Some Important Context...
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker came out of Virginia Tech in 2019 as a highly touted, two-way combo guard with the shooting, driving and playmaking skills NBA teams look for in first-round guard prospects, especially at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan. The former Hokies star as a sophomore averaged 16.2 points on 47.4 / 37.4 / 77.8 shooting splits, 4.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists-to-2.9 turnovers, and 2.4 stocks across 34.3 minutes per game (and shot 38.3% from deep on 303 career attempts in Blacksburg), a legitimate resume to match the evident talent that popped on film.
When he arrived in New Orleans as a rookie, he struggled with consistency — a staple of his game in college. When opportunity was there, Alexander-Walker took advantage of it; in the three games he played more than 30 minutes, he scored 29, 19, and 27 points respectively. But it didn’t come often. Granted, he was playing behind Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick for a Pelicans squad that had just drafted Zion Williamson after liquidating Anthony Davis for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart, so trying to figure out how another young prospect fit was a tough task for then-Head Coach Alvin Gentry. Once Alexander-Walker got consistent run during his sophomore and junior seasons in The Big Easy, he took advantage of it.
- 2020-21: 11.0 PPG on 41.9 / 34.7 / 72.7 shooting, 3.1 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.5 stocks in 21.9 MIN
- 2021-22: 12.8 PPG on 37.5 / 31.1 / 72.2 shooting, 3.3 REB, 2.8 AST, 1.2 stocks in 26.3 MIN
Although a promising talent, the NBA trade current pulled him out from shore and washed him away from a consistent role. The Pelicans needed to include him in the deadline deal to land ex-Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum last year, but the Blazers then flipped him for the injured Joe Ingles’ expiring contract and a second-round pick in a deal with the Utah Jazz. Once he arrived in Salt Lake City, Alexander-Walker’s minutes per game fell from 26.3 in New Orleans to 9.9 on a playoff-bound Jazz squad with an entrenched rotation.
Even after the Jazz blew up their roster this past summer, Alexander-Walker barely played over the first month of the season, before Collin Sexton suffered a hamstring injury that cleared a path to consistent minutes. Alexander-Walker enjoyed his most minutes of the season in December, and unsurprisingly put together his best stretch. He averaged 9.8 points on 55.1 / 47.6 / 64.7 shooting (68.4% TS), 3.3 assists-to-1.8 turnovers, and 2.3 rebounds across 20.6 minutes per game in 12 contests.
Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch was on staff in New Orleans as an Assistant Coach during Alexander-Walker’s rookie season, and was clearly intrigued by the talent NAW flashed then, and throughout this season. So much so that he pushed for the 24-year-old to be included in the trade that also landed Mike Conley and three second-round picks. The deal would’ve worked financially if Utah included one of NAW, Rudy Gay or Talen Horton-Tucker in addition to Conley, but Finch’s campaigning for the rangy guard made a difference.
“He’s got good positional size. He’s a versatile offensive player. Finch actually coached him in New Orleans. He was really high on his abilities to do a lot of things on both ends. He mentioned his ability to play the 1, 2 and 3. ... He’s been really shooting the ball well this year. He’s had some wonderful defensive moments,” Wolves President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly said on February 9 after officially acquiring Alexander-Walker. “It’s crazy: this league has become less and less patient. You forget how young he is. It’s only his fourth year. He’s in his last year of his rookie-scale contract. ... and [he has] familiarity with our coaching staff. So it’ll be fun to get him in the gym and see what he can do.”
The point Connelly made about patience is an important one considering the context of Alexander-Walker’s NBA career to date. The Minnesota front office bought low on him and is already enjoying the benefits of that decision.
Alexander-Walker’s early success is rooted in his understanding of what Finch and the coaching staff need from him.
“I’d say it would be similar. I have faith and confidence that it will be. I don’t feel like much is going to change. It is still basketball,” Alexander-Walker said to Minneapolis-area media last month when comparing his role here to those in previous stops. “You still gotta come out and guard, gotta be a good teammate, gotta play hard, do the little things, understand the scouting report, understand what’s being asked of me, and provide.”
When you watch his minutes as a Timberwolf, you can feel Alexander-Walker’s hunger not only to find a long-term home but also to bring elements of last year’s underdog Wolves squad; he wants to build on that in Minneapolis.
“It’s another city that has an unwritten story. Great players have come here, KG, young talent, we’ve seen young Zach, Wiggins, who went on to win a championship, now Ant and KAT,” Alexander-Walker said. “I think it’s just after what they did last year, to be in this same position to do it again this year is really cool. It shows that it wasn’t just a fluke. It wasn’t just a good game. They had earned it and they have something brewing. For me to be a part of that and for them to want me to be in the trade excites me.”
Where Alexander-Walker Has Found Success
Alexander-Walker brings something off the bench that isn’t found in the backup 2-guard rotation: two-way play.
Jaylen Nowell is the largely deployed for his firepower next to Jordan McLaughlin, while Austin Rivers is called upon for his point-of-attack defense chops in lineups with scoring on the wing.
But with NAW in the fold, Finch has the doesn’t have to sacrifice defense to build lineups around McLaughlin, and can add more secondary creation and shooting around a Kyle Anderson and Gobert pairing that can blow a fuse and cause an occasional power outage offensively. Because of this, he should be a lock to stay in the rotation over Nowell and Rivers in the final month and change of the season.
Tiny sample size but in 69 minutes #nice Nickeil (\ni-KEEL\) Alexander-Walker has played himself into Chris Finch's rotation and deserves consistent minutes with his defense & versatility. Minutes distribution = 17% at SG, 63% SF, 20% PF. +8.2 on court per 100 poss. 46.2% from 3.— John Meyer (@meyerNBA) March 1, 2023
Let’s run dive into the film to go through it.
Despite having Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards in the fold, adding another point-of-attack defender was a sneaky need for the Timberwolves heading into the trade deadline. Alexander-Walker certainly addressed that need. From the moment he stepped onto the floor, he brought a needed energy, hustle, and a willingness to do the dirty work as a defender. While Rivers has had some fantastic moments, he hasn’t done those things consistently enough to effectively replace what the Wolves lost in shipping out Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt in the Rudy Gobert trade.
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In the first clip, Alexander-Walker got right up into Charlotte Hornets wing Gordon Hayward, who was enjoying a strong performance up to this point. NAW gets caught on the first screen, but he follows Gobert’s lead and fights through traffic Hayward feel him and his 6-10 wingspan, and helps force a turnover to get the crowd into it. On the very next trip down, Alexander-Walker gets right into Hayward. Although he gets beat, it gets Hayward off-balance and Gobert in position to force another turnover.
The Wolves went on an 8-0 run after Alexander-Walker checked in shortly before the first play above. On that run, the NAW/Ant/Jaden/Rudy quartet displayed an incredibly high defensive ceiling that can completely shut down anything an opponent tries to do. Add in another scorer in Towns, and you could have a lineup of players all 6-5ish or taller with 6-10ish wingspans or longer.
His wiry frame allows him to navigate screens well, and his plus wingspan is a weapon for effectively contesting shots both from a standstill without having to jump at shooters; and, mixed with long strides, his length is helpful as a trailer coming around screens. He can, at times, get caught on screens, but the length of his arms and strides make up for a lack of explosive burst.
Where Alexander-Walker is going to most impactful defensively, however, is in a switching concept. He can effectively guard 1-3, but may struggle against overpowering types, such as a Jimmy Butler, Paul George, or Luka Dončić. He communicates very well about when to switch, how to hand off the ball-handler to a teammate, or vice versa, in ball screen action, and when he needs help.
The Golden State Warriors can send teams in circles trying to defend screening actions for Klay Thompson, but NAW and J-Mac execute this perfectly.
Here, Alexander-Walker weaves together good on-ball discipline with excellent off-ball awareness. Just watch how he follows Jonathan Kuminga and makes the Warriors wing uncomfortable on the catch down low.
Spot Up Situations
Simply put, the Timberwolves badly need more shooting. The Wolves rank 18th in 3-point shooting by percentage (35.6%) and 16th by makes per game (11.9). Obviously, the team’s two best shooters in Towns and Taurean Prince, and their best 3-point shot creator in McLaughlin missing significant time hurts those marks, but even still, the Wolves need more capable contributors from deep.
Alexander-Walker may not garner the respect of a defense in the way the average shooter with his 3-point percentage this season (41.0% on 2.4 3PA per game), the fact he can still knock down 3s when the defense collapses on an Edwards drive or Towns post-up is important. His form is a little wonky, and can be improved upon, but NAW is shooting 44.8% (13/29) from the corners and 40.6% (28/69) above the break this season, and hasn’t been shy since joining the Wolves.
As he does in the first clip below, Alexander-Walker is also pretty good at moving without the ball in his hands. That’s going to be important as a guard who will share the floor with Edwards in important moments of high-pressure hoops down the rest of the season.
The Toronto, Ontario native also brings to the table quick decision-making, a palpable pace to his game, and an ability to play off the catch and create for others and himself on the move.
Something Finch loves about McLaughlin is that J-Mac gets the ball over half-court with 21 or 22 seconds left on the shot clock all the time. When D’Angelo Russell nonchalantly sauntered up the floor, it drove Finch insane. NAW very clearly understands the benefits playing with pace even off makes can create, which has to please his head coach.
But let’s focus on his off-the-catch game. Alexander-Walker has scored 1.36 PPP in 14 spot-up situations ending in a shot, pass or turnover since joining Minnesota, ranking him in the 97% percentile league-wide, per Synergy Sports. That’s an extremely small sample, of course, but it lines up with his 1.21 PPP mark with the Jazz this year (86th percentile), and matches the eye test.
This first clip drew ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowd for the nice move, but I like how NAW sets up so that he can step into the pass with a jab and leave room for himself to shoot the 3. Instead, he puts it on the deck and finishes in style.
Alexander-Walker is also quite adept at using his length touch to his advantage around the rim. He’s shooting a career-best 66.7% at the rim and plays like these two below are a big reason why. NAW has attacked the basket with more intention and control this year, relying on his bag of tricks to make up for a first step that isn’t the quickest amongst his peers on the wing.
NAW is shooting a very solid 48.0% on floaters with a career-high 25.1% short mid-range rate (3-10 feet). One would presume that being around Mike Conley for an off-season and full 2022-23 season has something to do with that.
As far as his passing goes in a Wolves jersey, it pretty much starts and end with his down-hill attacking. Playing with a rolling, mobile big that’s terrific around the rim in Walker Kessler has done wonders for him; it’s evident that Alexander-Walker understands how to get into the teeth of the defense in order to create open looks inside for his bigs.
Where Alexander-Walker Can Improve
Just like every other young player in the NBA, Alexander-Walker certainly has his shortcomings. Many of his are driven by a thin, 205-pound frame that hasn’t changed much since he entered the league four years ago, and the lack of an explosive first step that can balance out his build when he gets into the paint on both ends of the floor.
He is going to be out on the floor against bigger and more physical guards/wings, so trying to add strength however possible will be important if he wants to continue to evolve as a defender. He held his own pretty well against the Los Angeles Clippers, but Norman Powell got into him and gave him trouble.
While his craftiness makes up for limited burst on some level, it can only take him so far. As a result of that, Alexander-Walker can at times try to do too much on the drive and attempts wild, problematic finishes.
Spacing certainly contributes to some of this. Had he played on last year’s five-out Wolves squad, maybe this conversation would be a little different. Along that vein, it’d be smart to pair him with Towns and McLaughlin whenever possible; a lively pace with good spacing in the half-court would do him wonders.
Lastly, even though NAW is shooting 66.7% at the rim this season, he is shooting only 54.4% for his career, so he will have to prove that mark is not an outlier, but rather a sign that he is improving at the cup.
The Wolves should also look to grow his PnR game, as NAW showed flashes in that regard as a member of the Pelicans and Jazz. He created 0.91 PPP as a handler, ranking 66th of 139 players who engaged in two or more PnRs per game. His 28.2% turnover rate was worst among those players, though. When he wasn’t turning it over, he was making good things happen. It is understandable why he tries them, though.
Cleaning up the overly ambitious passing will be important for him, but pairing him with someone like Towns could help clear space at the rim while also making passing reads easier for him. As we see Towns spot up more down the stretch, plays like this will be cool, too.
Lastly, Alexander-Walker can struggle off-ball when he gets flat-footed, as it opens up opportunity for his lack of explosiveness to become more of a factor. He normally is fairly active and attentive off-ball, but when he isn’t, he has a tendency to get caught on his heels, which creates plays like these:
It is easy to see why Nickeil Alexander-Walker is emerging as an important role player for the Wolves given their lack of switchable and two-way options on the bench, need for an energy creator on the defensive end, and another young player under team control to create roster flexibility for a franchise paying two supermax players.
NAW will become a restricted free agent at season’s end, presuming the Wolves will extend him a $7.1 million qualifying offer. They could also sign him to an extension before the season ends, if they choose. It’d be smart for the Timberwolves front office to try and sign him to a long-term deal before restricted free agency given his fit around the team’s core, and in order to prevent a situation where NAW shows out next season and leaves for nothing in unrestricted free agency.
No matter what the Wolves choose to do, acquiring Alexander-Walker in the Conley trade was an shrewd move that is already paying dividends for Finch and Co., and hopefully continues to give the team as they run the gauntlet of the Western Conference down the stretch of the season.