Pelicans’ Nickeil Alexander-Walker watches history in hometown NBA debut

New Orleans Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (0) makes a pass around Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — Nickeil Alexander-Walker ‘fessed up Tuesday night. He never thought he’d see a day or night like this.

Making his NBA debut? Nah, not that. Something else. Something simpler. Something he can share with a lot of us who, like him, looked on as an NBA championship banner was unveiled at Scotiabank Arena and big, bold, gaudy rings – as big, it seems, as the entire country – were handed out in a pre-game ceremony.

“It was motivating, for sure,” said the New Orleans Pelicans‘ Canadian rookie. “Guys go their whole career without even getting the opportunity. And it’s something they said Toronto would never do – and, I mean, there were years where I thought Toronto wouldn’t do it. To see it and have that live moment … it hit me.”

The Raptors opened defence of their NBA championship with an overtime win over a Pelicans team that would be one of the most intriguing stories of the season were it not for transcendent rookie Zion Williamson being out for six to eight weeks after surgery for a torn meniscus. Toronto Blue Jays fans who rode along with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in his rookie season can probably relate to this: The worry that comes when a freakishly built athlete gets hurt and the talking point turns into matters of weight and conditioning. Williamson is supposed to be LeBron 2.0, and given some of the other components on display for the Pelicans … well, my goodness. What a show we’re going to get eventually. Hopefully.

In Williamson’s absence, Alexander-Walker was the rookie of note. Acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks during a whirlwind off-season in which the Pelicans attempted to hit the ground running after living through the soul-sucking departure of Anthony Davis, the 21-year-old guard out of Virginia Tech had a strong summer league stint in Vegas and saw a great deal of fourth-quarter playing time in the pre-season. That all came after he was chosen 17th overall in June’s draft by the Brooklyn Nets – who flipped him to the Hawks, who in turn passed him on to the Pelicans.

The Toronto native, who played at Vaughan Secondary before heading south, had a ridiculous 46.7 per cent success rate from three-point range in the pre-season, averaging 15.3 points, four assists and 2.6 rebounds. He was a mainstay of pre-season polls of basketball executives – in a good way – but with Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday, the most realistic role for him now is as a second or third option off the bench. There will be better nights than Tuesday, when he hit just one shot in 10 attempts – a 26-foot three-pointer on his third shot – while grabbing four boards and registering a pair of steals. He didn’t see the floor again after missing a driving lay-up with 54 seconds left in the third. In the end it was 20-year-old Italian rookie Nicolo Melli who raised some eyebrows, including posting a brazen 4-for-5 from beyond the arc.

“I’m glad one fell,” Alexander-Walker said with a chuckle. “It was a cold night, but it felt great. Couldn’t ask for more. I’m blessed to have this opportunity. What I really wanted was a win and we just came up short. But it’s a long season.”

Alexander-Walker is in a good spot: playing for a young, pleasantly foolish team coached by Alvin Gentry – who demurred when the NBA gave his team the option to stay in the locker-room during the ring ceremony. Instead, to a man the Pelicans stood, sat, stretched out and watched from their bench. Earlier in the day, Gentry arranged for the team to FaceTime with Williamson.

“As I said to them: these guys will be bonded together forever, it doesn’t matter what happens,” said Gentry. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is or what will happen. They will always be remembered as the 2019 champions and until June that will be their title.”

Chris Webber worked the game for TNT along with Marv Albert, and as a former first pick overall – the Orlando Magic traded him to the Golden State Warriors after selecting him in 1993 – it was interesting seeing the youth on display through his eyes. Webber spoke about chemistry issues that could result from the valuable early time Williamson was missing and how whatever weight issues Williamson may be battling, being away from the team and left to his own devices was, well, a test of will, referring to his own steady rookie diet of ‘White Castle’ burgers. No bueno. Webber also spoke about the importance for Ball getting his free-throw shooting worked out, noting that as someone who was challenged from the charity-stripe early in his career, it wasn’t until he was comfortable at the line that he could “play with freedom … especially late in games.”

As for Alexander-Walker? Webber chuckled after his third miss. “Let it fly, young man!” he urged, as Albert chuckled. “Let it fly!’ You land one … you get your feet under you.”

Gentry shrugged.

“Nickeil didn’t shoot the ball well but as a young player he’s going to have those kinds of nights,” he said. “I still like the fact that he plays with a lot of confidence. He’s going to have nights where they fall.”

There are 16 Canadians with guaranteed roster spots in the NBA, and Alexander-Walker – a servant for the Canadian national program – was feted during a videoboard “Hometown Heroes” feature during a timeout.

“I just caught it at the end,” he said. “I appreciate it. Coming home to my home city, and for me not even having played my first NBA game, for them to give me some respect even though I haven’t done anything in the league? I appreciate that.”

Alexander-Walker estimated he had “60, 62 … maybe 65” friends and family. Tickets were hard to come by and there was, he acknowledged, some confusion. How did his day feel?

“As it got closer to the game I just felt really at peace,” he said. “I tried not to tell myself: ‘You’re going to go out there and have an amazing game and it’s going to be a fairy-tale,’ you know what I mean? I was just trying to find that middle, where whatever happens, happens. I know who I am as a player.

So: now that this is out of the way, does it all become routine?

“Honestly, I hope I never (feel that way),” he said. “Because then, I’ll feel like I’ll be complacent. Right now, I just want to keep going. One of my goals was to make it to the NBA, but another was to retire years and years later … and retire by choice.”

One of those rings would make a damned fine keepsake.

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