At the height of Nate Wolters' transformation from overlooked recruit to blossoming star, South Dakota State engineering student Nick Hofer hatched an idea to capitalize on the high-scoring guard's rapidly increasing popularity.
Hofer began selling T-shirts last winter with a caricature of Wolters' face underneath the words "Naters Gonna Nate," a motto a CBSSports.com writer had given the perpetually underrated guard. All 200 T-shirts Hofer initially ordered sold out within days.
"There was a ton of interest," Hofer said. "I didn't make enough shirts. I still had people contacting me for weeks after I sold out — students, alums, teachers, fans, everybody."
Those T-shirts popping up on campus and at Frost Arena last winter is just one example of the affection South Dakota State fans have for Wolters as a result of the impact he has made at the school. The 6-foot-4 Minnesota native emerged as a potential NBA draft pick by averaging 21.2 points and 5.9 assists as a junior and leading the Jackrabbits to 27 wins and the school's first NCAA tournament bid.
Fans approach Wolters at restaurants to shake hands and pose for photos. Kids swarm him for autographs at clinics or after games. Heck, there's even a fake Twitter account in his name devoted to "The real Summit League Player of the Year."
"He's like an icon around here," South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy said. "Everyone talks about Nate. I have daughters in the fourth and fifth grade, and their friends all want to meet Nate. We'll go to a volleyball game, they'll see Nate and they'll want me to introduce them to him."
Whereas Nagy might have to worry about other players getting conceited as a result of all the attention, that's hardly a concern with Wolters.
South Dakota State's shy, unassuming star is typically far more comfortable alone in a gym shooting jump shots for hours than he is mingling with fans around town. That's part of the reason he's such a good fit for a blue-collar region that prefers fortitude to flash.
"I'm a pretty quiet guy so I don't love the attention," Wolters said. "But it's definitely a good thing for me and the program, so I'll enjoy it while it lasts. It's better than not getting any attention at all."
Nate Wolters (US Presswire)It's no surprise Wolters finds the attention a bit surreal considering he's more accustomed to flying under the radar. Not only did in-state power Minnesota not show much interest in him during high school, no Division I program besides South Dakota State even started recruiting him until midway through his senior season at St. Cloud Tech.
Since he grew up 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis and played for an AAU program that didn't travel out of state all that often, Wolters didn't receive as much attention as other top players in his region. It also didn't help that he played more shooting guard than point guard in high school, or that his expressionless demeanor on the court often led coaches to wrongfully assume he wasn't competing consistently.
Nagy first saw Wolters when assistant coach Austin Hansen brought him video of the guard notching a triple-double in a state playoff game. It didn't take long for Hansen to sell Nagy on offering Wolters a scholarship, but the South Dakota State staff didn't have much success persuading Wolters to accept it.
"We were the only Division I school recruiting him all the way through the fall, so his dad was convinced he was a Division II player," Nagy said. "His dad wouldn't let him sign with us early, and I was frustrated. I basically told Austin, 'I'm done recruiting him.' His dad had made it clear he didn't want him to go to South Dakota State.
"His entire senior season, I didn't talk to him one time, but Austin would go watch him play and pretend he was watching someone else. He kind of stayed involved with him when I didn't know it. He knew I was frustrated, but he stayed involved with Nate when I felt we didn't have a chance."
Hansen's persistence paid off that spring when Nagy eventually agreed to reopen the recruitment and Wolters signed with South Dakota State. Wolters chose the Jackrabbits over North Dakota State and Colorado State because he liked the coaching staff and he appreciated that they envisioned him as a point guard rather than a combo guard.
"Division I was a goal of mine, but I was fine playing Division II or college basketball in general," Wolters said. "SDSU one of the few schools wanted me to play point guard. At the end of my senior year, I decided that's where I wanted to go."
The transition from Division II to Division I had been anything but smooth for South Dakota State, but Wolters helped transform the Jackrabbits from Summit League bottom feeders to contenders. South Dakota State won 14 games his freshman season, 19 his sophomore season and 27 last year, an upward progression that could continue next year since the Jackrabbits return all but one starter.
Where Wolters has improved most since his freshman season is in his decision making coming off ball screens. It started as a weakness in his game since he rarely played point guard in high school, but now he is so deadly in a pick and roll that South Dakota State seldom runs a half-court set that begins any other way.
Despite Wolters' success the past few years, there are areas Nagy would like to see his star improve in entering his senior season.
He needs to continue to get stronger so he can absorb more contact going to the rim. He needs to make more of an effort to be a vocal leader on and off the floor rather than merely being content to set a good example. And perhaps most importantly, he needs to fix the jump shot that sometimes deserted him as a junior.
Wolters had always been a capable outside shooter in high school and college, but last year he shot a woeful 24.1 percent from behind the arc — a nearly 17 percent dropoff from the previous season. Part of the reason was Wolters took some bad shots late in possessions with the shot clock running down, but Nagy also identified a mechanical flaw in his shots from long range.
"He's very good hitting the runner and making shots off the dribble because he takes his guide hand off the ball, but when he shoots a three, he was using his thumb on his left hand," Nagy said. "We just spent time with him this spring talking about getting that thumb off there so he had a consistent spin on the ball."
Breaking a 21-year habit might be difficult for most players, but it has come quickly for Wolters because he spends so much time in the gym. Between camps, weight lifting and individual shooting sessions in which he sank 500 or 600 shots each day, Wolters was working so hard Nagy actually had to demand he take a week off when he returned home to Minnesota right before the start of fall semester.
Did Wolters follow directions? Well, almost.
"I shot a little bit with my friends but nothing too major," he said, chuckling. "I get bored pretty quick if I'm not playing basketball."
With a revamped jump shot that enables him to punish defenders who play him to drive, Wolters expects to be even more productive than he was a year ago.
He'll lead South Dakota State on its quest for a Summit League title and a return to the NCAA tournament. He'll try to solidify his status as a potential NBA draft pick and maybe even push his way into the first round. And, whether he enjoys it or not, he'll continue to be a boost to the local economy in Brookings because of his burgeoning popularity as the face of a winning program.
T-shirts and No. 3 jerseys are flying off the shelves at South Dakota State's university bookstore. Basketball season tickets are selling at a record pace. And the owner of the biggest sports bar in Brookings expects big crowds for road games this winter.
"The night they played Baylor in the NCAA tournament (last March), it was probably the biggest night we've ever had in this place," said Gus Theodosopoulos, owner of Cubby's Sports Bar & Grill. "We had people come hours early, we stopped taking reservations and we were standing-room-only. When you get a player like this who plays above the level you're used to and captures the imagination of a whole town and a whole region, it's unbelievable to watch it."