Deep Dive: Nickeil Alexander-Walker Has A Role And The Game To Fill It
Minnesota may have found a hidden contributor at the trade deadline.
The margins for error have been nanoscopic for the Minnesota Timberwolves since before this season even got underway. The Rudy Gobert mega-swing made sure of that. After the games started flowing thick and fast, those margins have only narrowed. Every loss is a plunged dagger and every misstep heaps pressure onto a playing group, coaching staff and front office guild that have already been shrouded in apathy. Last season’s romanticized flash-in-the-pan group was torn apart too early, and all of the anger for that move has been shifted through each subsequent one.
The organization as a whole has mostly had its pockets cleansed on every gamble they’ve taken, starting with that attempted offseason flourish. Rudy Gobert has been ill-fitting and surprisingly ill-equipped and they’ve never even had the chance to evaluate Karl-Anthony Towns’ fit alongside the towering big man thanks to his gnawing calf strain. Their wager on Jaylen Nowell becoming a microwave sixth man has fallen flat on a nightly basis, and they have yet to extract the immediate impact from Mike Conley as things stand.
But Nickeil Alexander-Walker, perhaps the least shiny name of all of their wheeling and dealing this season, has yielded instantaneous results. He’s been an on-the-margins win. With the constant collection of injuries swirling around the Wolves roster, the 24-year-old has slipped into a comfortable role and has quickly become one of the few sturdy presences during a turbulent time for his new team.
He’s still very much in the larvae stages of his Timberwolves career — with just 69 minutes in his fuel tank thus far — and the team has won just one of the five games he has featured in, but already he looks like a bellwether for his capricious squad. Since he arrived, he leads the team in total plus/minus (+13) and remains the only regular rotation player to have a plus/minus number above zero. The Wolves have been winning his minutes and winning them at least semi-convincingly, and that has him drifting through rare air right now.
It just feels like there is a role carved gracefully in his likeness. A perfectly sculpted place for him to stroll into now and grow into further as the season winds down. Even if this team ever finds a happier space of overall health, there is no reason Alexander-Walker shouldn’t be one of the first butts off the bench.
Austin Rivers’ veteran presence hasn’t been enough to offset his damaging on-court minutes for quite some time and the aforementioned Nowell has become more of an anchor than a propellor on both ends of the floor. Alexander-Walker feels like a hybrid of those two, combining their best traits without the hammer-blows that come with their worst ones. And he figures to nick their minutes away with his recent play.
It all starts with his defensive acumen and energy. Like Rivers — and unlike many of Minnesota’s bench brigade and guard stable throughout the season — he has a thirst to defend. An insatiable taste for the intricacies of making life harder on his opponents. Unlike Rivers, he has so far exhibited the ability to do it without a propensity for overaggressive mistakes, fouling of jump shooters, and the cool grip of Father Time asphyxiating his leg speed.
Since his arrival, the Wolves allow 15.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when Alexander-Walker is on the floor compared to on the bench. The insanity of those numbers will surely dwindle as his minute total swells, but right now there are only four players in the league who have posted better defensive on-off numbers than that. The tapering back to reality will come in time, but last season the Utah Jazz were 2.3 points per 100 possessions stingier defensively when he was on the floor (69th percentile) and 1.4 points per 100 better (62nd percentile) this season with him playing.
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