Nickeil Alexander-Walker is Better Than You Think

Feb 28, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (9) controls the ball against Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Gordon (10) during the first half at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Being amongst one of Minnesota’s most anticipated packs since ’04, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has been trotting along with some big-name Timberwolves. His incorporation into the Russell-Conley swap was not meaningless, and he’s proven why. No, it’s not just because of his defense. There’s been plenty of chatter about his defensive impact (just look at his defensive rating in his first five Wolves games). Watch any possession with him on the floor to see how his screen navigation and footwork denies opponents. His offense, though, needs more awareness. There’s more to NAW that deserves your awe.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker is Better Than You Think

Shooting For the North Star(s)

The young man’s upside is still high, but even today, he’s had success letting it fly. NAW’s been able to increase his shooting efficiency over the years, starting out in New Orleans. He’s jumped up to a sleek 60.8% true shooting this season.

NAW won’t be required to shoulder a massive burden like Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns (or even Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert), so it would benefit the Wolves to have a few players that excel in spot-up and catch-and-shoot situations. He’s been in the 95th percentile in spot-up points per possession and has shot a stout 39.4% on catch-and-shoot threes (stats are combined Jazz and Wolves tenures).

Maybe his shooting improvements are due to shot form improvements. Maybe it’s down to his general northward progression throughout his career; the North Star is a nice guide in the night sky that could help him orient himself and improve his accuracy.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s Competition

Part of what makes NAW such a terrific addition is who he’s replacing. Finding a replacement for Austin Rivers in Chris Finch’s rotation will be critical. When the postseason rolls around and ten-man rotations are shored up to seven or eight, Rivers would have been on the outside looking in. He’s struggled to fight around screens, exacerbating surrounding issues. Not to mention, NAW eclipses him in those two key stats.

Rivers is shooting 37.3% on catch-and-shoot threes and scoring 1.08 points per possession in spot-up situations, good for the 64th percentile.

The Timberwolves’ Competition

It’s still far too early to playoff matchups in great detail. There are several teams that the Wolves are likely to face. Whether they are play-in matchups or one through three seeds.

Screen and movement-heavy teams like Sacramento and Golden State could cause issues for the Wolves. Should the Wolves finish sixth, they’ll need NAW to chase around Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk. If they play Golden State in the play-in, it’s ditto with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Dallas is another likely opponent, and NAW would be far more serviceable avoiding screens in that matchup than Rivers.

As if NAW wasn’t already an upgrade, he’d be a cleaner fit against all three of those scary teams.

His Upside is Better Than You Think

We’re getting just a little into the weeds here. Player development and evaluation are niche skills in the basketball media world. From a more relaxed standpoint, Nickiel Alex looks to have some playmaking and self-creation chops.

In an incredibly small sample size, despite being a young upside player on a lottery-bound team (although the Jazz did look like playoff contenders for a month or so) NAW was an elite-level isolation scorer. The sample size is eleven, yes eleven, isolation possessions with Utah this season. He was nearly the 90th percentile in points per possession in isolation. Yet, Will Hardy never opened up minutes to see what he had in the often overlooked 17th overall pick.

Eleven possessions are essentially zero, which is why his prodigious numbers should and are overlooked. However, careful observation of his current play and his history as a scorer is needed. He has not yet proven himself to be worthy of elite scoring recognition, but his lanky yet controlled frame and fluid ball-handling skills garnered him attention prior to the 2019 draft. Considering he’s had a career arc lacking stability, planting his feet in Minnesota for a few years could unlock an impact player.