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NBA AM: Wolters Hopes to Reclaim NBA Spot

Nate Wolters discusses his basketball journey, what he learned overseas, his mindset entering Denver’s training camp and more.

Jake Rauchbach

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As training camps open up around the NBA, established players are using this opportunity to refine their game and get themselves in peak shape for the upcoming season. However, there are some players who are fighting for their spot in the league. For a guy like Nate Wolters, who is entering camp as the fourth point guard on the Denver Nuggets’ roster, his season starts now.

Wolters has spent time with the Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Pelicans in previous years and is coming off a strong season in Turkey, where he averaged 11.6 points, 5.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds.

Wolters has good size at 6’4 and has proven to be a solid lead guard in the NBA and overseas. Along with his other skills, Wolters is particularly adept at making plays out of ball screen action. As the No. 38 pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, Wolters is hoping that this opportunity with the Nuggets gives him a chance to reclaim an NBA roster spot.

Basketball Insiders caught up with Wolters to discuss his basketball journey, what he has learned along the way, his outlook entering Denver’s training camp and much more.

Basketball Insiders: How was it playing in Turkey last season?

Nate Wolters: “It was a good experience. I was in Istanbul. It was a really fun city. It was my first time being overseas, so it definitely took some time to get used to it. The league was really good – a lot of good players, a lot of guys who played in the NBA before a lot of Euroleague teams. Overall, the competition was good. It was a good league and I enjoyed it.”

BI: Who were some of the guys who had played in the NBA or shined in Euroleague that you went against last year?

Wolters: “Fenerbahce had Pero Antic, Ekpe Udoh and Jan Vesely.  Their front line was like all NBA guys. The top teams are really good, and then in the bottom teams, there is kind of a big disparity from the top four or five to the bottom tier. I guess it’s like that in any league.”

BI: You previously played with the Bucks and Pelicans. How do you find the international game different from the NBA?

Wolters: “The spacing [is different], and some teams are almost like robotic it seems like. In the NBA, I don’t think there are any teams quite like that. Our coach actually let us play a lot more than a lot of places, so that helped. It was a lot more fun playing that way too, but those guys know how to play over there. That’s for sure.”

BI: Was the goal all season, in the back of your mind, to get back to the NBA?

Wolters: “Yeah, anytime I go over there, that’s going to be my number one goal. Hopefully, next year I can stay and play in the NBA. That’s kind of what I was thinking – go over there and get better, stay in a different country, learn a different way of basketball, hopefully have a good summer, and then come back here with another chance to play in the NBA. So, I think I am in a pretty good situation here [in Denver]. I just got to wait a little bit and see what happens.”

BI: How have you prepared yourself from a mindset point of view to be ready for camp?

Wolters: “I don’t do anything like setting aside time to do mental work, but I am just by myself right now so there is a lot of time to think [and] just have positive thoughts. I am in a situation where I am competing for a spot. It’s not like I am guaranteed for next year. It’s kind of a tough situation for the next month or so, but I just try and stay positive. Just try to control what you can control, which sometimes isn’t a lot, but just try and play hard and try to make the right play when you’re out there.”

BI: What has your preparation been like heading into training camp?

Wolters: “I work out in the Twin Cities at Velocity Sports with Rakim Anim-Finney. He does my basketball stuff. I also worked with Reid Ouse and Justin DeGrood, who are based out of New Jersey. I had a long offseason. I was back in April, so I didn’t really take much time off either. I tried to scale back from playing games a little after Summer League and just tried to relax with family and work out. But at the same time, I tried to unwind before it all gets started next week.”

BI: How do you see yourself adding value to the Nuggets?

Wolters: “When you’re trying to make a team, there is kind of a fine line between trying to do too much and proving yourself. But still, at the same time, you want to be aggressive so they notice you a little bit. [I’ll] just try to run the team and then kind of pick my spots when I feel like I can be aggressive and try to make plays.”

BI: The Nuggets already have several players at the point guard position including Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray and Jameer Nelson. How do you see yourself breaking into the mix and getting a chance to make the roster?

Wolters: “They kind of brought in quite a bit of guys in my situation: [Robbie] Hummel, Jarnell Stokes, D.J. Kennedy. There is kind of like six of us competing for one or two spots, so it’s going to be tough. But who knows who they will keep? You can’t really worry about that. Maybe it will work out here, maybe it will work out somewhere else.”

“I just try to play confident. I think that’s a lot of it. At the same time, you don’t know how much time you will get in the preseason, because there are so many guys, so you have to make the most of your minutes. It could be only five or 10 minutes; it could be at the end of the game when it seems like it doesn’t matter if you’re just watching the game, but it matters for us. So, whenever you get your opportunity, just try to make the most of it and try to not overthink it. Just play and have fun.”

BI: What do you say is your biggest strength as a player?

Wolters: “I would say just running the team and being able to make plays off the pick-and-roll, getting in the lane and either finding the guy for an open shot or being able to hit a floater or getting all the way to the hole. I think I am a pretty good pick-and-roll player, and obviously in the NBA, 70 to 80 percent of the possessions end up in a pick-and-roll. I think I am pretty good at that.”

BI: What parts of your game have you been working to improve during this offseason?

Wolters: “I’m still working on hitting open threes when they’re there and also just trying to get stronger in the weight room. In Turkey, we didn’t have the greatest facilities, so I’m just trying to work on my body in the summer to get stronger and work on my outside shot.”

BI: What is your central motivation as you try to achieve your long-term goals?

Wolters: “My motivation is trying to get as good as I can at basketball just so that I don’t regret anything when I am done. [I don’t ever want to] think, ‘I could have done this or I could have done that… that could have helped my career…’ I think a lot about not having any regrets, so just trying to prepare myself the best I can for each season and just going from there. But other than that, I don’t really have a certain goal of like how long I want to play or anything like that. It’s more just a year-by-year thing, trying to get better.”

BI:  How do you prepare yourself to perform at a high level night in and night out?

Wolters: “I think that is kind of one of the most impressive thing the best players in the league [do]. They have to play 82 games and they always have to be on top of their game, knowing they are going to play 35 minutes. So I think that was good for me to be able to go overseas and play those types of minutes in big games over there. I think that kind of helped me for this year. I mean, I probably won’t be getting huge minutes if I make the team – it will be kind of spot duty – but at any point you have to be ready when your name is called even if it is only for five or 10 minutes. That’s something that you have to get used to.”

BI: What sets you apart from other guys who are also trying to make a roster this fall?

Wolters: “I think I have a pretty good work ethic. I am not going to cause any trouble. I am going to work hard regardless of my minutes, and I am a point guard. I feel like I have a good understanding of the game, and I’ll know the plays and know the system, so I think I will do a good job of being able to run a team when needed.”

Jake Rauchbach is an Integrated Player Development Coach, specializing in High-Performance Mindfulness. He has coached professional and Division-1 basketball. He is the founder of The MindRight Pro® Program and consults on the Olympic, collegiate and professional levels. Follow him on Instagram @mindright_pro and twitter @mindrightpro

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Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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