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.