Many diehard fans of the Pelicans are wondering what’s wrong with the young Pelicans’ Guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker. NAW was a summer surprise when he tore up the Vegas Summer League with per-game averages of 24 points, six assists, five rebounds, and two steals on 40% shooting from the three-point line. Local media coverage had him penciled in for a decent role off the bench as the reserve point guard. National media was naming NAW the “Steal of the Draft.”
Not So Fast
Nickeil continued his impressive play into the pre-season with per-game averages of 15 points and four assists on 46% shooting from behind the arc. He put those numbers up in just 18 minutes per game. Damn impressive! Over the first month of the regular season, Nickeil’s numbers plummeted from his pre-season stats. However, his NET rating was still positive. Despite his seemingly positive impact on the floor, he would find himself in and out of the lineup beginning in late November. Even when the team was riddled with injuries, players like E’Twaun Moore and Frank Jackson would see more minutes most nights.
Is Nickeil in the Dog House?
No. NAW is undoubtedly not in the dog house. But I do believe there are a few reasons why he’s buried on the bench. To begin with, NAW is a rookie. I’m not a believer that it was ever in the cards for NAW to play a significant role on the team this year. In fact, if the team had stayed healthy, NAW might have been in Erie playing for our G-League team for much of the season. While we weren’t healthy, it was also beneficial for his development to let him have some big league run. However, now that the Pelicans are in the thick of a playoff chase, the idea of playing him is less attractive.
Next on the list is his fit on the squad. NAW has a fit in the future of this franchise. However, his fit with the team as constructed is questionable at best. Nickeil is most comfortable on the court with the ball in his hands. He WANTS the ball. That’s not a terrible quality. A decent indicator of that is his usage rate. NAW sports the 4th highest USG% on the Pelicans roster. The only people above him are Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson, and Brandon Ingram. Add in the fact that we have Lonzo Ball also on the roster as a primary ball-handler, and already we have a lot of ball-dominant players on the court for most of the game. That is part of the reason why E’Twaun and Frank tend to get minutes over NAW. They don’t need the ball. They are both very comfortable in an off-ball role. Another reason is that Frank and Moore are better defenders than NAW at this point. The coaches trust them to not screw up on defense and spread the floor off-ball on offense.
Flow Problems and Inefficiency
Let’s list out some of NAW’s struggles.
- Per touch, he holds the ball longer than anyone on the team. (3.82 seconds)
- Per touch, he dribbles the ball the second-most on the team. (3.16 dribbles)
- Among NBA players who have played in at least 20 games and average at least 10 minutes per game, Nickeil has the sixth-worst FG%. (33.9)
- Using those same criteria, he has the third-worst 2PFG%. (33.6)
All stats available on NBA.com.
Those numbers in an Alvin Gentry offense are flow killers. One of your non-primary scorers is holding on to the ball for far too long, not making quick decisions, and shooting some of the worst percentages in the league. Not good. He is a rookie who is still adjusting to the play speed of the NBA. But at 21 years old, you’d like him to be just a little more polished. These issues have become increasingly evident as the Pelicans are making their playoff push.
Play speed is, in my opinion, Nickeil’s biggest downfall right now. Nickeil is not, physically, one of the fastest or most explosive guards in the league. Yet, according to NBA.com‘s tracking data, among NBA players who have played in at least 20 games, he plays at the third-highest overall speed in the league. And, on offense, it’s even worse. He plays at a faster overall speed than anyone in the NBA by a WIDE margin. What does that mean? Judging by the results, he’s playing out of control. The game hasn’t slowed down for him yet. He hasn’t learned how to control the game speed when he has the ball or how to control his own play speed without the ball. While it’s a little surprising how shockingly high he is on those rankings, it’s not a surprise he hasn’t figured it out yet. These are intricacies that come with experience. As the game slows down for him mentally, the more in control, we will see him play. We can expect him to improve these areas of his game as he progresses in his career.
Nickeil’s future is still very bright! A lot of similarities can be drawn between NAW and Lonzo by looking at play type data. Lonzo is a year older, and it’s fair to say much more polished defensively. Lonzo also holds an edge in terms of court vision and playmaking ability. However, Nickeil has the edge as a more fluid and natural scorer. And, his court vision, playmaking ability, and willingness to drive is nothing to scoff at. It’ll be very interesting to see the dynamic between NAW and Zo play out going forward. The target date for NAW to find his footing as a starting level lead guard is the summer of 2021. That summer, Zo will be a restricted free agent leaving the Pelicans with a decision to make regarding the future of their backcourt.