As he’s initiated into the NBA, Nate Wolters is tasked with initiating the Bucks offense

Larry Drew coaches up Nate Wolters (Photo credit: Gary Dineen/Bucks.com)
Larry Drew coaches up Nate Wolters (Photo credit: Gary Dineen/Bucks.com)

Nate Wolters doesn’t have the speed to blow by defenders.  He doesn’t have the athleticism needed to finish at the rim against NBA-level defenders. He doesn’t catch anyone’s eye as a lockdown defender. He honed his skills for four years in the basketball hotbed of Brookings, South Dakota. His jump shot (and this is an important distinction before you compare him to any similarly Caucasian, two-time MVP point guards) releases like a little bit like a knuckleball and misses far more often that it goes in.

I don’t get it.

Or perhaps I should say, I didn’t get it.

After watching him for a week in Summer League and a month in the preseason, it was tough to see what GM John Hammond saw in Wolters.  Granted, the price wasn’t steep; Hammond swapped the 43rd pick in the 2013 draft (Ricky Ledo) and a future second-round pick with Philadelphia for Wolters, who the 76ers had nabbed with the 38th overall pick.  But why give up an extra second-rounder for a 22-year-old without a discernible, hat-hanging NBA skill?  Three games into the regular season, though, we may have a glimpse into why Hammond did it.

When early injuries felled both Luke Ridnour and Brandon Knight (who is actually six months younger than Wolters), head coach Larry Drew had little choice but to use his 6’4″ rookie — and the only point guard left on his active roster.  Wolters did not disappoint; in fact, games against New York, Boston, and Toronto have shown that he may be a functional NBA point guard after all.

So what exactly does he do?  A lot of it is the subtle stuff, the things that make players into point guards.  Without falling into the vapid debate about whether or not certain point guards are “pure”, suffice it to say that Nate Wolters really does “run a team”.

“I had to leave him out there. With him out there, I do get more of a sense that we can get organized. He gets us in our game and he’s able to initiate.,” Drew said Saturday night after Wolters led the team in both minutes and assists in a 97-90 loss to the Toronto Raptors.

If a fast break doesn’t present itself, he will patiently wait to set up the halfcourt offense.  He’ll use a Zaza Pachulia pick to create enough space to make a driving lane.  When he does penetrate a defense, he keeps his dribble alive and stays aware of the locations of his spot-up shooters.  (If anyone persists on using the inapt Steve Nash comparison, this is perhaps where it is most apt.)  Wolters also has the makings of a soft, high-arcing floater — a shot that Brandon Jennings desperately needed for years, yet never quite mastered.

When the Knicks tried to throw some traps and full court pressure his way, Wolters survived.  Sure, it had the effect of forcing the Bucks to work with fewer seconds on the shot clock, but it was his first NBA game. And he finished it with just two turnovers.  Against Boston, Wolters spearheaded a 22-point comeback.  In his home opener versus Toronto, he notched ten assists.  For the season, in 95 minutes, he has 20 assists against just four turnovers — a worthy ratio for any point guard, let alone a rookie no-namer.

Of course, the forgotten end of the floor matters too.  A week into the season, the Bucks have defended well enough to force their opponents into misses.  Wolters has been no exception. (The Bucks’ problem, and the reason that they’ve lost two games, is that they yield waaaaay too many second and third chances.)   In an admittedly small sample, Wolters has held opponents to 0.57 points per possession on 30 possessions defended, according to Synergy. Among qualified players, that ranks him 11th among all NBA players.

There is work to be done.  He needs a jump shot to keep defenses honest, and he’ll have to operate in fewer minutes when Ridnour and Knight return.  Teams don’t have a deep scouting report on him yet, and they no doubt soon will.  But despite the limitations, Wolters has a chance to develop into the best facilitator on the team, a player who can create opportunities for the deep cast of shooters that surround him.

If he does that, Nate Wolters will be Big.

Husband. Father. Blogger. Retired mathlete. I covered Larry Sanders' "Three Thumbs Up"…

22 Comments

  1. I just looked up Nash’s shooting percentages from his early seasons, to try and make the argument to myself that it took him some time to acquire a jumper….turns out Nash was pretty solid from the field right from the start. I like Nate’s ability to get in the lane and create. I hope that he learned, probably from Tyson Chandler, that he needs to distribute when he’s down there or use the floater.

    • I think it does take time to acquire a jumper. Kidd, Billups, Calderon, those guys took time. Guys like Rondo and Rubio are still trying to come around. Not that I think he’s on any of those levels. Just using a variety of data points on jumper acquiring.

      I’d like to see more creativity in his passing, maybe even more turnovers because he’s taking chances. I’m into the idea that guys who turn the ball over a lot as younger players turn out to be more creative and better decisions makers as they grow in the league.

  2. Based on what we know today Wolters appears to be our best option at pg (unless Ridnour can shoot like he did in 09-10).

    Pistons blogs are essentially at a consensus in their condemnation of Knight’s pg play during his tenure in Detroit. ‘Awful’, ‘Terrible’, and ‘no court vision’ are words often associated with his play at point. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t improved, Im certainly interested and willing to find out….. But as a realist I’m not going to hold my breath because I know that the knack for pg like the knack for qb is kind of something you have or you don’t after playing competitively for a decade and a half like Knight has. I think the likely best scenario for this roster may be to have Knight start at SG alongside Wolters at PG. Like Mayo, Knight can offer 3 pt shooting, but he is a much better defender, ball handler, transition threat, and he is better at getting to the rim. He may not score as many points per game as Mayo would, but his other intangibles and athletic ability make him a potentially a better fit for this team in my view.

    I would prefer one of these starting 5 line ups:

    Wolters, Knight, Middleton, Ilyasova, Sanders

    or

    Wolters, Knight, Middleton, Ilyasova, Henson

    or

    Wolters, Knight, Middleton, Henson, Sanders

  3. Wolters shot 48% from the field and 38% from three-point range as a senior at SDSU. Once he becomes comfortable finding his shot in the Bucks’ offense, his shot will turn around. It’s like it’s a non-existent part of his game. He just needs to find a rhythm.

    • Fair enough. I’m not saying Nate is an uncoordinated buffoon. But there are tens (or perhaps hundreds) of millions of athletic men of NBA age 6’5″ and under playing basketball. Most of the ones who make it to the NBA are freakishly and uncannily accurate shooters. Nate isn’t at that level yet.

      What does 48% shooting in the Summit League translate to in the NBA game anyway? 45% ? 40% ? Lower?

      • I don’t think you can say – Hard to translate Euroball, D-league, or college performance to the NBA. To early to say he’s a bad shooter, too early too say he’s a good player, just too early.

  4. I was really high on him before the season. I really like his game and I think he’s going to thrive in this league once he adjusts to the speed/size of NBA players and gains more confidence.

  5. The premise you want more turnovers from Wolters is preposterous. One of his staying points at this stage of his career is his current 5 to 1 assist to TO ratio. He doesn’t need to be fancy. He needs to play within his game. So far, he has and it’s been a joy and a surprise to witness. The comment you make about 6’5″ is also preposterous. Jason Kidd was lauded for his size as a pg – he was 6’4″. Most pg’s in the NBA are 6’3″ and under. Wolters is 6’4″. As a pg, 6’4″ is a distinct size advantage. Wolters is big and strong. Because he lacks elite foot speed, he is able to craftily use his strength and size to work his way around defenders. He also has a very special hesitation/shimmy move. Nate has a legitimate shot to stick in this league and that’s exciting.

    • Hesitation move is impressive.

      Very important for pgs – nate can dribble calmly into traffic and maintain all options – pass, shoot, drive, dribble back out, dribble through the baseline and reset. That is how you probe a defense, most players including NBA point guards tend to get frazzled when dribbling into traffic and make hectic decisions. Keeping all options on the table is crucial, Nate is going to have a long NBA career.

  6. I must say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Nate’s demeanor on the court and overall performance, which gives hope that he could be a good player in the NBA. What stuns me is that he hasn’t developed his outside jumpshot to a greater degree. He probably should be in the D-League this season, but might rate 15 minutes or so per game with the Bucks. For him to make it as a longshot, he’s going to have to make his long shots.
    Coincidentally, Ish Smith had 8 assists in 16 minutes last night for the Suns, and I think the Bucks made a huge mistake in trading him. Starting with his play in the summer league, I thought Ish might be a consolation for the loss of Tobias; but then the front office made another trade to make my life as a Bucks fan a little more miserable. And, yes, I will take the bad games with the good for Ish — over the next couple of seasons (as I will for Tobias) — knowing that raising disagreement on this site is cause for rebuke or banishment (that is, being ignored).
    Anyway, apparently one isn’t a real Bucks fan if one questions the brilliance of the front office. Meanwhile the experts at Bucksketball have rarely if ever deigned to address any of my concerns — even indirectly — about such things as our situation at point or the wisdom of bringing in 11 new guys in one season (by comparison, the Packers only have about 3 guys on their entire roster who haven’t spent their entire career with the team, and two of those guys have been around for at least a few seasons). I’m not saying that I’m right about all of these things; what I am saying is that there doesn’t seem to be much room on this site for differences of opinion and diverse discussions. This seems like more of a place for public relations than passionate but respectful back-and-forth.
    To put in a positive note, I think Khris Middleton is a keeper, likely a starter and possibly a star. Just an opinion, though. Oh yeah, as long as I supposedly revel in being a lone wolf, let’s bring in Scott Suggs and Mike Bruesewitz, too, at least for D-League… really and sincerely.

    • I dont think people care if you raise disagreement on this site, but I for one am just tired of you constantly whining about Tobias Harris. If you want to talk for arguments sakes about the Bucks dire need for Ish Smith -___- The guy can not shoot. He’s a career 36% shooter and incapable of spacing the floor. Im not even going to address the fact that you think the Bucks need Mike Bruesewitz in any shape or form.

      Seriously though Tobias Harris is gone, we know why management traded him and they likely screwed that up. However, he is not going to be coming back. You make it seem as if you lost a significant other when it comes to Tobias Harris…well guess what?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVLfzYkM6Lo

      • Bucks screwed up Tobias trade, but lets be honest – are we really convinced that Tobias is that much better this year than Middleton or Giannis? I would say no.

        • Offensively? Yes of course! …BUT Giannis & Middleton could close the gap some given experience and further development, plus I’m hoping that Giannis will pass Harris up offensively by becoming a star point-forward in the league that’ll also allow the Bucks to make better use of B.Knight as a defensive PG w/ a nice outside shoot instead of the team’s primary ball handler. I too side with Sfisch though that the Buck’s front office F’d up pretty badly in-regards to T.Harris b/c if nothing else he could have proved to of been worthy of so much more in a trade he the team wanted to open up playing time for players like K.Middleton & Giannis after T.Harris demonstrated his offensive value to the league similar to what he did in Orlando, which also gets to the point of how blind was the team for not realizing that he should have been on the floor more often? Anyways…

          Defensively? I’d probably side with no.

    • Update: As I understand it, Scott Suggs was a first-round pick in the draft for the D-League, while Mike Bruesewitz is signed with the top team in Israel. I realize these guys are longshots for the NBA, but I enjoy trying to find guys who are obscure but could be a surprise success story in the NBA — a little like finding a treasure in a thrift store.
      Two unheralded guys who are a little more known and have a better chance in the NBA, and who I like a lot, are Ish Smith and Khris Middleton. Again, right or wrong, it’s fun to play scout, even as just an amateur.

      • I agree that it is fun to play scout but in all seriousness what on earth would compel you to think that Mike Bruesewitz deserves a contract from an NBA team?

        • I think Mike Bruesewitz merits consideration from the NBA. In limited minutes, he looked real good in summer league, to me, showing that he can shoot the three, as well as doing a lot of little things to make his team better.
          I admit I may be way off on this one, but I really like the way the Brueser plays. Let’s see how he does overseas. I kinda wonder if the NBA is somewhat lacking in imagination when it comes to finding and developing guys who don’t have great college stats or great physical skills. Anyhow, the fun is finding the longshots; I realize Mike is longer than most, but he sincerely looked promising to me.

  7. I was two years ahead of Wolters in high school and played doubles with him on the tennis team. As a huge basketball fan, I naturally followed his career very closely. I was probably able to catch about 70-80 of his college games through the internet or tv. Needless to say everyone who knew him thought he would succeed in college but I don’t think anybody anticipated him making an NBA roster. All the reports of his modesty and quite demeanor paired with his blue-collar work ethic could not be more true. Nate really lucked out when he sprouted from right under 6″0′ to 6″4′ during college. This obviously helped to play with better competition. Most of his college accomplishments have been well noted and his strengths in his early NBA career are visible. I guess the point of my rant here is to assure that given the chance (so far, so good) he will absolutely be the point guard of the future and could team with Giannis to potentially both be all-stars. Nate’s decision making and floor spacing are elite, and his drive to succeed (which will include improving his shot) is unquestioned. He truly will be the definition of “steal of the draft”. The fact that he was able start his ascension this early will fast-track his development making it even harder to keep him off the floor. A complete 180 from Jennings and in my opinion, close to identical scoring potential once he settles in (dropped 53 in a game last year). I would hope with Ridnour being on an expiring contract and Knight not possessing the same “true” point skills, they continue to let him learn on the job. Couldn’t be a better fit for him in Milwaukee and I think fans of the bucks will be spoiled for the next 10-15 years.

    • Percybowl- Good to hear from a schoolmate of Nate’s. He is my cousin and I have been following his career closely, too. I am delighted with how he has performed in his first 4 games as a pro. One of the most impressive things that I have seen in these games, which has been confirmed by comments by the Bucks coach, is that he brings order and efficiency to the team when he is on the floor. When he is on the bench, the team tends to get chaotic, and more prone to turn the ball over and fall into poor shot selection. He runs the offense effectively, he draws fouls and hits the foul shots. He has hit several floaters and 3’s, and some nice layups. I am sure that, as he gets more and more comfortable with the NBA, and the newness and anxiety of this very new situation melt away, his outside shot will become as consistent as it was in college. Running the offense effectively and contributing 12-15 pts and 5-10 assists a game will make him a valued NBA point guard. In his first 4 games he has already demonstrated the inevitability of this. On top of all that, he is a great, humble and grounded young man of whom our family is very proud. Tonight’s game vs. the Cavs was a really exciting nail-biter! Go Nate! Go Bucks!

  8. Nate is a guy that you can watch a game and in the 4th, look up and see he is close to a triple double on a lot of nights. One of the big downfalls for the Bucks is that despite Mayo providing scoring, he does tend to be a black hole when he gets the ball. The other thing is that Larry Drew needs to do a better job managing when to play Nate. Against the Cavs, the late game comeback happened with Nate on the bench and the Bucks got into their one-on-one sets and were unorganized on both ends of the floor. And as for learning the NBA game, I would ask you to remember the Knicks game. He took it strong against Chandler, got stuffed. Next time, he hit a floater over him. He may be a “game manager”, but that is exactly what the Bucks need instead of pop-a-shot with Mayo jacking 3’s every other time down court.

  9. I’m intrigued by Nate; I’m hopeful about Nate; I’m excited about Nate. The references by friend and family are very encouraging and much appreciated insights, especially about his character. Nate does seem to have an intangible presence on the court that creates order and calm and confidence, and that is good cause for optimism.
    I agree with BigDog (in the comments for the Cavs recap) that we shouldn’t get too crazy, though. Besides developing his shot, we have to see if Nate measures up in the speed/quickness category, which isn’t measured only by a timer but also by how how well he is able to play off his defenders.
    Also, while Nate’s carefulness with the ball is really comforting at this point, we’ll have to see if he develops the craftiness and creativity of an elite point guard while still keeping away from the turnovers.
    It seems like Nate has the natural form to develop his outside shot (same with Ish, by the way), so that is cause for hope, too, along with his apparent work ethic. I think a lot of success in shooting is focusing one’s eyes on the rim, and then almost willing the ball into the basket with a certain determination to score one way or another.
    Bottom line for Nate is cautious optimism. It’s fun to get excited about young guys, but time will tell — and what Nate has shown us so far is that he deserves the time.