With the Utah Jazz in a transitory period from contenders to tankers, there are many questions about the construction of their roster. As we wait for the smoke to clear on any Donovan Mitchell trade, one young player currently on the team poised for a career-defining season is Nickeil Alexander-Walker. At only 23 years-old, Alexander-Walker stood as the headline asset coming to Utah in last season’s Joe Ingles trade. Unfortunately for Alexander-Walker, he never found consistent playing time on dysfunctional Jazz team full of guards. But with Utah’s direction changing next season, opportunities will arise for Alexander-Walker to revitalize his career.
Given that we saw very little of Alexander-Walker last season, we first must take a look into what kind of player he is before we can asses his role in Utah.
In very limited minutes, Alexander-Walker put up measly averages of 3.5 points, 1.1 assists, and 1.5 rebounds. Given that he only played a total of 149 minutes in a Jazz uniform, the data from his play in Utah is messy. So instead, we’ll have to look at his time with the New Orleans Pelicans in the first half of the 2021-22 season to better judge his potential. In 50 games, Alexander-Walker averaged 12.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, and 1.7 turnovers on 37.5/31.1/72.2 percent shooting splits.
Those shooting splits are ugly and the advanced stats don’t get any better. Alexander-Walker’s effective field goal percentage scraped the bottom of the barrel at 45.0 percent, and his box plus/minus, win shares, and VORP all clocked in as negatives. Every time he stepped onto the court, the New Orleans Pelicans played worse.
However, that doesn’t tell Alexander-Walker’s full story. I strongly believe that the Pelicans misused him as a player. For one, Alexander-Walker had an astonishingly high usage rate of nearly 25%. That is Jordan Clarkson levels of usage for a player that doesn’t have the scoring or facilitating capability to justify that role. According to NBA.com, Alexander-Walker used nearly 28% of his possessions as a pick & roll ball handler, but ranked in the 39th percentile in that role. He only scored 0.80 points per possession and nearly a fifth of his possessions in the pick & roll ended in a turnover. To make matters worse, according to BBall-Index.com, as an isolation scorer, Alexander-Walker came in at 3rd percentile (yes, you read that right) and his O-LEBRON was a -0.73. Simply put, Alexander-Walker had no business playing with the ball in his hands that much.
So, if he can’t score the ball, what does Alexander-Walker do well? At the moment, not much. But, he has the potential to become a fantastic defensive player. As a matter of fact, in two out of his three NBA seasons, BBall Index has Alexander-Walker’s defensive role listed as a “wing stopper,” something we all know the Jazz have desperately needed. At 6’5” with a wingspan just under 6’10”, Alexander-Walker has the capability to defend multiple positions and clog up passing lanes. And so far, he’s shown promise on that end.
With the Pelicans in 2021-22, Alexander-Walker ranked in the 75th percentile as an isolation defender, only allowing 0.77 points per possession. While that’s impressive, Alexander-Walker shines when defending against handoffs or chasing screens. Against handoffs, NAW ranked in the 92nd percentile, only allowing 0.58 PPP. Similarly, when chasing players around screens, Alexander-Walker’s length and size helped him limit scorers to a measly 0.66 PPP, putting him in the 90th percentile.
He has the tools to lockdown opposing guards and wings, but for now, his potential has yet to materialize into play that positively impacts winning. Last season, his LEBRON Wins Added barely eclipsed 1.0 and both his O-RAPTOR and D-RAPTOR were negatives. Catch-all advanced statistics aren’t always the best way to judge players, but watch any film and you’ll come to the same conclusion.
Watch this, where Alexander-Walker completely locks-up DeMar DeRozan and gets the strip:
That’s awesome! He moves his feet well and stays active with his hands, forcing DeRozen to attempt a poor turnaround jumper. But, later in the game, Alexander-Walker tries to do too much with the ball and gives up this transition play to the Bulls:
That turnover effectively killed any chance that the Pelicans had to make a comeback and marked his third TO of the night.
So, what does all of this mean for his role in Utah next year? Well, he's reaching a make it or break it moment in his career. If the Jazz clear up the logjam they currently have at the guard positions, Alexander-Walker will likely have ample opportunities to show some kind of growth. It wouldn’t surprise me if Alexander-Walker plays 20 minutes a night, but in a less ball-dominant role. As a slasher, tertiary ball handler, and defensive stopper, I think Alexander-Walker could carve a role out in Utah. But that will hinge upon his shooting improving next season. Last season, he shot about 35% from the corner three, but only 29.4% from above the break. That will have to improve if he wants to extend his career.
Off of his defensive potential alone, I think Nickeil Alexander-Walker has a chance to succeed in Utah. But if his woeful efficiency on offense continues, NAW’s time with the Jazz may end short.