Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the 17th overall pick of the 2019 NBA draft, begins his rookie season with a lofty goal of immediately breaking into the Pelicans regular rotation – and he stated his first case Monday night in New Orleans’ preseason opening victory against the Atlanta Hawks.
“I would tell you it’s news to Nickeil that he’s not going to play,” Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said on Media Day when asked about the development of rookies not seeing many minutes. “A lot of young guys approach the summer in different ways. […] Nickeil came in here trying to prove, ‘No, those are my minutes.’ His approach has been all about that from the very beginning. If he doesn’t end up playing minutes, it’s going to be shocking to him because that’s his mindset. He is going to deliver for us in some way, and he knows it.”
Alexander-Walker contributed 12 points (5/10 FG, 2/5 3PT), two rebounds and two steals in 15 minutes during the Pelicans’ 133-109 victory over Atlanta despite not seeing the court until late in the third quarter.
Not far removed from taking control of the summer league offense, NAW was one of many bright spots in the first preseason contest as New Orleans searched for primary ball handling off the bench to carry its attack at times.
It might not suit Alexander-Walker’s most natural fit to make him the lead guard with a secondary unit just yet, but the role doesn’t seem to favor JJ Redick, Josh Hart or E’Twaun Moore either. The offense can’t afford to stall in those minutes once the regular season rolls around. So maybe the rookie can force head coach Alvin Gentry’s hand sooner rather than later into bumping him up the order.
NAW is an all-around offensive player with a solid shooting touch, creative ways of getting to the rim, a nice handle, playmaking ability, etc. — not to mention his maturity and other intangibles off the court. He isn’t the most explosive player but makes up for it as a high-IQ guard who can also operate comfortably in the pick-and-roll. We’re definitely still very early in the process, but if there’s anyone to watch progress during the preseason with the Pelicans, it’s Alexander-Walker. (Honorable mention: Nicolo Melli).
Defensively, it could be a different story. NAW has the length to cause issues, but his lean frame could be a disadvantage matched up against some of the league’s larger guards. Listed by the Pelicans at six-foot-five and 205 pounds, the Toronto native even joked at Media Day about how his eating habits around New Orleans were of no concern to the training staff.
“They kind of want that weight,” Alexander-Walker laughed. “So, I’m good. I went to Walk On’s a few times and sent pictures to Jason [Sumerlin] to make sure I’m getting the right stuff. Good food. You always want to enjoy it, but fortunately I’m at a stage where I can eat anything and they’ll be okay with it.”
Alexander-Walker was the highest rated prospect coming out of Canada and ranked in the ESPN Top-25 as a recruit in 2017, but he didn’t hear the same buzz as everyone else. He still felt as if he had something to prove. Now in the Crescent City, he’s simply trying to earn quality minutes on a roster loaded with talent as the noise around him continues its crescendo.
Before Alexander-Walker arrived in New York for the 2019 NBA Draft, he had around nine thousand Instagram followers. That number expanded by 60k in a two-month span. The hype and buzz is finally starting to come his way, and NAW admits it’s been a different experience.
“It’s something I’m not used to,” Alexander Walker said. “But at the same time, seeing how Jaxson [Hayes] and Zion deal with it has been a huge help.”
There’s no denying the bond between those three rookies – combined with their respective maturity and personal balance – will remain a tremendous asset as they grow together. The former Virginia Tech Hokie, who averaged 16-4-4 as a sophomore last season, also has his eyes on the other New Orleans veterans though. Alexander-Walker is eager to take parts of his teammates’ skill sets and professionalism to make them his own.
“It’s just never really being satisfied,” Alexander-Walker said. “The average NBA player is, what? Four years? I know for a fact that it took me more than four years to get here, and so I want to stay here as long as possible. My thing is to be the best I can be and every day try to grow and improve. [New Orleans] put me in a great position to play with Lonzo, Jrue, JJ – great guards – and learn from them. I’m trying to take as much as I can from them and eventually be a better player.”