Rookies Attend Night School
Wolters, Antetokounmpo, Raduljica get on-the-job education from Spurs’ all-time greats
Nate Wolters, Miroslav Raduljica and Giannis Antetokounmpo attended an advanced class in the art and science of professional basketball on the night of Dec. 11, 2013.
The three Milwaukee Bucks rookies were not only attentive students, but immediately applied what they learned before discussing their instructors and their lesson afterward.
When Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili left the premises of the BMO Harris Bradley Center for the welcome warmth of a motor coach, they took with them a grand total of 2,839 games, 62,310 points, 18,984 rebounds and 11,962 assists – accumulated over a combined 45 regular seasons in the National Basketball Association.
Most importantly to them, their San Antonio Spurs rolled away with a 109-77 victory, bringing their 2013-14 record to 17-4 – third-best in the league.
For Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, winning has always come first. Duncan owns four NBA championship rings while Parker and Ginobili have earned three each.
Ginobili, whose 11 NBA seasons were preceded by seven in professional leagues overseas, is one of only two players – Bill Bradley is the other -- who has been an NBA champion, a Euroleague champion and an Olympic gold medalist.
Duncan delivered a typically efficient performance in 24 minutes and 7 seconds, collecting team highs of 21 points and 16 rebounds. Parker had 15 points and five assists in 20:51 and Ginobili added four points in 17:42. They helped stake their team to a leads of 32-16 after a quarter and 62-40 by halftime, and the margin grew to as many as 38 points.
Their first glimpses of the evening of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili for Wolters, Antetokounmo and Raduljica came from the bench, but their views soon became up-close and personal.
Chances are that well before the three Bucks’ rookies professional basketball careers are over, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will have been enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Gregg Popovich, their coach, has never played a second of NBA basketball, but his accomplishments will no doubt be recognized in Springfield, Mass., alongside those of his treasured triumvirate.
Wolters had formed an impression of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili long before he simultaneously set foot on an NBA court with them. He developed an admiration for Popovich and his entire team, too.
“I think they’re really a fun team to watch on TV,” Wolters said. “They play the game the right way. All of them are really unselfish. It seems like they really don’t care who gets the credit.”
The 6-foot-4-inch, 190-pound rookie guard from South Dakota State University, who was admittedly a bit starstruck in his first few NBA games, didn’t let an extended opportunity to compete against the future Hall-of-Famers go to waste.
In 30 minutes, 11 seconds of playing time, Wolters scored a pro career high of 18 points, handed out seven assists and made two steals. Just as importantly, he kept his eyes on the opposition.
“They’ve been playing together for a long time,” Wolters said. “They’re one of the toughest teams to guard I’ve seen all year. They’re really tough to guard. They space the floor really well. They really took it to us from the opening tip and we never really recovered.
“Duncan’s amazing. He’s been in the league a long time and he’s still getting it done.”
Wolters admired the Spurs’ textbook execution.
“They’re a really special team,” he said. “I’m amazed by how they space the floor. They always seem to make the extra pass and get open looks. They’re tough to defend.”
Antetokounmpo was attentive, too, during his first on-court observations of the Spurs.
“It was nice to see them play,” the 6-9, 210 forward said. “They are awesome players. It’s much different watching them on TV and playing against them. It was nice for me.
“I just went out there and tried to play hard and execute.”
The numbers reflected that. Antetokounmpo, who just turned 19 years old Dec. 6, established NBA career highs for playing time (33:12), points (15) and rebounds (eight) and added another memorable dunk to his rookie collection.
“It’s nice that my coach gives me some playing time,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s the time for me to step up. I know there are going to be ups and downs for me, but I just have to keep going out there and building more confidence.”
Raduljica, who has been competing internationally since representing Serbia in the U16 World Championships in 2004, also made the most of his opportunity to play against three of basketball’s all-time best. The 7-1, 280-pound center achieved NBA highs of playing time (22:40), points (10), rebounds (seven) and blocked shots (two).
His first priority was to do whatever he could to help his team after it fell behind early.
“We do what we can do, especially in a situation where we have a short bench,” Raduljica said. “A lot of our veterans are injured, so we have to get in there and bring energy.”
Once Radjulica entered the action, he fulfilled something he had envisioned for many years.
“It was pretty exciting,” Raduljica said. “I’d always imagined playing against Tim Duncan, because he’s one of my role models. He’s such a good player. I’ve been watching him since I was a kid. It was pretty exciting standing next to him and doing something on the court. I think it’s pretty good experience to learn something, especially for us young guys.”
Like his rookie teammates, Raduljica was amazed at the efficiency of the Spurs’ execution.
“They’ve played together for a long time,” he said. “They move the ball so fast, and everybody knows where his teammate is. They just keep passing the ball and scoring it. You can’t leave a guy alone for a second.
“It’s exciting to be out there with such a good team. We can learn a lot. It was a pretty good experience for me.”
The Bucks will play San Antonio only once more this season, but Wolters saw enough to tell him where they rank within the context of the NBA – even though they keep a low profile with their methodical and relatively stoic approach to the game.
“A lot of people say the Spurs are boring,” Wolters said. “Everyone talks about the Heat, the Pacers and the Thunder. The Spurs are right up there with them, but nobody really talks about them.”
It seems the Bucks’ three rookies have already discovered that actions speak louder than words.