Steady-rollin’ Wolters answers opportunity’s knock
Second-year guard makes most of his minutes
Steve Winwood’s song “Roll With It” spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart after being released in 1988.
Nate Wolters wasn’t born until three years later, but his outlook on life and his approach to his profession reflect that he is tuned in to its theme.
The 23-year-old Wolters had seen action in only one of the Milwaukee Bucks’ first seven games of the 2014-15 season prior to Nov. 11. With the Bucks trailing the Oklahoma City Thunder 22-15, Head Coach Jason Kidd summoned No. 6 into the game and, within a matter of seconds, there was the usual order on the court.
Milwaukee outscored the Thunder 26-16 in the second quarter. Wolters went on to collect a season-high six points, two rebounds and one assist in 18 minutes, his longest stint of the season. Most importantly to coach and player, the Bucks emerged with an 85-78 victory.
Milwaukee’s reserves outscored Oklahoma City’s 53-22, cementing their status as the NBA’s most productive bench, averaging 46.4 points per outing.
Kidd took notice of all of the above.
“That’s the nice thing about our bench,” Kidd said. “We can rely on someone coming off. If you look at O.J. (Mayo) or look at (Jerryd) Bayless and tonight Nate and ‘Z’ (Zaza Pachulia), they gave us a spark. That’s the nice thing about being a young team. We’re able to call on those guys if we are a little flat, and they responded.”
“The biggest thing is trust – trusting that Nate is going to make a play for a teammate or for himself that’s the right play. I think trusting the pass, being unselfish, I think everybody on our team believes that or is trying.”
Wolters spoke afterward about shaking off the rust and seizing his opportunity.
“Khris was out (Khris Middleton was sidelined by a sore knee), so I was able to play a little bit and obviously it felt great to get a win,” Wolters said. “I just wanted to try to move the ball a little bit and play hard.
“When you’re not getting much playing time, it’s hard to stay in a rhythm. You’ve got to try to get in a rhythm when you’re playing. As the game went on, I felt a little more comfortable out there.”
Wolters’ position in the Bucks’ big picture during the early weeks of his second pro season has been dramatically different from where it was at this stage of his rookie campaign.
South Dakota State University’s all-time leader in points and assists was chosen by the Washington Wizards with the 38th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, but his rights were traded twice that day, first to the Philadelphia 76ers and then to the Bucks.
And then, on the night of Oct. 30, 2013, Wolters was thrown to the wolves – actually the Knicks.
Starting point guard Brandon Knight tweaked a hamstring just two minutes into Milwaukee’s season opener at Madison Square Garden and had to leave the game, making way for Wolters’ NBA debut.
The 6-4 guard responded with nine points and four assists and became one of just five Bucks – and the only one drafted in the second round –to play at least 30 minutes in the first game of his professional career.
With Knight and Luke Ridnour sidelined by injuries, Wolters averaged 32 minutes over his first four pro games. He responded with averages of 9.8 points and 6.5 assists, logged an assist-to-turnover ratio of 26-4, and helped Milwaukee to victories at Boston on Nov. 1 and over visiting Cleveland on Nov. 6.
“This hasn’t been what I expected to start my career,” Wolters said at the time. “Coach (Larry) Drew has shown a lot of confidence in me down the stretch. I’m just thankful for the opportunity I’ve been getting. I’m going to try to make the most of it.
“I don’t know what will happen when everyone gets healthy. For right now, I’m just trying to enjoy it and do what I can to give my team a chance to win.”
Wolters, victimized like many rookies by a logjam at his position, did not play at all in six of the Bucks’ January games. In the nine games in which he did appear, he averaged just 13.9 minutes.
He made the most of the minutes he did receive, though, posting a January assist-to-turnover ratio of 9.33 that ranked second in the entire league behind that of Milwaukee native Devin Harris of the Dallas Mavericks.
Wolters was inserted back into the starting lineup Jan. 31 at Orlando. In the team’s first four February dates, he averaged 9.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per outing while shooting 47.4 percent from the field.
“It’s tough,” Wolters said. “Life as a rookie is really hard. There are a lot of adjustments. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs – kind of a roller-coaster season. I try to stay positive and aggressive.
“I’m going to have some bad days and some good days. I need to just stay as even-keeled as possible.”
Wolters’ rookie campaign took an unfortunate turn when he sustained a fractured left hand during a March 20 game against the Golden State Warriors. He missed the final 13 games of the season, but he posted season averages of 7.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 22.6 minutes per game.
Even more impressive was Wolters’ assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.28-to-1, which ranked sixth in the entire NBA at the time of his season-ending injury.
Along the way, he adopted an approach that is still serving him well.
“I wasn’t expected to start five of the first six games last season,” Wolters said. “You just have to be ready. Last year was a good experience because it told me that anything can happen. Eventually you’ll get your time. You just have to keep working hard and not get discouraged.”
When Wolters reported for his second preseason camp with the Bucks, he joined a deep collection of backcourt players including Milwaukee newcomers Kendall Marshall and Jerryd Bayless. He is also making a transition to playing for Kidd, his second head coach in as many seasons.
True to form, Wolters has put the best construction on his situation.
“We have a lot of good guards,” he said. “Jerryd Bayless has been great. I think Brandon (Knight) has gotten a lot better. Kendall has been good, too. It’s been good competition and it’s been good for practice, too.
“We’re playing a lot of guys – 11 and sometimes 12. We have a pretty balanced team right now. That’s how we’re going to have to win, with everyone contributing.”
He has embraced the opportunity to play for Kidd, one of the premier playmakers in the game’s history.
“He teaches a lot,” Wolters said of Kidd. “He was still playing two years ago, so he knows what we go through. He’s one of the best players of all time, so he’s a great guy to learn from.
“The new coaching staff works extremely hard. They’re always at the practice facility, no matter what the hour. They really teach a lot.
“We have a young team, and they’ve been really good for us so far. I’ve enjoyed working with them a lot.”
Those are encouraging words from a steady-rollin’ man.