The ink on the Nickeil Alexander-Walker lifetime contract still hadn’t completely dried on an anticipated Tuesday night of basketball at Target Center when the Minnesota Timberwolves, two games over .500 after a successful California road trip, looked to make it four straight wins against the Philadelphia 76ers.
A big ingredient needed in that game needed in a recipe for the win was Alexander-Walker, who was coming off his best game as a Wolf, a 16-point, 50% from 3-point range effort in Sacramento in one of Minnesota’s best wins of the year. It seemed to be one of those moments of arrival for a perceived throw-in in the D’Angelo Russell - Mike Conley three-team trade that seemed like a highway robbery with NAW’s performance on the floor.
Pleasantly surprised by the off-ball shooting excellence Alexander-Walker has displayed. Don’t expect him to keep shooting 50% from deep, but he naturally finds space (love the reverse 45 cut in clip 2) and keeps his hands ready. If he can hit some pull-ups, all the better! pic.twitter.com/iJFmn41bj8— Aidan Berg (@AidanBerg_) March 5, 2023
Alexander-Walker finished the game against the Sixers with five points on just 2-6 shooting.
It’s been a box score that’s indicative of the swingman’s up-and-down performances as a young role player for a team that’s welcomed his boost. So often he’s up; hitting shots, using his burst to get to the basket, and playing excellent defense on what feels like one through four. Sometimes, he down; and his defense is what keeps him in the lineup among questionable decision-making.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker block + coast-to-coast transition drive + interior pass to Luka Garza for the layup pic.twitter.com/KuwwxepvrN— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) March 14, 2023
An offseason lies ahead where a decision will have to be made about the cousin of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. I’ll take a look at a couple things he brings to the table, and what I think awaits him this offseason.
The most noticeable part of Alexander-Walker’s presence the seamlessly works with both the first and second units is his activity on the defensive side of the ball. He’s incredibly quick navigating around screens, and disrupts game flow with active hands. He hasn’t been one to run up steal numbers, but he does enough to be one of the better perimeter defenders on the team.
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Opposing teams are shooting 50% from inside the arc when Alexander-Walker is on the floor, and 53% when he’s out. The shot frequency at the rim is the same, and it’s clear his length and quickness are assets when the Wolves start scrambling.
Check out this little sequence last night from Nickeil Alexander-Walker:— Kyle Theige (@KyleTheige) March 4, 2023
Nearly gets the poke away, dives for the loose ball, sprints back to recover, helps force the steal, then runs down and hits a big time three.
NAW is still just 24 years old. Definitely a keeper. pic.twitter.com/Qw9Nkfg0go
However, it’s clear he still is in an adjustment period. The hard skills exist, but his defensive efficiency on the floor with Gobert and McDaniels are not good; that’s a problem. Additionally, among all two-man lineups he’s played with so far in Minnesota, he has a positive net rating with just three other players, and all are small minute sample sizes.
The rapport on defense has to continue to improve. But there is still a lot to like about NAW defensively that gives you encouragement that it could materialize.
Funny enough, I think Alexander-Walker offensively is pretty comparative to a less polished Jaylen Nowell.
Nowell clearly has spots on the floor he can get to and confidently convert at a relatively high percentage. I’m not sure NAW is there quite yet.
However, he possesses a similar quality Nowell has in having the first step and quickness to collapse defenses, something the second unit just doesn’t possess. At times, things tend to get incredibly stagnant because of that as a consistent weakness. For awhile, while Nowell was out, Anthony Edwards was the only one that could do so, and couldn’t really leave the floor if any sort of offense was to be had.
Alexander-Walker isn’t Zach LaVine, but there are certainly glimpses that he can do it at a competent level.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker finishes high off the glass pic.twitter.com/swcuKW2Evh— Timberwolves Nation (@TWolvesNationCP) March 18, 2023
While inconsistent, he’s also provided a welcomed shooting stroke. He takes less than two pull up 3-pointers per game, but connects on 42% of them; good for third on the team among players who play significant minutes.
The other side of the coin is the aforementioned inconsistency. NAW shoots 34% from 3 overall, but is just 31% on catch and shoot 3s. The most backbreaking number of all? Alexander-Walker is just 25% on wide open 3s, which is good for one of the worst on the team. For a team that already has a bugaboo shooting the basketball, that’s something that can be incredibly hard to justify.
It seems with everything in talking about NAW the common line is “he flashes, but doesn’t do it well consistently.” Rebounding and crashing the boards on the offensive end is certainly one of those.
One of the things that the Wolves loved when assuring Alexander-Walker was included in the deadline deal was his length and ability to play-make. He’s uniquely positioned in the Wolves scheme to be able to initiate and use his size to his advantage. But rebounding continues to be an issue. Statistically, he’s one of the worst rebounders on the team across a few key metrics (contested rebound percentage, rebounds per game, rebound chance percentage), getting far outpaced by Mike Conley. For a team that’s already spotty in collecting rebounds, NAW has to use his size to his advantage as a big guard and find ways to extend possessions.
Repeating the theme of this article: “he flashes, but doesn’t do it well consistently.”
Alexander-Walker is a restricted free agent this offseason with a qualifying offer amount of just over $7 million. Unless something crazy happens between now and the end of the season, I’m personally not extending that and letting him test unrestricted free agency.
I’d be curious to see what other teams end up offering him. The Wolves will already be strapped for cap space this offseason, and there can’t be much they afford to use as a test. In this case, that test would be NAW playing like a $7 million per year player. I don’t currently see that happening across any metric or in meeting the eye test on a consistent basis.
There are flashes...
Nickeil Alexander-Walker impactful on-ball + off-ball defense pic.twitter.com/rkRceaFyFr— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) March 11, 2023
But there’s still a lot of development that needs to take place. I would wonder if a three year, $10-13 million deal would be of interest. Alexander-Walker is still just 24 years old, and a bridge deal into his prime to allow him some time to secure his role and sharpen up a few of the aforementioned aspects before he hits free agency as a hypothetical 27-year-old.
Wolves fans,— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) March 5, 2023
If you haven't heard Nickeil Alexander-Walker before here is his postgame interview after his 16p (4/8 3's) 5a performance vs. Kings. There's a reason he's already become a fan favorite & it's not just because of his play on the floor...https://t.co/sJma7PAjdD
It seems as though he wants to be in Minnesota for the time being. With a few more consistencies, the Wolves should want the same (for the right price).