Posted Feb 14, 2013 12:28 PM
Because he plays at one of college basketball's more remote outposts, South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters occasionally gets lost amid a barrage of televised games, forgotten in conversations about the game's best point guards and pushed to the background by higher-profile players with seemingly better NBA Draft resumes.
Every now and again, he reminds people he's still out there. One of those reminders came last week.
After Wolters scored 53 points in a game at Fort Wayne, the Twitterverse immediately lit up with praise from the college hoops media. "Nate the Great," tweeted CBSsports.com's Jeff Goodman. "The best player you never heard of," wrote USA Today.
Two days later, Wolters followed that performance with 36 points against a considerably tougher opponent, Summit League power Oakland, and suddenly the 6-foot-4 senior was back in the public consciousness.
Not that Wolters was trying to draw attention. He's much too unassuming for that. Last week was just another example of Wolters doing what he does. He had never erupted for 50-plus points or tossed in nine 3-pointers in a game before. But the last three seasons, in addition to dominating the Summit, he's built an impressive list of standout performances against power conference teams: 25 points and nine assists in a win at Iowa; 34 points, seven assists, no turnovers in a win at Washington; 28 points, seven assists, five rebounds in a win at New Mexico; 30 points, three assists, three steals in a narrow loss to Alabama.
It was after that jaw-dropping effort at Washington, in December 2011, that Wolters first started noticing the NBA scouts who began turning up at games.
"The NBA was something I never really thought about," Wolters said. "I wanted to keep playing basketball after college, but I thought it would be overseas. After the Washington game, it seemed like the scouts got a little more interested. That took me by surprise."
Wolters has underestimated his ability before, but so has just about everybody else. As a senior at St. Cloud (Minn.) Tech in 2009, he was all but ignored by Division I schools. There wasn't much demand for a shooting guard with a funky-looking jumper and questionable athletic ability.
"After my sophomore year of high school, my goal was to play Division II basketball," Wolters said. "In Minnesota, there are a lot of DII schools, and I thought I'd end up at one of them. I honestly didn't know what level I was good enough to play at."
Credit an assistant coach at one of those Division II schools with being astute enough. Austin Hansen was working at Minnesota State-Mankato and thought he was going to get a steal by recruiting Wolters as a point guard. But on the same day he was set to offer Wolters a scholarship, he got a phone call from his old college coach, South Dakota State's Scott Nagy, asking if he would be interested in moving up to Division I.
Nagy couldn't have known at the time how good a hire that would be. Hansen jumped at the chance to rejoin Nagy. And he knew about this kid that no other Division I school wanted who just might turn into a decent point guard.
"When I watched him I saw a kid that wasn't afraid to make plays in big moments," Hansen said. "That's the only thing that really stood out. I picked his game apart like anybody else did, but being a guy that played for coach Nagy, I had seen players like Nate who had success in that system. I just felt like Nate would be a good fit for us."
Nagy didn't see Wolters in person until the semifinals of the 2009 Minnesota Class 4A tournament. St. Cloud Tech was up against a loaded Hopkins team that featured seven future Division I players, including Royce White (Iowa State), Joe Coleman (Minnesota) and Trent Lockett (Marquette), but Wolters played well in a losing effort.
"When I walked out of the Target Center, my gut hurt," Hansen said. "I just knew we had our work cut out to get him signed."
Hansen underestimated Wolters' loyalty and his own ability as a talent evaluator. While every other Division I coach who saw Wolters considered him a shooting guard with serious liabilities, Hansen, and eventually Nagy, saw him as a point guard with almost all the requisite skills.
"That's the one thing that differentiated us from anybody else that was recruiting him," Nagy said. "I wanted him to be our point guard. I thought that's what he was. I loved him with his hands on the ball. With his hands on the ball, he just makes everybody else better.
"We told him he was going to be our point guard. And after he got here, I saw enough of him that, even as a freshman, I gave him complete freedom to do what he was capable of doing. If he made mistakes, I told him not to worry about it. I trusted him."
True to his word, Nagy gave Wolters the keys to the offense. Both South Dakota State -- which advanced to the 2012 NCAA Tournament in just its fourth year of Division I competition -- and Wolters benefitted.
"[Nagy] has been a great coach for me," Wolters said. "He gives me a ton of freedom. He's never said 'bad shot' to me in my whole career. He really lets me play. He's been a big part of my success."
Could that success carry over to the NBA? Some scouts think so. And Nagy agrees.
"He does things you can't coach," Nagy said. "He's got basketball instincts. He always seems to be in the right spot. But what allows him to do all the things he does is his ability to handle the ball. He has the ball on a string and can do with it whatever he wants to do.
"Ballhandlers are super underrated. When I watch the NBA, I see guys that are powerful and athletic playing the point guard position, but guys who can really, really handle it are still so very few. Nate is one of those guys."
Just like in high school, Wolters' game is still being dissected, only this time to a microscopic degree. The naysayers used to point to his jump shot, which had been inconsistent because the thumb of his left, or guide, hand rested on the ball. But countless hours in the gym and thousands of shots erased that flaw. Wolters shot 40 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore, dropped to 24 percent last season but is back up to 40 percent.
There's also a concern about his ability to defend the great athletes he'll encounter at the next level. But Nagy and Hansen insist he'll hold his own. They also believe those great athletes might have their own issues keeping Wolters out of the lane.
"His first step is just OK; it's not like he can just go by you," Hansen said. "But he understands how to change speed on guys, and the reason he can do that is he's got the ball on a string. He can change on a dime. That's what separates him from other guards. When you've got a guy you can't pressure, that's a tough guy to slow down."
Nagy fears he may have done Wolters a disservice by not making him more accountable on the defensive end. But Nagy needed Wolters to stay on the floor and didn't want to risk him getting into foul trouble.
"Maybe I should have demanded he be a better defender," Nagy said. "Most people think he's not athletic, but he's very quick. And his anticipation is ridiculous. The last 15 games, he's been great for us defensively. He's probably less aggressive [defensively] than he would be at the next level. But Nate can guard."
All the NBA talk is heady stuff for Wolters, and what a story it would be if the underrated, underappreciated high school kid from Minnesota who was bound for a Division II school winds up playing at the highest level.
Asked how that story might be useful to other high school players laboring in obscurity or miscast at a position that isn't suited to their game, Wolters -- who will finish his career No. 1 in South Dakota State history in scoring and assists -- had a ready answer.
"Playing at a mid-major got me a lot of playing time early," he said. "I was given freedom and I was able to expand my game by playing a ton of minutes.
"You don't necessarily have to go to the biggest schools to have an impact or to be known or have people see you. Go wherever you're going to get playing time."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
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