Nate Wolters Continues To Flourish With His Jackrabbits Back Under The RadarPosted by Brian Goodman on January 4th, 2013
Brian Goodman is an RTC editor. He filed this report from Municipal Auditorium, home to more Final Fours (nine) than any other NCAA site, and where Nate Wolters continued his high-level play as one of the country’s top guards Thursday night.
South Dakota State head coach Scott Nagy lined up a challenging non-conference schedule for his Jackrabbits with road games at Minnesota, New Mexico, Alabama, Belmont, and Hofstra this season. Senior guard Nate Wolters shined through it all, scoring and assisting in nearly every way imaginable despite steep competition and big audiences. While the start of conference play means more nationally meaningful games for power league teams, the opposite is true for the toiling Summit League in which SDSU plays, a perennial one-bid conference, but that isn’t an excuse to let Wolters return to obscurity for the 10 weeks between now and March Madness. In fact, if his recent play is any indication, he may be nearing the peak of a storybook career worthy of more attention than ever.
Wolters came into Thursday’s game against UMKC on the heels of two 25-point games, a win at New Mexico and a loss to North Dakota State. He continued his high-efficiency play with a marvelous night against the Kangaroos. The Jackrabbits led wire-to-wire and left Municipal Auditorium with a 77-61 win that wasn’t even that close, and it was during a big run in the final minutes of the first half when Wolters went to work on his nightly highlight reel.
The Jackrabbits ignited an 18-0 run over the last 5:28 of the first half, with Wolters having a hand in all but three of those points. Whether it was finishing through contact, turning defense into offense with steals and dishes in transition, threading the needle, hitting set shots from the perimeter, or converting from the line, he made all of it look easy. Perhaps most impressive was Wolters’ demeanor. The arena’s sparse attendance made sneaker squeaks, bench banter, and coaches’ instructions easily audible, but there was hardly a peep by Wolters all night despite the fact that he plays a position where communication is hugely important. He let his game do all the talking, and it roared on Thursday night. By the time the game was finished, Wolters had a sterling, stat-stuffing line: 23 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four steals, and just one turnover in 36 minutes of action.
And if you aren’t familiar with the play of Nate Wolters, allow SDSU head coach Scott Nagy to clue you in: “Tonight was a typical night for him.” A typical night? You wouldn’t believe it with a look at his stat line or his modest 6’4″, 190-pound frame, nor would you believe it if you watched the game casually. Wolters doesn’t wow you with speed. His shot is slow to release and when he leaves his feet on the way to the bucket, it’s to contort his body around defenders, not to put them on posters. But the best may still be to come. Wolters sprained his right ankle on December 1 and missed the Jackrabbits’ games against Minnesota and non-D-I Dakota State. Thursday was his sixth game back, but Nagy has preached caution in Wolters’ recovery, holding him out of practices until recently. “He’s starting to get healthy again after hurting his ankle. It’s still bothering him, but he’s very close to healthy,” Nagy said.
To reiterate, Wolters has scored 77 points in his last three games on a barking ankle and he hasn’t skipped a beat when it comes to his ancillary strengths in passing and defense. Either Nagy has a different definition of “close” than the rest of us, or a ceiling still remains untouched for SDSU’s superstar and the country’s folk hero. And if Wolters isn’t at full strength, that spells heaps of trouble for the Summit League and any potential NCAA Tournament opponent. “I haven’t been at practice consistently for a whole month, so I’m still trying to get the rust off,” Wolters said, but there is no doubt that his court vision is as good as it ever has been. Jackrabbits forward Jordan Dykstra was a beneficiary of two dishes from Wolters and hit a pair of early threes. He is the first to admit how enjoyable it can be to play with Wolters: “He’s one-of-a-kind. He’s a great scorer, but I think his best attribute is his passing. He sees the whole floor at all times. Any time you have a guard like that, you’re gonna get open shots.”
To be fair, UMKC is far from a mid-major powerhouse. Like South Dakota State, the Kangaroos’ business model relies on November and December paychecks from high-major teams, and the ‘Roos clashed against Louisville, Ohio State, Kansas State, and Iowa State in road games earlier this season. They’re struggling at 4-11, but UMKC stayed competitive with the Wildcats and Cyclones before coming up short, which says something about their fearlessness in the face of high-level competition. That fearlessness has been instilled by Kansas City’s head coach, who knows something about backcourt talent. Currently in his sixth year at the helm, this is UMKC head coach Matt Brown‘s first head coaching stint at the Division I level, but he’s no stranger to high-level talent. He cut his teeth at Florida, Marshall and Richmond, and was an assistant at West Virginia for five seasons under John Beilein. He’s seen his share of quality guards, especially this season as an opposing coach. Brown said Wolters is right up there with more well-known guards his team has faced such as Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, and Aaron Craft, but whereas Siva and Smith succeed with their wheels and intensity, Wolters is a heady guard whose success is dictated on sound decision-making and letting the game come to him instead of the other way around.
Though he won’t headline any NBA Draft boards, he gets plenty of attention from opponents and the media. The Summit League is on high alert, though that is nothing new for Wolters. For the senior guard, tonight was just another showcase of his incredible awareness, poise, and vision that shouldn’t go unnoticed by fans simply because of the league in which Wolters plays, the clockwork consistency he shows, or how effortless he makes it all look. After a tough schedule filled with dates against power conference teams, league play has the Jackrabbits back under the radar, but hoopheads would be wise to not let that become an excuse to miss the handful of games Wolters has left.