The plan Wednesday night was to have the Bucks-Knicks game on the background while I worked on another story, just in case former South Dakota State star Nate Wolters got a some garbage-time tick in his NBA regular-season debut.
He got much more than that, serving as the primary point guard for nearly 30 minutes because starter Brandon Knight injured a hamstring in the first 1:45 and back-up Luke Ridnour sat out due to back spasms. So there was the 22-year-old Wolters, a quiet and polite kid from a college that hasn’t had an NBA player in 39 years, running the show in the World’s Most Famous Arena in his pro debut. 50 Cent, Howard Stern and Woody Allen were among the witnesses.
This was not the plan for the second-round pick, not by a long shot. In fact, Milwaukee probably didn’t expect the 6-foot-4 Wolters to play 29 minutes, 41 seconds in the first couple weeks or month of the season. It did not go perfectly, of course. But the experience has the potential to fast-forward his development.
A couple observations and notes:
* Wolters scored four points in the first half on 2 of 4 shooting and five in the second on 1 of 8 shooting. He wound up hitting a 3-pointer, a long floater, a layup off a cut to the rim and both free-throw attempts. He also got blocked three times, the last leading to a fast-break hoop that iced the game for the Knicks.
* He finished with four assists and could have had more if not for some easy misses by teammates. The Bucks starting posts went a combined 1 of 7.
* There’s a fine line between playing in control and being tentative. It looked like Wolters was doing the latter early - and then the Bucks regrouped and gained the lead, overcoming a 25-point deficit.
Let’s be honest: Most rookies aren’t prepared for the spot that he wound up in Wednesday (the Bucks’ first-round pick hardly played) and he’s going to need to be able to cut loose in order to become a lineup regular. But his calm and insistence on getting the Bucks into their offense had at least a little to do with being able to dig out of that hole. Looking at in a different way, what are the odds Milwaukee makes it interesting if Wolters plays out of control or commits a bunch of turnovers?
* On a related note, the Bucks did not have to play Wolters as much as they did. Veteran Gary Neal could have handled the point when Knight went down and/or in the final minutes. Or they could have gone with a big lineup. Instead, coach Larry Drew stuck with Wolters, playing him alongside Neal. That seems like an endorsement; either he genuinely believes in the St. Cloud Tech grad or at least is dedicated to finding out what he can do.
Milwaukee had nothing to lose when down 25 yet Wolters helped them rally instead of cashing it in. He proved more reliable and productive than several veterans, including the high-paid Sanders, who was scoreless.
* If I’m Wolters and/or Drew, here’s how I view what went down: Ignore the stats. Don’t listen to outside criticism. Consider the context. View the experience gained as invaluable - because it is. On the first night of his pro career, Wolters wound up getting way ahead of the game, playing heavy minutes and earning crunch-time experience on one of the most famous stages in pro basketball. (He’d never been been to the Garden before Tuesday.)
Usually, a rookie third-string point guard has to work his way into a larger role before even being considered to get any meaningful minutes - that could take years. Wolters got it right out of the gate due to multiple unexpected situations.
Maybe he gets to build on that Friday at Boston and Saturday in the home opener. Or maybe Knight returns (because Ridnour will be out again) and he plays sparingly - as seemed likely Wednesday. Either way, Wolters wound up making an unforgettable debut.
Terry Vandrovec also posts regular updates on his Twitter page.