October 18, 2019, 2:40 am
It’s just preseason, and in the midst of a Pelicans revival, keeping things in perspective is difficult.
The Pelicans are 4-0 and it’s easy to think that the world has been solved for them. It hasn’t. But there are so many things that are going well (mostly, Zion is a monster) that it’s hard to give any individual story the attention that it deserves. And aside from Zion, there is likely no story more important than Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s for the new-look Pelicans. NAW dominated Summer League, but that’s, erm, Summer League, but he has been equally fantastic in preseason.
One of the most common ways to misjudge a player is to get overexcited about his scoring, particularly if it’s inefficient. Right now, NAW is scoring at a rate of 29.3 points per 36 minutes and registering nearly a 60% TS in the process. But it’s not just that: there are several things to be excited about.
The easiest start. As mentioned before, NAW is scoring at an insanely high rate for anyone, much less a rookie. There are several other Pelicans hovering around 30 points per 36 minutes, including Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, and Jahlil Okafor. What is particularly surprising is how many shots NAW is taking. He is shooting 22.5 FGA per 36, which is superstar-level usage. Of guys in the preseason with significant minutes, this would put NAW behind just Giannis, Kristaps, Steph, Chris Clemons, Beal, and Terrence Ross.
Common sense is that NAW will cut down on his usage some, as there isn’t much reason to believe he’d be scoring anywhere near 30 points per game. But what is clear is that he is a very aggressive scorer despite often being played in a point guard role. NAW has a 3PAr of over 50% and will likely start out his career as an outside-in scorer. He isn’t explosive enough to get to the rim as his foundation and he’s seemingly most comfortable operating in pick/rolls.
As mentioned earlier, NAW very much appears to prefer operating in pick/rolls and hitting his teammates with live-dribble lefty passes. What has made him special so far is that he takes what the defense gives him, and this opens up a lot for his passing. Defenses who leave him alone watch him score and defenses who over-commit to him wind up giving up easy shots.
NAW has cut down on some of the crazy passes that he was slinging in Summer League, which is good, because he’s not at the level to be doing that in real games yet. Over time, he will learn when to make difficult passes and when to be conservative. As Jason Calmes of Bourbon Street Shots says, “Turnovers are the cost of good passing,” and the bumps/bruises NAW experiences in his first few years will sometimes be ugly, but they will be worth it.
This is a section that will be talked about least but is most indicative of what is most unusual about NAW. He is not the first rookie in the league to be dangerous shooting or passing. What makes him stand out is his high basketball IQ and the little things he is doing in the midst of each play to contribute.
Spacing is often seen as “can this guy shoot or not?” but it is not that simple. It is not just the physical shot that matters, though a decent one is clearly a prerequisite to be a threat.
It is how a player moves without a ball, and sometimes that is in extremely subtle ways. A great shooter also knows how to free himself for shots but also how to make small adjustments to his positioning in order to put defenses in no-win situations. A great shooter a few feet away from his teammate can crowd him and that allows for easy doubles with minimal consequences.
“Don’t double [said to defenders] one pass away” is only true if the player he is guarding has the breathing room to get his shot off before the defender who doubled recovers to him.
These movements are where NAW is well ahead of his years. Throughout the play, he is making small adjustments in his positioning to optimize his spacing. He’s not napping when the ball isn’t in his hands. When he passes the ball, he immediately relocates (see below)
The play at 1:00 in this video is a good example of when I talk about NAW’s “other stuff.” Runs a P&R with the pass a smidge off the mark, but immediately relocates for shooting position. He’s active with and without the ballhttps://t.co/7Z8jmdHwZ0
— Mike (@Mike_Pelicans) October 16, 2019
This sort of feel is not limited to offense. NAW is an active off-ball defender, keeping track of his man, possessing a good feel for navigating around screens, and aggressive when opportunities arise. His frame could use some filling-out to guard some of the bigger wings, but by all appearances, he looks like he has both the toolkit and the intangibles to be a very good defender at the NBA level.
As discussed this summer, the Pelicans have a bit of a logjam on the perimeter, and minutes will be hard to come by. Early on, it wouldn’t be a shock if NAW sat some games, particularly if Zion is actually hurt (please noooooo).
What gives him a chance is that the second unit lacks anyone else who can run the offense. If Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday are on the bench, there really isn’t any other player who can initiate the offense well enough to get the defense moving. Given what NAW has shown so far (in limited, somewhat meaningless games), he could absolutely be that guy.
NAW appears to be the most NBA-ready guard that New Orleans has had since Chris Paul (granted, they traded a lot of their draft picks), and everything he’s shown so far seems to indicate that he can be a high-level starter in the NBA. If Alvin Gentry is given some latitude with the final win total this year, NAW is a guy who could wind up earning 15-20 minutes a night earlier rather than later, and if he is the player he’s been in Summer League and preseason, he absolutely deserves those minutes.