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Nickeil Alexander-Walker and the Impact Reaching Beyond the Box Score

Nickeil Alexander-Walker has struggled on the offensive end so far, but his defensive impact can be felt outside of a traditional box score.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves sit third in the Western Conference sporting a 5-2 record, which includes a decisive win over the reigning NBA Champion Denver Nuggets, and a slugfest knockout of the East’s top squad, the Boston Celtics.

Through the first seven games, the Wolves find themselves with the league’s top-ranked defense (100.7 defensive rating). They are holding opponents to 42.1% overall shooting and 31.3% from three, while only allowing 18.7 free throws per game, which is second best in the NBA.

A very important reason for the Wolves’ defensive performance thus far is a resurgence from three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The Saint-Quentin, France native entered the 2022-23 with a lingering knee injury he suffered in the 2022 EuroBasket competition, and later dealt with ankle and back issues throughout the season. All of those injuries restricted his mobility both laterally and vertically, which can make it hard to rotate on the defensive end and challenge shots at the rim.

Gobert — who is fully healthy now and has an extra spring in his step — is averaging 13.6 rebounds per game, along with 2.2 blocks — up from his 1.4 last year (his lowest since his rookie campaign in 2013-14).

Jaden McDaniels has also performed extremely well on the defensive end after coming back from his calf injury, boasting a 99.6 defensive rating. His ball-screen navigation at the point of attack and ability to pressure opposing team’s best offensive players is the other pillar of this tremendous start to the season for this Wolves defense.

To be an elite defensive team, it takes every single person on the court to buy in and accept their role. The latter is one of the hardest things to do as an NBA player, and it requires being a great teammate not just at the start of the season, but every night.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker does exactly that, even though his offensive output thus far likely hasn’t matched his expectations for this season. NAW played ball for Canada this summer in the last FIBA run, in which he shot 38.5% from beyond the arc. He also shot pretty well for the Wolves in the back half of last year’s season after being acquired at the trade deadline in which he shot 36.1% from deep.

The former Virginia Tech star has struggled mightily on the offensive end through the first seven games, averaging 3.3 points while shooting 28.1% overall and and 25% from beyond the arc. Despite these struggles, NAW is not one to mope and complain. He continues to play hard and shows up on the defensive end, which is why head coach Chris Finch elects to continue to play him.

His ability to contest shots and fight for possessions is what grants him playing time, and it’s why he continues to find himself on the floor.

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His relentless pursuit of the basketball and active hands while also having great instincts is what makes him such a great defender. These two clips from the Timberwolves’ 123-95 win against the Utah Jazz are prime examples of how the impact is seen outside of a traditional box score.

Alexander-Walker also had a great hustle play in the first quarter of the game against the Celtics. In what was seemingly going to be an offensive rebound, he chased it down and was able to throw it off Jrue Holiday, earning the Wolves another possession.

Being able to take a high energy player such as NAW to fill in the gaps when Mike Conley and Jaden McDaniels go to the bench is going to pay large dividends over the course of the regular season as the Wolves, amongst other teams in the West, will find themselves jockeying for playoff positioning.

It also plays to the depth of this team, something that is extremely vital if the Wolves are looking to make a deep playoff run and make it out of the first round, something that hasn’t been done since 2004.

If NAW is able to get back to the shooting touch he had last season, this Wolves team is going to unlock yet another level of play off the bench. The defense and the energy, hustle, and effort are always going to be there. It’s just a matter of finding that touch again. I would be surprised if the private moments at Mayo Clinic Square don’t feature teammates like Anthony Edwards telling NAW to keep shooting the ball and that they are going to fall.

The struggles on the offensive end may be there now, but NAW will recover and this Wolves team is going to have even more bite than they’ve shown to this point so far in an early season.