Things were getting a little dicey for Nate Wolters as he moved toward his second month of employment in the NBA. First, teammate and fellow point guard Luke Ridnour returned from injury, then so did Brandon Knight. After averaging 30.8 minutes per game in his first ten games with the Milwaukee Bucks, Wolters saw his minutes dwindle. Headed into last Friday night’s game in Washington, he had been saddled with three straight games of “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision.”
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the team changed course.
Before the game, head coach Larry Drew spoke on the topic of finding playing time for Wolters.
“It’s hard. We have three point guards. Nate has done a phenomenal job for us, and one of the topics of discussion has been finding some minutes for him. Not only does he deserve it, but a big part of his growth — very similar to Giannis’ — is being out on the floor. It’s going to be my job to find some minutes for him, and I’ll do that.” [emphasis added]
Drew backed up his vow, using Wolters as his primary backup point guard for 17 minutes against the Wizards and 11 minutes against the Nets.
But it’s that use of the phrase “one of the topics of discussion” that hints at so much more then just a coach making a tweak to his rotation.
Forget whether or not it is good for his development, Wolters has earned the right to play. Thanks to the boon in NBA statistics compilation and presentation, there are even more ways to judge Wolters’ abilities. And nearly all of them — save for the shooting numbers — say that he’s playing well.
1) Points per 100 possessions: When Nate is on the court, the Bucks score 98.0 points per 100 possessions and yield 98.2. While the net of -0.2 points per 100 possessions isn’t world-beating, it is the best mark on the Bucks. (For reference’s sake, Luke Ridnour’s comparable numbers are 86.5/110.8/-24.3.)
2) Team on/off field goal percentage: Nate himself may not be ripping the twine, but if his teammates are, does it matter? With Wolters running the offense, the Bucks have hit 42.7% of their shots. When he’s on the bench, they make 41.3%. Is it fair to infer that his ability to set teammates up for their shots is more than making up for the inaccuracies of his own?
3) Hockey assists: Wolters has made the “pass before the pass that sets up a basket” 1.7 times per game this season, which ranks him fourth among NBA players. Of the top 18 players in this category, Wolters is the only one averaging fewer than 30 minutes per game.
4) Assist-to-turnover ratio: Nate has averaged 3.58 assists for every turnover that he has had. Among point guards playing 20 or more minutes per game, Wolters’s assist-to-turnover ratio ranks third behind Chris Paul (4.51) and Louis Williams (4.00).
5) DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE: This set of stats may be the most important. According to Synergy (as of the morning of Dec. 9) here are Wolters’ numbers on the defensive end:
So far, so good.
Among the 360 or so players who have defended enough possessions to qualify, Wolters has the 27th-best points per possession allowed in the league . Opponents defended by him are shooting 29%. He’s using his 6’4″ frame to get out and contest shots, and he’s just quick enough to lean in and bother a point guard who dribbles, pulls up and tries to sneak a jumper over him.
Defense is at least half the game, and Nate Wolters is playing it very, very well.
If we take Larry Drew’s words at face value — “one of the topics of discussion” — then he is talking to someone, probably more than one person, about who plays and who doesn’t play. Perhaps it’s his assistant coaches. Perhaps it’s GM John Hammond and Assistant GM David Morway. Maybe — or even likely — it’s a mix of both. Regardless, it’s a tip that the Bucks are making a paradigm shift in the right direction.
But with a 4-16 record, it’s hard to tell if the Bucks have truly reformed their ways, or if the reality of their current situation is so stark that they can’t possibly hope to bail out this sinking campaign. (They’re 5.0 games out of the 8 seed.) On the other hand, combined with the fact that the team passed on acquiring Rudy Gay, this group conversation that ended with Wolters again playing is a sign the team wants to rebuild with the young players they have now and the even younger players they may soon draft.
If so, good on them for that.