The season review on Nickeil Alexander-Walker is more of a half-season review.
Partly because that’s the sample size of him thus far in a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey, but he also wasn’t a consistent member of the rotation for the perceived-to-be tanking Utah Jazz during the first part of the year.
It was the main reason he was perceived to largely be a throw-in in the deadline deal that sent D’Angelo Russell to the Los Angeles Lakers and saw the Wolves haul in a return of Alexander-Walker, Mike Conley, and three second round picks.
Also in deal: Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones to Jazz, Nickeil Alexander-Walker to the Timberwolves, sources said.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 9, 2023
On the off chance you live under a rock, NAW ended up being a little more than a throw-in. His ability to spot up and hit shots was important given the myriad of injuries and ineffectiveness from Minnesota’s bench, and proved to be one of the Wolves’ most important players with his defensive chops and the ability to stay in front of quick and athletic guards (namely his cousin, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). His breakout performance in the Wolves jersey came against his aforementioned cousin in the Wolves’ second play-in game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in which his defensive performance on SGA held him to 22 points on just 5-19 shooting.
More on that later.
All of the above factors make this summer an incredibly interesting decision for Tim Connelly and Co. in the front office with the looming restricted free agency of the 24 year old.
The Undeniable Offensive Bench Spark
“Nickeil Alexander-Walker got gorilla nuts.” — Anthony Edwards
The quote of the year from Edwards as an anatomical commentary on Alexander-Walker was the product of a tumultuous regular season shooting the basketball that suddenly became placid in the postseason by making some big-time shots.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker clutch corner 3 pic.twitter.com/ifeDeaMJYj— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) April 24, 2023
NAW ended the season the way he started his Wolves tenure. He began his time in Minnesota scorching hot from three, shooting 50% from distance in his first seven games, which included big roles in crucial wins over the Lakers and Sacramento Kings.
There were times early on that looked like the missing piece that was so desperately needed. But the games in which he either disappeared, became unplayable, or was just downright missing shots that mostly resulted in Wolves losses (5-7 in games he shot less than 40% from three-point range, 5-2 in games he shot better than 40% from three), were arguably more of a sign that he could be an x-factor if even a stitch of consistency was found.
His tendency to turn the ball over as the primary ball handler and shady decision making didn’t help his case.
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It was the major knock on him coming over from Utah as well. It’s probably a dream scenario for the Wolves if he can eventually mold into a backup point guard-type role, but I don’t think he’s trustworthy enough with the ball to have the expanded responsibility.
His raw turnover number with the Wolves was nothing to sneeze at (he averaged just one turnover per 36 minutes), cutting down on his cross-court passes and acquired less ball handling responsibility with his new team. The tendencies are still very much apparent however, and for a starting five that’s already plenty careless with the ball, it’s important for that to not spill over to the bench.
But it’s less about how you start and more about how you finish. NAW rounded out the year shooting 40% from three in the playoffs, and showed a ton of promise off the ball in using his length to get to the basket. In the playoffs alone, he was second on the team in field goal percentage on shots less than five feet in (75%).
Defense: Where the Money is (and will be) Made
The scoreboard won’t reflect it, but there was a palpable sense of skepticism when Minnesota assumed its final stand against OKC for one last chance to head into the postseason. The Wolves were ailing from a heartbreaking, blown lead, overtime loss to the Lakers and had every possible reason to roll over and let fans struggle with the reality that an up-and-coming team with a young superstar spoiled installment one of an all-in chapter for the franchise. It was paired with a light, collective head scratch from Wolves fans when NAW found his way into the starting lineup for the high stakes, do-or-die occasion.
The reasoning for that start was made apparent pretty quickly. He readily became the shadow of said young superstar. What makes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander so special is his ability to change direction and speed so fluidly. It’s incredibly hard to guard, and paired with his length, allows him to get to his spots seamlessly.
But other plans were in the works.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker impressive defensive possession vs. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pic.twitter.com/fjPy3ENVfC— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) April 15, 2023
NBA matchup stats are in from last night.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 16, 2023
Nickeil Alexander-Walker held SGA to only six points on 2/14 shooting (14.3%), just two assists, and did not get whistled for a shooting foul on one of the league's most prolific scorers.
Elite defensive performance in a big spot.
It wasn’t just SGA. Alexander-Walker picked up multiple matchups and defended them seamlessly. In many ways, paired with a strong outing from the twin towers, he was the reason they won the game.
His start against the Thunder was not just a flash in the pan, either.
The reason the celebration had to be short-lived after the play-in was because an impending playoff human flamethrower in Jamal Murray awaited him in round one. While Murray saw plenty of success in the series, he shot just 38% in the Denver Nuggets’ game four loss, and his matchups stats against Alexander-Walker were even more interesting.
NAW held Jamal Murray to two points on 1/8 FG, four assists and two TOs last night.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 24, 2023
KAT held Murray to 1/6 FG on the shots he contested.
Excellent work from a more aggressive Wolves defense, which held DEN to 9/26 (35%) on shots in 4-14 feet range (DEN shot 16/19 there in G3).
Is he a Jaden McDaniels-level perimeter defender? No, not quite. But he was pretty damn good in filling McDaniels’ role in the postseason while he sat on the bench with a club for a right hand. The assimilation of McDaniels back in the lineup next season only makes the prospect of Alexander-Walker coming back more interesting. A discount McDaniels with guard skills being able to step in off the bench is incredibly intriguing, but it comes with caveats.
Alexander-Walker is a restricted free agent with a 7 million-dollar qualifying offer awaiting him.
In a recent Reacts post, fans favored re-signing NAW to a 6-8 million dollar per year deal. That sounds fantastic if we’re just talking about the playoffs and the leap that was taken as the year went on.
In my opinion, I’m still not fully sold on that. The reality is that the Wolves have no margin for error in giving out those types of contracts. There needs to be certainty that NAW can contribute every night at a moderate-to-high level, and the streakiness has to be more of a thing of the past. I’m not positive that ends up being the case. It could be best for Minnesota to renounce his rights and see if something in the 4-5 million dollar range for 3 years could be appealing to offer him some stability and developmental support until he gets to his prime.
But for the first time in his career, it seems as though Nickeil fits somewhere and has a clear-cut role. That means something, and I hope that something is him back in Minnesota for next season. But it has to be for the right price; and if the new contract comes in a little higher than what I laid out above, the margin for error and tolerance for underwhelming outings off the bench get closer and closer to evaporating.