So the story goes that in 2012, a gangly 8th grader walked into the YMCA in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada and asked to play with the older guys. These are men who are at least 5 years older than him, and a kid who hadn't even hit trigonometry on the curriculum yet was asking to play. They laughed him off, but eventually they needed one more for a run, and so on came the middle schooler. He proceeded to absolutely destroy anyone and everyone in front of him. Those same guys grew to like the kid and nicknamed him “Popsicle” because his legs were no bigger than a popsicle stick.
Six years later, on draft night, the Los Angeles Clippers made a trade with the Charlotte Hornets and ended up with a gangly, over-confident youngster from Canada named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Popsicle watched him get drafted from the couch at home, and after one more year in college, he joined his cousin in the NBA.
But it hasn’t gone perfectly for Nickeil Alexander-Walker since draft night. The New Orleans Pelicans drafted him without a real plan for what his role would be. While at Virginia Tech, Alexander-Walker was able to exist both on and off the ball, using his family-brand craftiness to get to the rim and those slender arms to finish around bigger players while also being fed chances from Washington Wizards legend Justin Robinson. With his quick, high pointed release and all around offensive game, along with a body built for defense, it seems like New Orleans wanted him to learn everything he could from Jrue Holiday. Even alongside new acquisition Lonzo Ball, Nickeil would have chances to shine as a sparkplug scorer.
It was during this time in his rookie year that Nickeil met Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch, as an Assistant Coach for the Pelicans. Clearly, the two clicked. During President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly’s call with media Thursday night, it was clear that it was Finch who pushed for the Timberwolves to bring in NAW. But, after Walker’s rookie year, Alvin Gentry was fired and with him, went Finch.
Connelly says that Finch coaching NAW in New Orleans was a factor. Adds that NAW can play 1-3 and that Utah has done a really good job with him.— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) February 10, 2023
Should help Alexander-Walker that he's got familiarity with this coaching staff
And the changes didn’t end there. One short offseason later, Jrue Holiday was traded. While Nickeil’s minutes jumped from 10 to 20, he improved his shooting, playmaking, defending, everything he could do to improve his chances to make an impact. Even after a solid season, Nickeil saw the Pelicans bring in Devonte’ Graham and was eventually supplanted in the rotation by Jose Alvarado. By last year’s trade deadline, he was moved to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of the package for CJ McCollum. However, they didn't want to give him a chance either. Walker was sent on to Utah in exchange for Joe Ingles’ contract.
On the eve of the 2021 deadline, the kid named “Popsicle” was once again faced with guys older, bigger, and stronger than him keeping him off the court. He played less than 9 minutes a game in 15 contests for Utah. He’d described the YMCA days as “cut throat”. This was as cut throat as it gets.
For players drafted outside the lottery, this is how careers end. You get flipped around a few times before clinging onto summer league rosters. Instead, Walker came back to a Jazz team that had traded its two all stars and key role players, and became a valuable specialist and a real part of the rotation.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a player I’ve loved for years. He was one of the first players I did extensive scouting on and I even watched him get drafted live in 2019. I called him the best point guard not named Ja Morant or Darius Garland in a draft containing Coby White, Jordan Poole, and Kevin Porter Jr. It’s hard to think that the player I watched lead Virginia Tech to the Sweet Sixteen became the player he is today, but who he may become could be hugely valuable for the Timberwolves.
Nickeil’s biggest strength is still his frame. At 6-foot-5, his 6-foot-11 wingspan is at the center of the player he is. On offense, it allows him to keep his dribble further from reaching hands while still in control and keeps his shot high and away from contests. On defense, it gives him an advantage in swiping for steals or meeting other guards around the rim. This year for Utah, Walker is averaging 3.5 steals and blocks per hundred possessions by far the best of his career. He’s also shooting another career high number of 40.2% from 3 with tightened mechanics in his lower body.
However, at his core, NAW is still largely a driver. While he lacks in explosive athleticism, Walker mixes in tons of shot fakes and wrong leg layups at the rim to go along with his aforementioned cartoonish wingspan. He may never end up as good as him, but his stutter-y, stop and go approach at the rim is reminiscent of early Ricky Rubio.
Vitally, Nickeil will also have the support of his coach. Jazz coach Will Hardy inherited Walker. Willie Green failed to fully lift him up. That’s not the case here. During the aforementioned press conference, Connely, on Finch’s behalf, spoke glowingly about Nickeil’s abilities, specifically mentioning his ability to play anything from point guard all the way down to small forward.
Sadly, no player that’s been traded twice in four years is going to come without warts. A big question mark for Nickeil has been whether he can add strength to his frame. Walker still gets outmuscled regularly and usually has to resort to a game of cat and mouse on defense instead of just straight up stopping his matchup. He also shies away from physicality, preferring a parry to a block both on offense on defense. His career year from three is also coming on his career’s smallest sample size at only 2.4 attempts a game, and his free throw percentage has gradually decreased from around 73% in his second year to 68% so far this year, another side effect from his refusal to go through contact.
While Walker may be an afterthought from the D’Angelo Russell for Mike Conley swap, he is still only 24 and was a bit of a late bloomer in college, breaking out in his sophomore year. On the financial side, as a soon to be restricted free agent, it’s not unlikely that, if he’s brought back, Alexander-Walker will be around longer than the 35-year-old Conley. Most importantly, the young guard has an extremely smooth fit with multiple lineup options on this team. Want to go big to end the game with good positional defenders across the floor? Try throwing Alexander-Walker out there with Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Kyle Anderson and Rudy Gobert. Is Nowell struggling and you need a different shot creator off the bench? Let Walker get in there with Jordan McLaughlin to set him up or let him work off a Naz Reid drive or toss a swing pass to Taurean Prince.
The kid from that YMCA court is still there. That fire, that indignant longing for success, the refusal to leave can all still be seen in Alexander-Walker’s growth since he hit rock bottom. The kid named “popsicle” is not done yet, and could be the backcourt ice to Edwards’ fire. But this is the brink for Nickeil. This is it.
But, if it’s at all like those YMCA runs, he’s cool. In his old coach’s words “he wasn’t afraid to be in any sort of heated environments. He’s just kind of built for it.”