MILWAUKEE – Caron Butler, a two-time NBA All-Star in his 12th professional season, did all he could to avoid looking into the stands at the BMO Bradley Center Saturday night in Milwaukee. Butler, even now, said he gets “too excited” at times and the Bucks’ home opener against Toronto was one of them, the guy from nearby Racine, Wis., playing in front of “mama, Grandma, aunts, uncles … children, all five of ’em.”
So, imagine what it was like for Nate Wolters, Milwaukee’s unheralded rookie — the No. 38 pick in June out of South Dakota State — the guy commonly thought of as the fifth guard on Milwaukee’s roster.
Four nights into his NBA career, in this third game, Wolters was on the floor at the beginning and at the end. With Brandon Knight (hamstring) and Luke Ridnour (back) ailing — and with point guard fill-in O.J. Mayo showing up late for the team’s shootaround that day — Wolters was tabbed by coach Larry Drew for the starting role against the Raptors. He wound up on the floor longer than anyone else Saturday, playing 36 minutes that included the final 10 when Drew settled on his closing crew (at least for the night) and Milwaukee erased a 12-point lead to briefly tie.
What must have been going through Wolters’ head, running the Bucks’ offense from tipoff in front of 16,046 people after playing his college ball in a 6,500-seat gym?
“Everything,” Butler said. “He was [extremely raw] at times. I tried to continue to stay in his ear and motivate him and encourage him.
“It’s been tough. Luke’s been out and obviously Brandon. But I thought Nate did a great job filling in that role to the best of his ability. That’s a lot to ask for a first-year guy, but I thought he did a great job hands-down.”
The 6-foot-4 Wolters scored seven points, grabbed four rebounds and passed for 10 assists with one turnover in his splashy home debut. He also played well enough off the bench in his first two games staged at virtual NBA shrines — at Madison Square Garden and on the parquet floor of the Boston Celtics. He might look like an extra from “Hoosiers” running around out there, but he is averaging 10 points and 6.7 assists, while giving Drew a little of the playmaking the coach craves.
“What I like about what he did [in Boston] was he came in and got us organized,” Drew said. “We’ve had problems with that … I’ve got to have organization at the very beginning. I can’t have guys just everybody looking for their shots. He’s been in this situation before. He knows the position. And he’s starting to get more and more comfortable at the position.”
“More comfortable” as in, equally nervous regardless of level or challenge.
“Even before every game — even high school and college — you get nervous,” Wolters said after the loss Saturday. “It’s just one of those things, once you get out there playing, it’s basketball. Get used to it. Once I get going, I’m fine.”
Wolters, a high school hotshot in St. Cloud, Minn., helped South Dakota State make the first two NCAA appearances in school history. As a senior, he averaged 22.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists for the Jackrabbits and scored 53 points (with nine 3-pointers) — the top points total in Division I last season — in a game at Fort Wayne. Wolters was a third-team AP All-America selection and a finalist for the Wooden and Cousy awards.
Just a month into his Bucks experience, he’s got the “we” part down. He is developing a little on-court chemistry with Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders. He knows he needs to shoot better (11-for-30 so far). And he said he feels no overload in his NBA orientation-slash-immersion.
“No, not at all,” Wolters said. “In college, I played every minute. So I’m used to these kinds of minutes. I didn’t expect to be playing anywhere near this many minutes, but it is what it is. I’m enjoying it and treating it like a learning experience. … I’ve got a good group of veterans who can help me out.”
Though the Bucks played a preseason game in Sioux Falls, within an hour of Wolters’ old campus, and Drew showcased him in the fourth quarter that night against Cleveland, he is quite aware he’s not in Brookings, S.D., anymore.
“It kind of helped that we played in the NCAA tournament, so I played in this type of atmosphere before,” Wolters said. “But obviously, the NBA’s a little different. It’s just been an amazing experience, especially going to New York and Boston, those type of places. It’s been fun.”
And fortunately for Milwaukee, he’s been up to it.