Perception is everything in the NBA, especially for role players. A lack of playing time often masks the value of a bench player, as does falling out of favor with a coaching staff. That was Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s case before arriving in Minnesota as a “throw-in” player in a trade deadline deal with the Utah Jazz last season.
Alexander-Walker was in NBA purgatory before the trade. He spent two-and-a-half seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans before they traded him to the Portland Trail Blazers. Then the Blazers flipped him to the Utah Jazz 36 hours later. After just over a calendar year in Utah, the Jazz sent Alexander-Walker to Minnesota at last year’s trade deadline.
The four-year veteran initially struggled to find a consistent role with the Wolves. However, it all changed with Jaden McDaniels’ punch heard ‘round the Twin Cities that broke his hand. Alexander-Walker earned a rotation spot in the 2022-23 playoffs and has become a crucial do-it-all player ever since.
In 30 games this season, Alexander-Walker has turned into Minnesota’s point-of-attack defender, which might be his most valuable asset. Alexander-Walker can guard the opposing player’s lead ball-handler for almost all of the 23 minutes he plays per game. Guarding the league’s top ball handlers is hard enough, but Alexander-Walker guards them in a way that frustrates and exhausts opposing guards.
Alexander-Walker hounds opposing ball handlers. He consistently picks them up at the half-court line and attaches himself to their hip. Alexander-Walker then uses his body and frame to wear down the ball handler. He often initiates contact by leaning his body or moving his hips toward the offensive player. By doing so, Alexander-Walker effectively uses the same strategy a boxer uses by slowly using his weight and frame on his opponent to wear them down.
Below is an example of Alexander-Walker hounding a ball-handler. He picks up old friend D’Angelo Russell almost the second he passes half-court. As a result, Anthony Davis has to set the screen higher. Alexander-Walker slips over the screen to prevent a step back and recovers fast enough to tip the pass. That entire possession started and ended with Alexander-Walker’s effort and playstyle blowing the offense up.
Alexander-Walker doesn’t let up off the ball, velcroing himself to his assignment. He weaves through screens, blows up back cuts to the rim, and continues to put his body and hands on the offensive player to drain their energy. It’s comparable to Patrick Beverly’s antics.
But the main difference between them is that Alexander-Walker relies much more on his stamina and positioning and less on raw emotion and veteran mind games. The constant pressure on his matchup has led to a career-high in steals and blocks, likely due to the mental fatigue and frustration Alexander-Walker instills. Below is an example of those antics. Alexander-Walker sells a hit to the face, doesn’t get the call, and strips the ball.
Analytics reinforce Alexander-Walker’s eye test impact on the court. Perhaps this is the most encouraging sign of his persistence paying off. Alexander-Walker projects to have career-highs in blocks and steals. He has registered a career-high 2.4% block percentage (the percentage of two-point field goals that a player blocks while on the floor) and a 2.0% steal percentage.
Alexander-Walker ends one out of every 23 possessions by stealing or blocking the player he is guarding. As a result, Alexander-Walker has produced a career-best 106.8 defensive rating. Below is an example of how Alexander-Walker collects these steals. Again, Alexander-Walker goes over the screen to stop the step back. But Seth Curry denies the screen this time, causing Karl Anthony-Towns and Alexander-Walker to switch. Curry thinks he has an angle to pass. However, Alexander-Walker recovers and cuts off the passing lane, which leads to the steal.
For context on the analytics above, Alexander-Walker ranks 16th in the league defensive rating among players who have logged 20 minutes per game. His 2.0 steal percentage ranks 25th among all active players, and his 2.4 block percentage ranks 4th among all active guards in the league. These percentages all reflect his elite levels of defense this season.
The percentages alone are impressive, but Alexander-Walker also does this without fouling, averaging only 1.9 fouls per game. The physicality and aggression he plays with while not fouling are truly impressive. In the clip below, Alexander-Walker shows again his intelligence in recognizing when to leave his man on defense and the ability not to foul as he shoots the gap in the post for a steal.
Blocks and steals are not everything, though, and Alexander-Walker also shines in his ability to defend shots. When Alexander-Walker is the closest defender, players are shooting 41.6%. That puts him in the top 20 in the NBA among players who average 20 minutes a game. It’s also the second-best among Timberwolves players who average consistent playing time behind only Kyle Anderson. The low percentage is primarily due to Alexander-Walker’s ability to stay close to his matchups and wear them down throughout the game.
Alexander-Walker has filled the crucial role of a defensive stopper off the bench and a spot starter when needed. With Jaden McDaniels back in the rotation, Minnesota’s top-ranked defense should continue its dominance. As the season continues, Alexander-Walker’s perception around the league should continue to grow because he is developing into a top-tier defender.