in exchange for the draft rights to Ricky Ledo (the 43rd selection) and a future second-round pick.
“It was a pretty wide-open draft, especially in my range,” Wolters said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. Those were a crazy couple of minutes. I didn’t know where I was going.
“But I’m sure glad it was the Milwaukee Bucks.”
Wolters admits that the first week of his NBA rookie season didn’t unfold the way he anticipated.
Knight, who started Milwaukee’s season opener at point guard, played just 1 minute, 45 seconds before leaving with a tweaked hamstring and had not played again through Nov. 7.
As of that date, Ridnour, who came down with back spasms on the morning of the season opener, had not played at all.
So Wolters has been thrust into the NBA fire in a hurry. He drew starting assignments in both his third and fourth games, both at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
“I didn’t have much time to think about it after Brandon (Knight) went down,” he said. “I kind of figured I was going to get some time. I get nervous before every game. The nerves were going a little bit more in that first game, but with every game, I’ve become more comfortable.”
Wolters has enjoyed his first month as an NBA player.
"It's been a lot of fun,” he said. “The coaching staff has been great. The guys have been great. Everyone has helped me out. We have a lot of new guys, so we're trying to come together. For now, we just have to fight that off and play with as much energy as we can.
“We'll get better as we go on."
Going back to its grass-roots beginnings, that is what Nate Wolters’ career has been all about.