New schemes that exploit the unique properties of Nitrogen-Vacancy (NV) centers in diamond are presently being explored as a platform for high-resolution magnetic sensing. Here we focus on the ability of a NV center to monitor an adjacent mesoscopic nuclear spin bath. For this purpose, we conduct comparative experiments where the NV spin evolves under the influence of surrounding 13C nuclei or, alternatively, in the presence of asynchronous AC fields engineered to emulate bath fluctuations. Our study reveals substantial differences that underscore the limitations of the semi-classical picture when interpreting and predicting the outcome of experiments designed to probe small nuclear spin ensembles. In particular, our study elucidates the NV center response to bath fluctuations under common pulse sequences, and explores a detection protocol designed to probe time correlations of the nuclear spin bath dynamics. Further, we show that the presence of macroscopic nuclear spin order is key to the emergence of semi-classical spin magnetometry.