HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- The best players in college basketball are not all playing on the best teams, or in the biggest arenas, or on network or even cable television, or in front more than a handful of fans. On a weekend where there were high-profile hoops events at New York's Madison Square Garden and Brooklyn's Barclays Center, Nate Wolters and the Jackrabbits were playing 45 minutes outside the city, in a satellite tournament at Hofstra University on Saturday afternoon -- the closest this sport gets to an obscure-but-critically acclaimed indie show.
Among the few people in the gym 45 minutes before tipoff of South Dakota State-Marshall was an NBA scout, standing on the concourse, sizing up Wolters during warmups. "You've seen him before?" the scout asked. "What do you think? Is he better than Jimmer?"
Not better, I said. Different. Doesn't have Jimmer Range, or anything resembling Jimmer's jumper, but does a better job creating for others, figuring out ways to score from mid-range, and not turning the ball over. He's an actual point guard, too. Whether you like traditional stats -- 21.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.1 rebounds as a junior while leading SDSU to its first NCAA tournament bid -- or advanced stats -- a 115.5 offensive rating while using a whopping 32.5 percent of his team's possessions -- Wolters looks quite good.
And yet, because he plays in Brookings, S.D., and the Summit League, because he was a fringe D-I recruit who considered playing D-II, because he's an unassuming white kid who scores like mad but doesn't play a ton of defense, because he shot just 24.1 percent from long-range last season, he remains, as another scout said, "a polarizing player". But 19 scouts from 15 different NBA teams were on the credential list. Some of them see Wolters as a second-rounder with a long-shot chance at the first; some see him as just a curiosity. They were all intrigued enough to show up.
As for the fans, well ... Nate Wolters and the Jackrabbits are not exactly a major draw in a neutral-court East Coast game. The fans could be counted in about a minute. There were exactly 60 in the stands, and one guy alone up in some kind of Hofstra athletic department luxury box. (The fans were outnumbered by scouts, media, ushers, coaches, managers, players and refs who totaled 88.) A brief fan-canvassing effort turned up varied interest in the visiting indie star.
Michael O'Brien, a 13-year-old from Marick, N.Y., wearing a Vince Carter throwback jersey, said he asked his dad to buy tickets after looking up Wolters online the previous night. "I've just heard he's NBA material," O'Brien said.
Andy Karlin, a longtime Hofstra season-ticket holder, was there with his wife, Marge. "I've never heard of the school or the team, or that kid before now," Andy said. Informed that Wolters was a sensation back in South Dakota, Marge said, "Oh, that's nice."
Shaquille Davis, a 19-year-old from Hempstead, was an actual Natehead. He showed up specifically to see Wolters. "Two years ago, my friend told me about him, but I didn't pay attention because I'm like, 'South Dakota State, where the hell is that?'" Davis said. "But then I saw his game against Washington last year -- he had 34 [points], he destroyed Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, so I'm like, 'I have to pay more attention to this kid.' This was my chance to see him."
Davis watched Wolters' 2012-13 season-opener against Alabama (a narrow loss in which he had 30 points), and was hoping to see something similar. "He has the whole package. He's ready for the NBA," Davis said. "I want to see him go to work."
The game started, and Wolters uncharacteristically -- maybe because he was tired after losing to Hofstra the previous night -- didn't shoot for the first five minutes and 11 seconds. "If he's going to the NBA, he needs to shoot more," opined Tim Owens, a 48-year-old UPS driver from Patchogue, N.Y. "Also, I play in like, YMCA Leagues and LA Fitness leagues, and I don't think he could stop me."
Wolters scored his first points at the 12:26 mark and his first field goal at 11:49 to put the Jackrabbits up 13-12. His game does not really overwhelm you; it's an acquired taste that's a mix of change-of-pace dribbles in pick-and-rolls, crafty space-creating moves in isolation, slow-and-low released jumpers, and mid-range improvisation. A wrong-footed floater he hit in the lane with 2:56 left was particularly Wolters-ian, but he finished the half just 2-of-10 from the field, with nine points, four rebounds, four assists and no turnovers. Not mind-blowingly good, but still, quietly productive. They trailed 41-40 at the break.
Another Wolters-ian thing is that his stats sneak up on you. If the 60 people in the stands had been polled, I doubt many would have realized he finished the game with 22 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and just one turnover. It was a remarkably unassuming near-triple-double. His coach, Scott Nagy, didn't even realize it after the Jackrabbits pulled out a 78-77 win. He picked up a boxscore and said, "I felt like he had 10 points, and he had 22. He does that all the time. I'll think he didn't play well, and then I'll look and see a great line."
What everyone did remember was Wolters' passing. In the final 5:29, he had four assists as SDSU pulled off an improbable comeback, including from a five-point deficit with 20 seconds left. Wolters' penultimate assist was on the Brayden Carlson trey that cut Marshall's lead to two with 13 seconds left. Then came a moment where everyone expected Wolters -- who tends to dominate the ball late in the game and has fixed his long-range shot to the extent that he's made 61.5 percent of them thus far -- to pull up for the game-winner while trailing 77-75 with five seconds left.
Wolters was covered, somewhat, as he brought the ball up the floor, and so he chose to dish to a wide-open Chad White on the right wing. Nagy praised this decision. It was the right decision. Nonetheless, one NBA scout saw Wolters give up the ball on the final possession and joked, "He's LeBron!"
Even White, a reserve who had made one three earlier in the game, said "it was unexpected". He had seen Wolters make multiple game-winners last season and figured he might see another one on Saturday. White did -- but it was a game-winner of his own, a clutch three.
"I could have pulled up [to shoot]," Wolters said. "But I trusted Chad to make it. I like taking big shots, but I have to make the right play in those situations."
If he has a future in the NBA, it's as a playmaking/scoring point guard, one of those diamonds-in-the-rough like Jeremy Lin or Steve Nash, in the absolute best-case scenario. Wolters' decision-making is progressing; the 10:1 assist ratio against Marshall is solid evidence of that. His three-point shot, even if it has a low release, seems to be fixed after a summer of revamping his guide-hand position to move his thumb off the ball. A strong performance at the Adidas Nations camp in August, where he more than held his own in scrimmages against major-conference stars, upped his stock in scouts' eyes.
I asked Wolters if any major D-I teams, or their fans, had expressed regret they never offered him a scholarship out of St. Cloud, Minn., given that he could probably start for 99 percent of them now.
"A couple have, but in high school, I wasn't good enough at all," he said. "I wasn't even close. I was unathletic and didn't shoot the ball well, so they didn't even look at me. I didn't think I was at a high D-I level yet."
He is now, even if he doesn't have the swagger to say that he should be playing in front of thousands rather than dozens, and on TV rather than in front of the two video coordinators' cameras at Hofstra. But such is the life of the indie All-America candidate, even when he's averaging 25.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists thus far as a senior, and may go on to lead the nation in scoring.
Among the few things Wolters has to validate his cult-hero status is a fake Twitter account in his honor, Fake Nate Wolters, run by someone he's never met. It says the things that Nate won't, such as this Tweet from the start of the season:
Some people do the "little things" that don't show up in the stat book. Turns out the stuff in the stat book is important. I do those things.