How Timberwolves’ Alexander-Walker carved out a role in the NBA

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (9) during an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

The best thing about Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s game is that there is no one thing.

“(He’s) kind of a utility infielder,” Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch says. “He can play first base, second base, third base. He can do a lot of different things. You can move him around the batting order.”

The common perception is that you need an elite skill to thrive in the NBA, and that is true of most players. Whether it’s defence, rebounding, shooting, or passing, most players do at least one thing so exceptionally well that an NBA team is willing to take a chance on them. But it’s rare that a player is so well-rounded that he is able to get by on doing a little bit of everything, which perhaps makes someone like the ambidextrous and positionless Alexander-Walker even more impressive. 

“Versatility is a skill,” says former New Orleans teammate and 14-year veteran Garrett Temple. “So, being able to be versatile, and being able to be a plug and play person is a certain skill as well.

“(Alexander-Walker) needed to find out what his niche is. … I think he’s been able to find that niche in Minnesota.”

Coming off a successful summer with the Canadian national team — where he helped them win Bronze at the 2023 FIBA World Cup — the 25-year-old combo-guard from Scarborough, Ont., has finally carved out a consistent role for himself in his fifth NBA season, averaging five points, 1.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 STOCKS in 19.9 minutes per game on a Timberwolves team with legitimate championship aspirations. 

But the journey here has not been easy for Alexander-Walker, who is on his fourth NBA team and with his sixth NBA coaching staff since being drafted by New Orleans (via Brooklyn) in 2019. That lack of stability haunted Alexander-Walker, as he has had to constantly shift his game to appease different coaches asking different things of him, struggling to find out what kind of NBA player he was in the process. 

“He just needed consistency,” says Finch, who was the associate head coach in New Orleans during Alexander-Walker’s rookie year there. “There was a lot of pressure on him when he came into the league, whether it be, you know, a lot of it was self-imposed. He was trying too hard, trying to do too much, trying to prove everything, wanted it all at once.”

“I mean, it’s the great thing about Nickeil: He’s so passionate, he works so hard. He just wanted it. And I think just kind of he got frustrated, he lost his confidence. And he just needed to go somewhere (where) there was some kind of consistency, things were settled, they valued him, they understood who he was.”

Alexander-Walker has always been extremely hard on himself, wanting to not only crack an NBA rotation, but become the star he always set out to be. “Ultimately, the reason why I started playing basketball was to try and be one of the best ever,” Alexander-Walker told me at the beginning of last year. “And at the end of the day, that’s definitely something I’m going to try to become.”

After all, Alexander-Walker learned from the best. His favourite player growing up was Kobe Bryant, and his cousin is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, so he knows exactly what it takes to reach the highest levels of the sport and works with those same goals in mind: He doesn’t just watch film, but consumes full games with a detective’s eye. He doesn’t just work out, but regularly does two-a-days in the off-season, moving from one workout to the next with sweat still pouring down his face; and he doesn’t just study players, but models his game after some of the greatest of all time. 

But wanting it all at once and having a success-driven mindset came to hurt Alexander-Walker early in his NBA career, as he held onto the mistakes he made in a game or practice and was extremely hard on himself for an extended period of time instead of moving onto the next play. 

“You can see it in peoples’ eyes,” Temple says. “You can see it in how they move throughout the day when they make a mistake, whether it be in practice or in the game, and just how hard they are on themselves. … He needed to understand that, it’s hard to say, but understand that basketball is a part of his life, it’s not just (his whole) life.

“And I think once he did that, he was able to just calm down a little more, and just not put as much pressure on himself. And I think that allowed him to just play the game at a higher level, not forcing it, just letting it come to him.”

“Oh, yeah, I was very eager and I learned from it,” Alexander-Walker tells me in the visiting locker room of Scotiabank Arena before the Timberwolves played the Toronto Raptors on opening night. “I was very success-driven and goal-driven and understand now that in the NBA, you really have to be process-driven because it just doesn’t come on the timing you expect.”

“I worked all my way through high school and AAU on that (success-driven) mindset, and it got me to where I was. So, I figured: why change now, you know? And not really understanding that it’s not changing, it’s just evolving.”

After spending his first two and a half seasons in New Orleans, where Alexander-Walker played for three head coaches and through a ton of roster turnover, he was traded to Portland and then Utah at the 2021-22 NBA trade deadline. That’s where he started to find his niche by making a name for himself on the defensive end of the floor. 

With a few seasons of added experience, strength, seeing more NBA reads, and learning the intricacies of star offensive players through film work, Alexander-Walker began to use his six-foot-six frame and six-foot-10 wingspan to become one of the league’s most pesky defenders, especially at the point of attack, averaging 1.6 steals per 36 minutes in his second season in Utah while knocking down 40 per cent of his threes. 

“Probably just patience and finding your niche and starting (to do) the things that I can control,” Alexander-Walker says about how he carved out a role for himself in the NBA.

“Offensively, It’s hard to, when you’re not a main guy … when you (don’t) have that consistent touch and you (don’t) know this is my play and rhythm and flow, you got to find things that are consistent, because each night you’ll get different looks: you’ll get a bunch of layups (one night), you’ll get a bunch of open threes (the next).

“So, for me, it was just: defence was consistent. I knew I was gonna have to guard. I knew I was gonna have to move my feet and work. So, I think I just laid my hat on that and it ended up working for me.”

“He’s shown that he can really defend,” Team Canada and Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Nathaniel Mitchell, who trained Alexander-Walker from an early age, says. “Defend the elite players, the guards on the move, and that in itself is a skill that’s kind of allowed him to be a positive force in the NBA and on his team and find a role …

“He’s always been a scorer, a playmaker his whole life. And now he’s found the role to put him on the floor and in meaningful minutes of the game.”

Ahead of the 2022-23 trade deadline, the Timberwolves traded for guards Mike Conely and Alexander-Walker, who were already playing together on the Jazz. Ever since becoming a member of the Timberwolves under Finch, Alexander-Walker has had a consistent role, coming off the bench to provide a defensive spark while knocking down threes (36 per cent last season, 33 per cent this season) and occasionally running second-side pick-and-rolls. 

Alexander-Walker caught a break of sorts when teammate Jaden McDaniels broke his hand from punching a wall during the Timberwolves’ final regular season game, allowing him to step into the starting lineup and defend his cousin Gilgeous-Alexander in the Play-In Tournament, holding the Oklahoma City Thunder star to 22 points on 5-of-19 shooting as the Timberwolves got the win. In his first real taste of playoff action, Alexander-Walker averaged 8.6 points on 40 per cent three-point shooting in 29.6 minutes a game as the Wolves lost in five games to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets in the first round. 

“Sometimes it’s just the fit, the team, the culture,” Conely says about Alexander-Walker. “We needed that kind of energy, that kind of guy that can really defend, really just plays for his team and does everything in between that you need from a guy. 

“You can play a long time in the league having that kind of mindset and that kind of skill set.”

“It’s been a bumpy ride. But I think coming here in Minnesota, things are kind of smoothened out for me,” Alexander-Walker says of the Timberwolves, who are off to an 8-3 start. “Just being able to grow in a role which I’ve never had the opportunity to do before and just making the most out of it.”

As unstable as his career has been to date, Alexander-Walker credits veterans like Conley and Temple for teaching him the tricks of the trade and helping him stay level-headed throughout his NBA journey. 

“They teach you how to become a professional,” Alexander-Walker says. “They really teach you the mental business aspect of the game that I think a lot of young guys may not understand because they’re just so focused on their dream and the playing, they don’t realize that that’s only half (of the equation).

“Especially having a guy like G.T.: Great family man, great human, hard worker. And a lot of times you don’t really see that because he’s not the talked-about guy, but I think guys like him, guys like Mike, guys like Jrue Holiday that I’ve been blessed to play with in my career, (they) taught me how to grow up in this league.”

Now, Alexander-Walker is paying it forward to the next generation of players, including Canadians from his hometown of Scarborough like Leonard Miller. The 19-year-old was drafted 33rd overall by the Timberwolves (via San Antonio) in this summer’s NBA Draft and has been leaning on Alexander-Walker for advice in his rookie season. 

“He’s a great person, good heart, and I listen to him,” Miller says of Alexander-Walker. “Whenever I need anything from him, I don’t hesitate to ask and he’s really knowledgeable and he always helps me. I appreciate him for that.”

As Alexander-Walker’s career goes to show, it’s not always easy for young players to figure out what it takes to succeed, and having veterans to show them the ropes can make all the difference. 

“When they are able to talk to their teammates, that’s probably the most impactful thing,” Finch says. “Facing the reality that as a young player, this is the first time in your career you might not play consistently, that’s tough. I know, again, it ate up Nickeil. So, I’m sure patience and learning and putting the work in is the message that he’s given (Miller). 

“And it’ll come if you have talent and you have opportunity. It’ll come. You’ll definitely get your time.”

Mitchell thinks a lot of rookies entering the NBA face similar issues that Alexander-Walker did. “You come in and you’re a first-round pick, like lottery or not, you’re gonna be thinking about: how am I going to be the next superstar? How am I going to get to the next contract?” In order to do that, players — often being persuaded by the people around them, including friends, family, and agents — often think about accomplishments and statistical markers instead of always making the right play and focusing on winning, which ends up hurting them.

“I think that’s just for every rookie. And I think once you go through that and can find a role, the faster you can, your leash will grow from there,” Mitchell says. “Sometimes that happens from a trade, someone getting hurt in the playoffs, and all of a sudden your role can increase and then you feel more confident.”

After four up-and-down seasons in the NBA, Alexander-Walker has finally found his niche and carved out a role for himself on a good team. And with a memorable 2023 almost behind him, the new year could be even better for Alexander-Walker, with the Timberwolves vying for its first ever NBA championship and Team Canada set to play in its first Olympic Games since 2000. 

“It’s a cool experience to really be a part of. (But) I don’t think it’s registered yet,” Alexander-Walker says about winning bronze at the World Cup and qualifying for Paris 2024. “Things go by so fast and the life we live is so fast, so I haven’t had the time to just soak it all in.”

“But I know like when I retire, having that opportunity to sit back when it’s all gone and you look at what you’ve done for yourself, your family, and you see that medal and hopefully more to come — It’s life changing, for sure.”

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