ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — With his starting point guard down on the court in pain and the veteran backup out with a bad back, Bucks coach Larry Drew took a gander down his bench.
Just a day earlier, Drew had expressed his intention to take the development of rookie point guard Nate Wolters slowly. But everything changed 1 minute, 41 seconds into Milwaukee’s first game of the season.
Brandon Knight had strained his right hamstring and Luke Ridnour couldn’t play with back spasms, meaning Wolters had to be thrown right into the fire at Madison Square Garden.
“Things like this happen in the NBA, so you just have to be ready for when your name is called,” Wolters said. “It just so happens that it happened to me during the first couple games of my career. It’s been a good opportunity for me. I’m just going to work hard and try to get better every day and hopefully I get the results.”
Thus far, the results have been better than the Bucks could have expected. Wolters survived the test against the Knicks and thrived in his second game against Boston, leading the Bucks to a comeback victory with 14 points and six assists.
Drew was really impressed with how Wolters attacked Boston’s defensive ace Avery Bradley, showing no fear going up against one of the best defensive point guards in the league.
“(Bradley is) a pitbull defensively,” Drew said. “I’ve seen him defend certain guards and just give them fits, but Nate looked very composed out there playing against him and got us in our stuff and got us in our spots.
“He had to feel good after that because that’s just not a matchup that you want to send a rookie into this early in the season.”
Wolters earned his first career start Saturday against Toronto and dished out 10 assists, becoming the first Bucks player to record double-digit assists in one of the first five games of a career since Scott Skiles in 1986.
With Knight and Ridnour unlikely to play, Wolters is more than likely going to start against the Cavaliers on Wednesday. Another challenge awaits in the form of Cleveland’s star point guard, Kyrie Irving, but Wolters is embracing the test as just another learning experience.
“I’m pretty comfortable with him,” Drew said. “The only thing is I don’t want to log a whole lot of minutes on him because I can see he when the fatigue starts to settle in when he’s been in there for a long stretch.
“Nate is very deceptive from a poise standpoint because he’s very quiet. He doesn’t talk a lot, he doesn’t say a lot of things. When you watch him play, he doesn’t show those signs.”
From the sidelines, Knight has been impressed with what he has seen from the player filling in for him.
“He’s doing a great job,” Knight said. “Coming from where he came from, he’s not a bad player. He’s definitely a good player. He’s handling this the best he can. I know he wasn’t expecting to be thrown into this situation. I have to tip my hat off to him for holding his composure and doing his best.”
While the rest of the NBA may be surprised with how Wolters has produced early on, the Bucks knew the talent he had when they decided to swing a draft-day trade to acquire the second-round pick from Philadelphia.
What has surprised them is how composed the South Dakota State product has been in a couple of very hostile environments. His tremendous poise has allowed him to exceed expectations.
“He’s herky jerky,” Drew said. “It’s deceptive because he’s faster than what he looks, he’s stronger than what he looks. He’s not afraid to take that ball to the basket knowing that he’s going to get hit. For a rookie, that’s a big mountain to climb when you get to this level.
“There are a lot of guards who drive that basketball to the basket and shy away from contact. This guy doesn’t do that. He’s a really good finisher. He anticipates getting hit. Getting hit and getting knocked to the floor won’t stop him from driving the basketball. That’s a big step for a rookie to take.”
Known as the kid who put South Dakota State basketball on the map, Wolters finished his collegiate career as one of just four players in NCAA Division I history to finish with at least 2,000 points, 600 rebounds and 600 assists and just the third player to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game for two seasons.
The Bucks witnessed the type of following Wolters has when they played an exhibition game in South Dakota, but his fan support has only grown since he played his first regular-season contest.
“There’s a lot of interest,” Wolters said. “I have a great support group. It’s been fun to get texts after the games. I think everyone back in St. Cloud and Brookings are really excited.”
Wolters is prepared for when his minutes will decrease, something that’s inevitable whenever Knight and Ridnour return. Knight, who is actually a month younger than Wolters, is Milwaukee’s point guard for at least the next two years.
With Ridnour in the final year of his contract, the 32-year-old might not be with the Bucks next season. Wolters is hoping to show enough to earn the job as the primary backup next season and could get quite a bit of a look this season if Ridnour’s ailing back bothers him for the whole year.
“I’m sure (the minutes) will (decrease), but I’m not going to change my mindset knowing things like this could happen,” Wolters said. I’m just going to be ready whenever my name is called and just try to produce.
“A lot of second round picks don’t get an opportunity until the second half of the year if the whole first year. I have more confidence now knowing I can play at this level.
“I never really expected to be in crunch time the first three games of the season. (Coach Drew has) shown a lot of confidence in me and it’s been pretty cool to see.”
Drew’s message to Wolters was a simple one: Just be yourself and play your game. Wolters has done just that and is on the path to becoming another second-round steal for the Bucks.
“Nate seems to be a pretty confident kid,” Drew said. “He’s pretty composed. We selected him because we felt he was going to be a really good NBA guard, which we still think. He’s got tremendous upside. I want him to take full advantage of this opportunity as far as playing time. It’s good growth for him. He has to take advantage of the playing time and learn from it.
“It’s a long NBA season. You never know what can happen. He has certainly shown that if anyone goes down, he can certainly step in.”