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Tyler Herro cementing ‘steal of draft’ status, but Nickeil Alexander-Walker can become a consistent performer too

Don’t write off the 17th pick of the 2019 NBA Draft yet

New Orleans Pelicans v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Following the Miami Heat’s impressive 112-109 victory over the Boston Celtics last night, Tyler Herro was rightfully the story everyone wanted to talk about.

The 20-year-old exploded for a whopping 37 points, setting a professional career-high and a new Heat-rookie record. The last time someone from the same age bracket topped that scoring total in a conference finals game was some guy by the name of Magic Johnson, a long 40 years ago.

The Heat are a wonderful blend of tenacity and experience, seemingly the perfect build of talent for the Orlando Bubble — where creating energy and momentum are entirely dependent on teams. Normally, Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic and/or Bam Adebayo take center stage for Miami in key moments, but Herro was the savvy superstar dictating play on Wednesday evening.

The shooting stroke was pure, the decision-making on point, and man, oh man, the display of fearlessness was incredible to watch.

Despite the immense playoff spotlight, the young gun out of Kentucky showed no hints of any nerves, dropping a cool 17 points in the fourth quarter. He was literally a one-man army, dissecting the Celtics defense to the rim, or when finding a sliver of daylight, pulling the trigger on that beautiful jumper.

In hindsight, it’s crazy to think Herro landed in Miami with the 13th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, but as it’s often the case, at least one organization gets blessed with unearthing a golden egg around the middle of a first round.

Thinking back to the end of this past preseason though, many thought Nickeil Alexander-Walker was going to be the biggest draft day steal.

While they both posted incredibly similar stat lines, Alexander-Walker did his damage in an average of eight minutes less per game.

Herro was good in exhibition play, but NAW received more accolade for his versatility, basketball IQ and scoring touch. Even the most recent collegiate thunderbolt found himself thoroughly impressed.

Following up a tremendous showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, how Alvin Gentry was going to make room for NAW in the regular rotation was the question on all minds in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, Alexander-Walker was unable to force the head coach’s hand throughout the regular season for playing time. There were a few glimpses, like a spectacular 27-point outburst against the Heat in November, but NAW largely disappointed, proving unworthy of major minutes.

Before the COVID-19 shutdown, Alexander-Walker was averaging 5.1 points per game, good for 35th among rookies, and converting a ghastly 33.9% of his field goal attempts. Meanwhile, Herro sat sixth (12.9 PPG) and was providing the Heat with consistent scoring off their bench on a nightly basis.

Nickeil struggled to find his grove for several reasons and they stemmed from a lack of maturity, both physically and mentally. He was overly aggressive in looking for his shot or forcing a pass that just wasn’t there, destroying New Orleans rhythm while sabotaging his own simultaneously. He also endured great difficulty on drives into the paint as NAW struggled to finish against stronger and longer NBA competition.

Fast forward to the Orlando Restart and Herro hit a new gear (17.3 PPG, 4.6 REB, 3.8 AST) in the eight seeding games, but so too did Alexander-Walker, albeit much more quietly (9.3 PPG, 2.5 AST).

When extrapolating NAW’s numbers to per 36 minute data though, the stats perk up quite a bit. But honestly, the development was evident in more than just the box scores; onlookers witnessed real change too.

After flashing improved play in the scrimmages leading up to the real games, NAW mustered his best effort in the Pelicans last regular season game inside the Bubble.

Adding girth and close to an another inch to his frame allowed Alexander-Walker to get to rim more easily — he was in better position to finish. His shot attempts seemingly came more within the flow of the offense.

Yes, this is just a lone game of highlights, but Nickeil looked noticeably more comfortable on the floor here and in the Bubble altogether. The fearlessness in his game remained, yet he displayed more control. His movements showed greater purpose. It was as if he had arrived in Orlando with an actual plan of attack, reading defenses and finding the open seams.

Maybe we should have seen this coming.

Do I wish the New Orleans Pelicans would have ended up with Tyler Herro somehow? Well, duh, who wouldn’t? But in the same breath, let’s not forget about Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

The vast majority of players who enter the Association require a good deal of time to make the necessary adjustments while growing their games. NAW’s got the talent. Fans have caught sight of the promise. He only needs to smooth out the various rough edges before he’s a consistent contributor, too.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.