Alexander-Walker May Be Emerging as X-Factor in Pelicans Backcourt

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Published: January 17, 2021

New Orleans added veterans like Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe to complement the young core of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram in hopes of a playoff berth, but the difference might actually lie with one of the Pelicans’ young, budding guards.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the No. 17 pick in the 2019 Draft, scored a career-high 37 points in a losing effort Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers. That’s more than teammates Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball have notched in their careers to date. In 33 minutes, not only did the second year guard also grab eight boards, shoot above 65 percent from the field and commit only one turnover, but more importantly he showed just how much of an x-factor he can be for the Crescent City.

On the offensive end, Alexander-Walker has displayed a distinct ability to attack off screens with consistency and shoot the ball with confidence, which is incredibly necessary considering the Lonzo Ball struggles as of late. Now, Ball’s defense has flown severely under the radar. No one is talking about it nearly enough, including myself. But there’s no hiding the need for a secondary guard/playmaker to step up on this Stan Van Gundy-led squad. Outside of Ingram and Bledsoe, playmaking has been somewhat hard to find in New Orleans these days. When those two aren’t on the court together, play becomes even more individualized than it already is.

The Toronto, Ontario native has steadily raised his hand to fill this void, especially since he became the starter in place of Ball who’s been out multiple games with bilateral knee tendinopathy. Many even think this should be a permanent change in the Pelicans lineup going forward, but Alexander-Walker will have to recreate more of these performances if that’s to be the case. Teams will slowly start to put more focus on him defensively as his role increases; top defenses in this league will try to smother his inexperience, and with turnovers being such a concern for New Orleans, No. 6 will need to remember why he wasn’t getting minutes earlier in the season.

“It’s going to take an individual focus from each guy to be better about it,” Van Gundy said. “I think we know collectively that it’s a problem. I don’t know if we’ve taken that to an individual level. Instead of ‘we have to stop turning the ball over,’ each guy’s got to take more of an attitude of ‘I’ve got to stop turning the ball over.’”

What Van Gundy pointed to there must be a game-by-game focus for youth at the pro level. What happens when the shot isn’t falling? How do you make the same impact outside of scoring? What happens when your teammates need you to help them get involved?

NAW absolutely has to find more ways to spread the wealth with extended time at point guard. Sure, he only gave the ball up to the Clippers one time. But he also provided a mere three potential assists. It wouldn’t hurt for him to see more movement and an increased pace out of the Pelicans in the same breath; however, you have to help yourself at times as well. His 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting Friday night against the Lakers wasn’t the problem at all, it was his turnovers increasing to five alongside just as many personal fouls.

Los Angeles guard Dennis Schroder utilized his speed and agility to get Alexander-Walker out of his element at times, forced three of his takeaways and ensured NAW found himself in foul trouble. Schroder won’t be the last to make this type of effort either. Alexander-Walker knows a shot is better than a turnover considering how dominant New Orleans is at rebounding the ball, but not every game is he going to find 23 field goal attempts like he did Wednesday.

When that’s the reality of his evening, NAW has to avoid letting his impact fade. He can’t feed into 10-point swings via careless turnovers. He can’t go pick up a fifth foul after Van Gundy decides to leave him in following the fourth, taking himself out of the game immediately and putting the remaining workload on Bledsoe’s back. These are the challenges Alexander-Walker faces as he tries to become a mainstay in the Pelicans rotation.

“I think the big measure for young guys is not what happens when everything is rolling your way,” Van Gundy added. “It’ll be what happens when you’re having a frustrating night, the ball’s not going in, you’re not getting some calls, things like that. That’s the test of your composure and everything else.”

The tests are guaranteed to come, but NAW’s proven he deserves a chance to find the answers – on the court. Whether it’s an expanded bench role or him remaining the starter once Ball returns, New Orleans needs the playmaking of Alexander-Walker to blossom in order to take another step toward playoff contention.

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