*Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of pieces rolling out over the next week reviewing each player’s performance during the record-setting 2013-14 season.
The beneficiary of starter Brandon Knight‘s early injury in the Bucks’ 2013-14 opener versus the New York Knicks, Nate Wolters proved his mettle early in his rookie season. His first line was not Earth-shattering, even by newbie standards — 9 points, 4 assists, 1 rebound, 1 block and 2 turnovers in nearly 30 minutes doesn’t exactly jump off stat sheets. And it appeared particularly underwhelming when five teammates scored in double-digits. At the time, though, expectations could be tempered for a player transitioning from small-college ball to the NBA ranks, moreso than later in the season when fans looked for any sign of hope other than “withering” or, worse, “withered.”
Good: Non-statistical chemistry. Giannis Antetokounmpo probably isn’t winning Rookie of the Year, but his upside combined with a number of fanfare-inducing plays as a rookie gives the Bucks valid reason to want to keep The Alphabet around for much, much longer. This bodes well for Wolters, who has been known to wait around as his teammate fields questions before giving the Greek teen a ride home. Somewhat less surprisingly, Wolters has also channeled his inner lackadaisical frat guy for the occasional ho-hum photo bomb of Antetokounmpo.
Giannis has nicknames, plural. “Naters” isn’t awe-inspiring, but any highlight reel of his games with Milwaukee is sure to show a couple instances of to-and-fro action with his fellow rookie.
Better: Advanced stats. Just 16.8 percent of Milwaukee’s possessions were assumed by Wolters this season. It’s not a question of assertiveness, as he’s more than willing to dive toward the rim when playing off-ball or find his preferred spot in the lane to shoot a floater, but taken in conjunction with his 23.3 assist percentage while on the floor, this shows Wolters’ willingness to play team ball. His ability to find a teammate in scoring position will be a welcome asset come the fall when the Bucks are trotting out a shiny new lottery pick.
Best: Assists? Yes. Turnovers? No. On average, Wolters dished out 3.2 dimes per contest while maintaining a low give-away rate of 1 per game. He isn’t playing wild and he isn’t giving the ball away. No matter the nitpicks (and they’re coming), things could be much worse when Wolters is controlling the rock.
Not-So-Good: Three-point shooting. A paltry 29 percent success rate from downtown is, sadly for the Bucks, not an anomaly. As a senior at South Dakota State, Wolters converted 38 percent of his long-range shots, a vast improvement over his upchuck-inducing 24.6 percent as a junior. For what it’s worth, Wolters attempted 5.3 and 4.1 threes per game, respectively, in those years compared to a meager 1.1 attempts during his first professional campaign. In order to stay relevant, however, Wolters would do well to put in work behind the arc during the offseason and expand his game to include a reliable triple. Having spent 55 percent of 2013-14 playing as a shooting guard, according to basketball-reference.com, a sub-.300 stroke is unacceptable. The development of a steady long-range bomb will be crucial to Wolters’ success in the league, particularly at a time when three-point specialists are at a premium. That counts double for role players, which is likely Wolters’ career path.
Let’s Just Not Mention It: Free throws. While it is one thing to be an inept long-range shooter, the problem is only compounded when poor charity stripe work is added to the equation. Shooting just 65.6 percent at the line is problematic for a guard not only because hey, free points!, but also because ball-handlers are primed for accepting in-bounds passes in late-game situations, some of which include oppositional fouls at an abhorrent frequency. Sending Wolters to the line doesn’t exactly have anyone in the NBA gritting their teeth.
What’s worse? In his 1,309 minutes of play, Wolters attempted a measly 90 free throws, prorated to 2.5 per 36 minutes. That boils down to 1.6 in each of his 58 games. For perspective, that’s lower than former Buck Gary Neal‘s 2.0 FTA/game, even though Neal logged nearly 200 fewer minutes. (“Gary Neal” isn’t exactly synonymous with “star guard,” by the way.)
There is heartening news here, though. Wolters averaged 7.1 free throws per game in both his junior and senior seasons, so the 1.6 figure could be attributed to reduced minutes, as well adapting to a new level of competition.
Hindsight: Here’s what I said about the Bucks’ acquisition of Wolters last June:
“[He] does not strike me as being a viable starter in the NBA. [I worry] about Wolters’ underwhelming athleticism being a major detriment on defense and a sense that he will turn into a middling score-first guard when facing opponents of a higher caliber than those he saw at South Dakota State. Dealing for Wolters feels like settling.”
Of the 41 draftees who saw time on an NBA court this season, Wolters’ Win Shares per 48 minutes rating (.043) bested that of Trey Burke (0.20; Utah Jazz), Isaiah Canaan (.031; Houston Rockets) and Shane Larkin (-0.010; Dallas Mavericks) and Peyton Siva (-0.032; Detroit Pistons) — all point guard prospects I favored over Wolters leading up to the draft.
I still like Siva and the thought of him stuck in the hot mess that is Detroit’s back court/front court/entire team makes me grimace. What I saw of Burke allows me to continue to believe in him, especially in clutch moments. He and Canaan shot more reliably from deep (.330 and .327, respectively) than the rest of the crowd, while Larkin is still has value as an explosive-if-undersized blur.
In Summation: Wolters exceeded the C- grade I initially assigned him, if not on his first night of action then throughout his extensive minutes in 57 other games. His athleticism is still a concern and could be a contributing factor to his lack of free throw attempts, but you know what? Naters gonna Nate. In the context of the NBA, he’s earned himself a solid C rating. The context of playing on the team with the league’s worst record is kinder, though, so jump the guy up to a B- with room for improvement.