Zalgiris Kaunas has had a great eye for point guards in recent years thanks in part to its coach, Sarunas Jasikevicius, who is one of the best playmakers in European basketball history. The next name on a long list of great Zalgiris guards is Nate Wolters, who is off to a superb start in his second EuroLeague season. Wolters has averaged 17.0 points per game on excellent shooting percentages (68% 2FG, 50% 3FG) plus 6.0 assists in three games thus far. His average performance index rating of 20.7 ranks fifth overall in the competition. Wolters was a college basketball star as South Dakota State University’s all-time leader in points (2,363) and assists (669). His professional basketball career has had stops in Turkey, Serbia, France and the United States before he joined Zalgiris. Wolters credits Coach ‘Saras’ for his recent success and quick adjustment to Zalgiris, as he explained in this EuroLeague.net interview. “Our coach told me to be aggressive and I think that really helps. He wants me to be aggressive and not to think too much,” Wolters said. “It has been good that way, and my teammates and coaches helped me adjust very easily.”
Hello, Nate. You got a great taste of the EuroLeague in a very special place, Belgrade, a couple years ago when you played for Crvena Zvezda. How much did that experience draw you back to this competition again?
“First of all, the EuroLeague is a great competition, obviously. It is the best league in Europe so I wanted to get back. My time in Serbia with Crvena Zvezda was a lot of fun, the fans were incredible. I wanted to get back in the EuroLeague and I was lucky to have a great season last year. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to play here, with a great coach and a great organization. It is a really great situation for me.”
“I was fortunate to get the opportunity to play here, with a great coach and a great organization. It is a really great situation for me.”
You’ve had a strong start to this season. What has helped you play so well, right away, for a new team in a new country?
“Our coach told me to be aggressive and I think that really helps. He wants me to be aggressive and not to think too much. It has been good that way, and my teammates and coaches helped me adjust very easily. We had a couple of losses at home, but overall, I think we played okay and hopefully we will get more wins here soon.”
Zalgiris comes off a tough loss against Fenerbahce. You led by 8 at halftime, but couldn’t get the win. Did you get any positive things from that loss?
“Yes, we really got off to a good start and played well in the first half. Fenerbahce is a great team and played with more intensity in the second half. They made more plays than we did. We played okay, but have to make sure that we play 40 minutes, especially against big teams like Fenerbahce.”
You returned to the EuroLeague to play on one of last season’s Final Four teams. Did Zalgiris’s surprise success influence your decision?
“Yes, I knew they had a great season and it obviously helped. We have a great coach, ‘Saras’, and that helped, too. Everything I had heard about the organization were nothing but positive things: facilities, the city is great and it was a pretty easy decision to make once they showed interest in me.”
Coach ‘Saras’ was, of course, a legendary point guard. How much are you learning from him about your shared position?
“I have learned a lot and am still learning. Obviously, he was a great player and is now a great coach, and he taught me a lot already in the short time that I have been here.”
You have a reputation as a hard worker. Zalgiris’s locker room has a direct access to a practice court, 24/7. How great is that for you?
“It is great! It has to be one of the best facilities in all of Europe. I can come to the gym whenever and have our own practice gym; you don’t find that too often in Europe. I usually try to shoot after practice, but our coaching staff is doing a good job. After practice, we do like 30 minutes of individual stuff and get some shots up. They definitely want us to work on our game, and that has been good. Our arena is just first class and that definitely helps. The fans have been great, too. The whole situation has been good so far, and I am looking forward to succeeding.”
Lithuania is a basketball-crazy country, just like Serbia. What similarities and differences do you find on how they live and breathe basketball?
“Well, these are two places in which they definitely love basketball. The fan support at both places are incredible. The atmosphere in Belgrade is more… tense, I guess you can call it that way! In Lithuania, it is a bit more like in the United States, which I am more used to, in terms of how the fans react. They are really loud, but other than that, its quieter than in Zvezda. At the start of the game in Zvezda, you cannot ever hear anything. It is constant cheering, kind of like a soccer game, I would say. Here, you can tell that fans are really passionate and they seem very positive all the time. That motivates us to play well!”
You’ve also been to Turkey and France in your career. Do you enjoy immersing yourself in different cultures and lifestyles?
“Yes, it has been good. Playing in Europe gives you the chance to see a lot of places that I wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t play basketball. I really enjoyed my team in Istanbul, it is a great city. It has been nice to see different parts of the world and obviously, playing in the EuroLeague, you get to see a lot of the main cities in Europe, which is fun, even if it is for a short time. It is definitely a plus of playing basketball.”
The EuroLeague is competitive every night, as you saw when Zvezda lost a tiebreaker to get into the 2017 playoffs. How would you describe the intensity of this competition?
“There is not one game that you think you can come in and win if you don’t play well. That is what makes it fun and you have that kind of playoff atmosphere every week.”
“Yes, every game seems like a playoff game, just because it is only 30 games. Every game matters and there are no easy ones. There is not one game that you think you can come in and win if you don’t play well. That is what makes it fun and you have that kind of playoff atmosphere every week. It is pretty cool. Like I said, if you don’t play well, you are going to struggle. It is definitely very competitive.”
You played your first EuroLeague game in Athens against Panathinaikos almost two years ago exactly. What are your thoughts now going back there to face Nick Calathes and that great crowd?
“They are a really good team, really talented. It is going to be a tough game, but we know that every week we are going to have a tough opponent. It is going to be tough, but we have to play hard, run our systems and see what happens. I think that if we play hard, play together, we can compete against anyone in the EuroLeague.”