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Thursday, December 13, 2012
Nate Wolters is finally getting noticed

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Nate Wolters seems uncomfortable as he sits on a plush couch near the entrance of his team's hotel. It's much fancier than the modest joints South Dakota State often frequents on the road.

But this doesn't feel like the road for the Jackrabbits star.

The 6-foot-4 NBA prospect is just 70 miles from his hometown of St. Cloud, Minn., on the campus of the University of Minnesota -- one of the many schools that didn't want him.

Nate Wolters
Nate Wolters leads the Jackrabbits in points (20.4), assists (6.1) and steals (2.1) per game.

He is also a few feet from eccentric light fixtures that belong in a swanky jazz club.

It's an abnormal backdrop for the reserved point guard who plays in a town (Brookings, S.D.) with a population (22,228) that couldn't fill Rupp Arena (23,500). He turns few heads as he lounges in the lobby until one visiting South Dakota State fan spots him and yells, "Go Jackrabbits!" The other guests keep walking.

"We're mid-major, but we're the team there," Wolters told ESPN.com. "We're definitely really popular."

The name "Wolters" is interchangeable. He is C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard, Jimmer Fredette and Isaiah Canaan. He is a member of a club that is reserved for mid-major stars who have emerged from schools that rarely crack the national radar prior to March Madness. Somehow -- albeit through their gradual development, limited exposure in high school or poor evaluations by college coaches -- they've landed at campuses that many folks don't recognize because they rarely see them on national TV.

So it's not surprising that Wolters lives off-the-grid everywhere but Brookings.

He missed his team's matchup at Minnesota on Dec. 4 due to an ankle injury, even though friends and family members throughout the region had traveled to see him play.

He remained on the visitor's bench all night as nationally ranked Minnesota diced up South Dakota State 88-64.

It was a confusing sight. Not the loss -- he leads the Jackrabbits in points (20.4), assists (6.1) and steals (2.1) per game, so a loss was assumed at tipoff -- but the uniform.

Local talents get plucked from the grasps of in-state schools every year. But Minnesota coach Tubby Smith never offered Wolters a scholarship.

He wasn't alone. Wolters wasn't earnestly pursued by any coach from a power six conference. So he signed with South Dakota State, one of the few programs that expressed serious interest.

Wolters' high school career culminated in 2009 with an impressive performance in the championship game of the state's largest division. In that matchup, St. Cloud Tech's Wolters scored 17 points, a game high, against a Hopkins (Minnetonka, Minn.) squad that featured former All-Big 12 first-teamer Royce White, Harvard freshman Siyani Chambers, Minnesota sophomore Joe Coleman and Marquette senior Trent Lockett.

He played better than the best -- even though his squad lost -- but the phone never rang.

Nate Wolters
Wolters didn't get much attention coming out of high school, but he's making up for it now.

It wasn't on the coaches alone. Wolters didn't grow into his body until he reached South Dakota State. He played for an AAU program, the Minnesota Comets, that didn't compete on some of the top summer tours. It probably didn't help his cause that he was a raw athlete who didn't grow up in a major metro area.

"My AAU team at the time, we didn't really travel that much," Wolters said, "so I never really got [the exposure] as much as some guys do."

But South Dakota State assistant Austin Hansen knew Wolters had talent. He had concerns about his defense and wondered if Wolters talked enough, a crucial trait for any point guard, but Hansen still pursued Wolters while most ignored him.

His strengths would cover his weaknesses, Hansen figured. Wolters could score whenever he wanted to in high school. He just made plays. And that's what the Jackrabbits -- and seemingly every program in the country -- craved.

"It just seemed like in the last 10 minutes, he would take over games," Hansen said.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar warned his players about Wolters on the night he transitioned from another mid-major standout to a kid who has made multiple appearances on various mock draft boards.

Romar told the Huskies a story about a young player who ripped up UCLA when he was an assistant. The Bruins had started 12-0, but their opponent stormed back as the relatively unknown guard scored 29 and led his team to a double-digit win.

His name? Steve Nash.

It was deja vu when Romar's team faced South Dakota State last season.

"I thought he was good, but to watch him live and up close gave you an even better perspective," Romar said of Wolters. "He really looked talented. … He was just a maestro with the ball."

That was also the game in which Wolters dramatically raised his pro stock. Against a Huskies squad that featured a pair of future first-rounders, Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, Wolters scored 34 points (10-for-20) in a 92-73 win. The scouts began to take notice.

"They like his size. They like how he manages the game, his feel for game," Hansen said.

For now, Wolters plans to enjoy his last season of college basketball.

He culminated the 2011-12 season by leading SDSU to the NCAA tournament just four years after it had become a full-fledged Division I program. Like Nash, Wolters quickly became the Big Man on a Little Campus.

But he hasn't gone Hollywood in Brookings. There's nothing atypical about his collegiate lifestyle.

Nate Wolters
As South Dakota State's star, Wolters is unassuming off the court and fearless on it.

He goes to the gym -- a lot and mostly at night.

"I shoot for like one or two hours and then go to bed," he said.

One minute, he talks about a typical Sunday for his family in Minnesota, which mimics the routine of many in the region -- church, then Vikings football. The next, he calls his phone a profane term that the family pastor might not like.

He listens to chart-topping music.

"I like Drake … that slow stuff," Wolters said. "His last album was good."

Girls? Video games? Wolters smirks and then pauses.

"Um … I play video games every once in a while," he said.

He doesn't have a tragic backstory. His parents are still together. He still keeps in touch with his high school buddies. He puts up extra shots when he can. And he bumps Drake.

For every normal trait he exemplifies off the floor, he is much more surprising when he's on it. The laid-back senior penetrates with ease. He's unassuming but bold.

"I think right now I [can] compete with anyone in the country," he said.

Earlier this season, he scored 30 points (10-for-15) in a buzzer-beating loss to a defensively minded Alabama team. He has put up 20 or more 23 times since the beginning of last season.

That's why NBA scouts call his coaches and attend his games.

But even if he's not picked in next summer's NBA draft, Wolters will get paid to play somewhere. This time, he is too good and the exposure he is getting is hard to miss.

"It's crazy, and obviously, it's so exciting," said Wolters' sister, Kristen. "A year from now, I have no idea where he's going to be."

A year ago, few even knew he was here.