Credit: Roberto Finizio/Getty Images
Credit Roberto Finizio/Getty Images

If for Crvena Zvezda Belgrade this has been a rollercoaster season, marked by a couple of impressive highs and some surprising lows, the same does not apply to Nate Wolters.

The 30-year-old guard returned to the familiar territory last summer, four years after his EuroLeague debut with the Serbian squad. Dejan Radonjic was the coach at the time before he moved to Germany to guide Bayern Munich for a couple of seasons.

Nate Wolters

Nate  Wolters
Nate  Wolters
MIN: 24.21
PTS: 12.27 (57.39%)
REB: 2.64
As: 4.18
ST: 0.73
BL: 0
TO: 1.55
GM: 11

So, for Nate Wolters, nothing's changed. Same team, same city, same coach, same habits since he was last dressed in red.

"Belgrade is a nice place to live. I know the city and the team, that definitely helps," he tells BasketNews.

"When my agent told me that Red Star were interested, I thought about my previous experience with the club and also being back to the EuroLeague. The fans and the organization create a family atmosphere. Serbian players make you feel that you really belong to the team," he explains.  

Following his first stint in Serbia, the American guard continued his journey elsewhere. He went to France (Elan Chalon), Lithuania (Zalgiris Kaunas), Israel (Maccabi Tel Aviv), and Russia (UNICS Kazan).

Montenegrin coach Dejan Radonjic has also returned to Belgrade, making for an interesting reunion.

"We're doing a lot of the same or similar things in practice. He's a good coach and a fun guy to play for," Wolters comments.

Despite him leading Zvezda offensively with 12.3 points on 64.4% two-point shooting plus 4.2 assists per game, they are far from a great shooting or scoring team this year. They shoot at 27,7% from deep whilst producing only 70 points per game. Both are league lows.

In addition, they are not the definition of an athletic team either. So, how have they managed to get five wins so far?

"We haven't shot the ball great all year," Wolters concedes. "I think we've got good shooters, but it's been one of those years when shots don't fall. If we started making some outside shots, the game would be a lot easier. But when we play good defense, we can make things really hard for our opponents and have a chance to win.

We've done that in the games that we won, although we've struggled a bit in some home games, especially against ALBA Berlin and UNICS Kazan. We got to protect home court better, but if we keep playing defense like this, we will at least give ourselves chances to win more games."

Draining some three-pointers, of course, wouldn't hurt, but suffocating opponents and pinning them down to less than 72 points on average is no small feat. Crvena Zvezda like low-scoring games because they give them more chances to end up on the winning side.

Nate Wolters

Nate  Wolters
Team: Crvena Zvezda Belgrade
Position: PG
Age: 30
Height: 193 cm
Weight: 86 kg
Birth place: Minnesota, United States of America

For Wolters, the explanation is pretty simple.

"We have a lot of guys who are good defenders. A lot of it is just effort. We've had some games where we played hard. We have a pretty physical team, and I don't think most teams like to play against us," he maintains.

However, Red Star have gone from being blown out by ALBA Berlin at home (63-78) to virtually cruising past Maccabi (75-63) and Zenit (69-58) on the road. The disparity looks huge, but the EuroLeague is a lot like that. When Radonjic's players don't bring their best game, they can lose to anyone - and that's been proven several times.

"We didn't come to play a couple of games," Wolters nods. "We were not talented enough to beat other EuroLeague teams. So, we have to get physical in order to have a chance to win. But it's such a long season that every team has games where it's hard to explain why they won or lost," he goes on to say.

Over the course of the last weeks, Zvezda signed point guard Stefan Markovic and welcomed back Aaron White, who played with Wolters at Zalgiris. Those additions to the team's rotation could render Red Star a better, more complete squad.

"It's good to have Stefan here, he's going to help a lot. And then, Aaron has been here the whole time. He knows how to play, and we need his athleticism," Wolters notes.

Credit BasketNews.lt/D.Lukšta

"We've had some injuries, as other teams have had guys out in the season. It would be nice if we all could stay healthy. We have a pretty deep team when we are all playing," the experienced guard underlines.  

Compared to his first term in Belgrade, Zvezda's archrivals Partizan Belgrade have grown significantly stronger. About a month ago, Wolters registered 9 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals in a comfortable 71-56 win for Red Star in the "eternal derby".

"It's always a fun game between us," he says. "The atmosphere was great. We played really well and were able to beat them."

Things might get tougher and also "warmer" between the two rivals down the road.

"They are extremely talented, and it's going to be tough this year. They've been doing well in the ABA League and the EuroCup, where they're one of the favorites. I'm looking forward to some good battles."

Having experienced those fierce showdowns in the past made Wolters want to get another taste of them. Considering that COVID put entire countries on lockdown, basketball arenas could be no exception.

Playing without fans deprives traditional clashes of one of their basic elements, especially when spectators actively engage in the game played.

"You don't really get to play in those types of rivalry games and atmospheres too often. Last year, when we played a lot of games without fans, we realized what difference fans can make. It's like taking out a huge part of the game," Wolters points out.

The Minnesota-born player has been fortunate enough to play for die-hard fans of different teams from different countries. He believes that Zalgiris, Maccabi, and Zvezda are the best three fanbases in Europe.

"That makes the EuroLeague so special. Red Star fans are pretty awesome, passionate, and loyal," he says.

For an athlete who spent whole four years in one of the lesser-known college programs, that kind of atmosphere definitely rings a bell.

"I think it's a lot like college basketball," says Wolters, one of seven NBA Draft picks to have come out of South Dakota State. "Of course, rivalry games in college don't really compare to the atmosphere in Europe, but it's a little bit like it," he adds.

Red Star fans may share a special bond with their Olympiacos counterparts, but the two teams will not allow amity to get in the way when they lock horns in Belgrade for Euroleague Round 14 on Thursday (December 9).

The Reds from Greece are led offensively by Sasha Vezenkov and Tyler Dorsey, who used to engage in some shooting challenges with Nate Wolters when they both were at Maccabi Tel Aviv (2019-20).

If someone were to ask him who the better shooter between the two is, Wolters would have no problem admitting defeat.

"He is," he replies with a chuckle. "It's his game, he's a really talented shooting guard. He was in his first year overseas when we played together with Maccabi," Zvezda guard remembers before giving his former teammate some props.

"All the season, he was learning the European game but definitely, this and last year, he's one of the better players in the EuroLeague. It's been fun to watch him play this year. He's a tough guy to stop, especially when he gets going. It will be a big key for us to slow him down".

Wolters also thinks that Olympiacos got a good team this year.

"They made some good signings last summer and have talent in every position. They're an experienced, smart team that plays good defense," he says concluding his assessment.

Despite big rivalries and Olympiacos, Wolters spent the 2020-21 campaign with UNICS Kazan under current Panathinaikos coach Dimitris Priftis.

"He's a good coach, and I'm glad he was able to be at Panathinaikos in his home country. He's a good guy, and I'm happy that he's back in Greece," he says before answering the inevitable follow-up question.

Did he - or anyone else from the Greek club - try to bring him over to Athens? Greek media have been reporting about the Greens being interested in him since he was with Besiktas five years ago. However, it seems that the smoke was without fire.

"I've just listened to my agent. He takes care of things when something major comes up. So, nothing serious on that in the years past. I was never really close to a deal with them," Wolters clarified.

Last year, UNICS lost the EuroCup finals to Monaco. In 2020, the season was cut short while Maccabi looked great ahead of the playoffs.

In 2019, Zalgiris were eliminated by Fenerbahce in the playoffs - and lost to a clearly better team, as it turned out. In 2017, Zvezda didn't make the playoffs despite having the same number of victories (16) as 8th placed Darussafaka.

Those situations would have one to think: "What else can go wrong this time?".

But Wolters isn't one of them.

"No, not at all," he replies, bursting into laughter. "I take it year by year, trying my best. There are times when things can go better or worse. You got just to take it.

COVID has had an impact on everyone in terms of jobs and playing without fans. But a lot of people dealt with worse than us athletes. It's been a crazy couple of years, but it kind of put things in perspective," he contends.

The 38th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft played for two coaches who had been great point guards as well - Jason Kidd and Sarunas Jasikevicius.

"The big thing for him is to just move the ball. As a player, he was a great passer, and that's really what he preaches – get everyone involved and make the extra pass," is how he has described Kidd as a coach.

"I wasn't with Kidd very much. My time with him was short," he says without going into detail. It's obvious that he became more familiar with the Lithuanian coach in his year in Kaunas.

"Saras is doing a great job in Barcelona. He taught me a lot in terms of doing the little things in a game and how to attack. He's a very smart basketball mind and a demanding coach. But he really knows what he's talking about. I'm glad I had the opportunity to play for him," he acknowledges.

The Wizards initially drafted the 1.93 m guard back in 2013 but was traded to the 76ers on draft night. He was sent to the Milwaukee Bucks on the following day, and after joining them for Summer League, he secured himself a contract.

In the team's maiden game in the 2013-2014 season, 22-year-old Nate Wolters logged 30 minutes of action. It was the first of his total 58 NBA games that year when he averaged 7.2 points and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 43% from the field.

Wolters appeared in just 11 games for the Bucks in 2014-15, before being waived by the team and picked up by the Pelicans, where he played in just 10 games to finish out the season.

In New Orleans, he found current Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams. Williams and Milwaukee faced off in the 2021 NBA Finals, as the former Pelicans bench boss led the Phoenix Suns to the main event for the first time since 1993.

"I was with New Orleans for 40 days. Although I don't know Monty Williams that well, his story and the man he is are pretty impressive. He did a great job at Phoenix," says Wolters.

Asked about who he chose to root for in those Finals, he promptly responds: "I was really fond of watching Giannis Antetokounmpo. The steps he's made throughout his NBA career are incredible. He developed and finished it off with an NBA title."

In fact, the two played their rookie season together. So, Wolters declaring himself an avid Giannis fan comes as no surprise.

Credit Nick Laham/Getty Images

"He's still going, and he's been fun to watch from afar," he continues. "I was definitely happy for him. When I was there, we were the worst team in the NBA."

"For Giannis and Khris Middleton to have been the two main pieces of a championship team is a pretty cool story. Credit goes to both of them," he notes with pride.

According to Wolters, the "Greek Freak" becoming a superstar is probably the main reason why the Bucks developed into a championship-caliber team.

Antetokounmpo's work ethic is second-to-none, and his former teammate can only attest to that.

"He was 18 when I was there, but you could say that he was super talented and showed flashes that he could be really good. I don't know if anyone ever thought he was going to be what he is today. He worked very hard and cared a lot, which he still does. He's a special guy," Walters notes.

The last time the two spoke was last summer when Giannis texted Wolters to thank him for talking to Mirin Fader, who was writing a book about the Greek superstar.

"He's such a good guy that he doesn't seem like he has changed at all since I was on the team," he observes with admiration.

Following his brief stint with the Pelicans, Wolters was acquired by the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA Development League, where he even recorded his first career triple-double. In July 2015, he joined the Los Angeles Clippers for the Summer League.

However, a fractured middle finger on his left hand ended his aspirations of landing another NBA contract. A few days later, he signed his first overseas deal with Besiktas.

"It's so hard to stick in the NBA," he underlines. "Coming over here, I didn't know much about European basketball. But there are so many good players that it's hard to succeed here too.

There's not much difference between carving out a decently long NBA career and not being in the league at all. I'm happy to be able to continue playing at my age. I've been enjoying my experiences overseas. The EuroLeague competition is super-good."

Many former NBA players have had a hard time adjusting to the reality of Europe. This season, we've seen Kenneth Faried, OJ Mayo, Yogi Ferrell, Troy Daniels (to name but a few) struggle a lot.

"It's a really tough league, and the style of play it's more physical compared to the NBA. There's not much space to operate, and it's hard to score, especially on isolation," Wolters explains.

"It's also a league with a lot of older guys who know how to play and are smart. It's hard to succeed, especially if you are in your first year in EuroLeague."

In most cases, when players leave the NBA, people in America (excluding die-hard basketball fans, family, friends, and followers) tend to lose interest in them. Finding out that they actually play overseas can refresh their memory.

"Sometimes, Americans are surprised by how many guys they remember. They recognize Nikola Mirotic and others that were pretty good in the NBA," Wolters thinks.

"The EuroLeague is a top-notch league, with a lot of good players. You only play 34 games in the regular season, so every game means more than in the NBA."

However, there's always a downside to everything. "It's like having a playoff atmosphere the whole year, which can be equally as stressful as it can be fun."

For the most part, Nate Wolters is definitely enjoying it.

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2022-01-10
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