It's not often NBA scouts get all the way out to South Dakota, so when SDSU was in Long Island for the 2K Sports Classic last month, those in attendance had plenty of questions for Jackrabbits coach Scott Nagy about standout Nate Wolters, one of the best point guards in the country.
But after a victory over Marshall on the second day of the tournament, Nagy shrugged and told the inquisitors that his star simply hadn't played that well that day.
"And then I go back and look at the stats and he has 22 points and 10 assists and like one turnover," Nagy said with a chuckle. "But this is what he does all the time. ... He always looks like he's in second gear, that's what I say. It's like he's just floating along, it's easy for him -- but I've not seen anybody that can stay in front of him."
As South Dakota State heads to Minneapolis to play the Gophers on Tuesday, the 6-4 Wolters is averaging 20.8 points, 6.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds per game. The St. Cloud Tech graduate also is collecting more accolades than ever as one of the most skilled players in college basketball and a potential NBA draft pick.
Watching Wolters play, it looks as if he could take it or leave it. His low-key, almost expressionless demeanor on the court makes it seem as if all of his success is only a happy accident. But inside the quiet exterior, Wolters' passion and commitment burn bright, qualities that those who know him can't help but admire.
"I don't like when people are better than me," Wolters said. "I'm a pretty laid-back person off the court, but on the court I wouldn't say I am at all."
And he's on the court a lot, providing a presence that has inspired a culture of hard work and accountability in the program, Nagy said.
"People ask me what he's like off the floor, and a lot of times my answer is: I can't really tell you what he's like off the floor -- he just stays on there," Nagy said. "But for him, for Nate, he doesn't view it as work -- it's not, 'I gotta go in there and get better.' For him, I don't know what else to call it. I guess it's an addiction."
Often, as teammates shower after an exhausting practice, Wolters will be among them -- still sweaty and in uniform because in an hour, he'll be back out there, shooting solo.
As the most accessible teammate, Wolters' roommate, Marcus Heemstra, often gets dragged to Frost Arena late at night to rebound as Wolters hoists up hundreds of shots. If you were to walk into the gym between 10 p.m. and midnight on any given night, chances are you'd see Wolters, Heemstra said.
"He's never woken me up, but there have been some pretty late nights where I'm like, 'Aw, man, I'm tired, I want to go to bed,' and he's like, 'Nope, let's go shoot,'" Heemstra said.
From last year to this year, that extra dedication has been critical in bringing Wolters' game to the next level. After shooting nearly 41 percent from three-point range his sophomore season, the guard's accuracy from behind the arc fell to 24 percent in 2011-12. He discovered that his guide hand was getting in the way of his shot, giving it an inconsistent spin as it left his hands. But following night after night of working on the correction, the senior is shooting better than ever, both from long range (42 percent on three-pointers) and from shorter distances (49 percent overall).
"There's definitely the pressure to succeed," he said. "But I think I've got a lot of expectations for myself more than anything, just to play really well every night and help my team win."
His work in the shadows makes it look easy in the spotlight, enabling his teammates and coach to shrug after a 22-point, 10-assist game.
"It's just been so consistent, that it almost has become expected and you have to kind of look back and reflect on it before you see how incredible it actually was," Heemstra said. "Because in the moment, it's just normal."