NAW Will Be Minnesota's X-Factor In the Playoffs Again

Photo Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, Nickeil Alexander-Walker started to cement his role on the Minnesota Timberwolves. On April 2, 2023, the Wolves lost a heartbreaking game to the 33-47 Portland Trail Blazers, 107-105. It was their third loss in a row and the second game Minnesota had played after Naz Reid broke his right wrist. The game ended on Kyle Anderson’s strange layup attempt.

The Wolves were lost, frustrated, and starting to fracture. Anthony Edwards seemed to confirm this in the post-game scrum. “We always fall short, it seems,” Edwards said, “It always haunts us. And tonight, once again, yep.” However, there was one bright spot in the game. Alexander-Walker scored seven points, grabbed a rebound, and had an assist in 5:32 seconds of gameplay.

Alexander-Walker’s strong play in those five-and-a-half minutes sparked renewed confidence from the coaching staff. After the Portland game, Alexander-Walker returned to his normal playing time and finished the season playing 47 minutes in the last three games. Jaden McDaniels’ untimely wall punch caused Alexander-Walker to take another step forward in minutes during the play-in.

He played 60 minutes in the two play-in games and finished the final game with a +18 net rating against the Oklahoma City Thunder. But Alexander-Walker cemented his new role in the playoffs against the Denver Nuggets. Alexander-Walker’s minutes stabilized at 29.6 per game and averaged a +0.6 net rating. He shot 40% from three-point range and provided impeccable defense against Jamal Murray.

Alexander Walker has taken another step forward this season. After signing a two-year, $9 million extension to stay with the Wolves, he has continued to be a valuable role player throughout the regular season. Alexander-Walker has found consistency while playing the second-most minutes per game of his career (23.5). Although his counting stats (7.6 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists) may not show his impact, his advanced stats highlight what a force he has been.

Offensively, Alexander-Walker is posting the highest offensive rating of his career (113.1). This has resulted in Alexander-Walker having the best net rating of his career at +6.9. This is largely due to Alexander-Walker’s ability to adapt and find a niche as a pseudo-backup point guard with the Wolves. Adapting to this role has seen him post his career-best in assist to turnover ratio at 2.68, a full 0.72 higher than his previous career high. This is due to Alexander-Walker cutting his turnover volume down to a career-low 13.7%, which happens to be a full 4.5% lower than his previous career best.

The decrease in turnovers also coincides with his career-high assist ratio of 24.7 (percentage of a team’s possessions in which that player has an assist). That’s 2.3 points higher than his previous career-high set last season. The combination of setting a career-low in turnover percentage while setting a career-high in his assist ratio has been one of the major reasons for his offensive success. In the past, poor ball security kept him from making a positive impact.

In addition to his improved playmaking, Alexander-Walker is shooting the ball better than ever. His traditional stats reflect his improvement but don’t tell the whole story. Alexander Walker is shooting 43.0% from the field, 38.2% from three, and 78.6% on free throws. His field goal and three-point percentage are the second-highest marks of his career, and his free throw percentage is the highest. That has resulted in his career-best in true shooting(shooting percentage adjusted to weigh three-point shots, two-point shots, and free throws)  (56.7%).

Alexander-Walker has largely improved his shooting because he can play within the offense and thrive. 78.3% of his field goals come from assists, and 97.3% of his three-point makes are off assists. That number jumps to 100% on his right-corner three-point attempts, where he’s shooting a career-best 50%. 110 of his 113 three-point makes have been off of assists. Alexander-Walker has become an elite corner three-point shooter and a deadly catch-and-shoot player.

Interestingly, Alexander-Walker has also modernized his game to take fewer mid-range shots. He has a career-low of only 3.9% of his total points and 28 total attempts all season coming from the mid-range area. That suggests that Alexander-Walker understands the offensive flow and the role and spacing he provides to the team.

Alexander-Walker has made 96.1% of his baskets at either the three-point line, in the paint, or at the basket. He provides space for Edwards to work in the mid-range and makes 33 baskets off Edwards’s assists, the highest of any Timberwolves player. The most common spot for Edwards’ assists? The right-corner three-pointer.

With such offensive production, it’s easy to forget Alexander-Walker’s consistent presence on defense. He’s also posting a career-high defensive rating (106.1), which is 2.1 points better than Minnesota’s season average. Again, Alexander-Walker’s counting stats don’t tell the whole story. He’s averaging a career-high 0.5 blocks and 0.8 steals per game, which is the second-best average of his career, but his advanced stats tell his true improvement and impact.

Alexander-Walker is posting his lowest percentage of block attempts (16.2) while posting his career-high blocks per game. The lower block attempt percentage reflects his discipline in not jumping at pump fakes and his ability to stay grounded and use contest shots. His blocks are a testament to his growth in understanding when to contest. When he attempts a block, he succeeds in getting that block 17.3% of the time, which is the second-best percentage of his career. That’s a sign of his maturity as a defender and continues to reinforce his understanding of the scheme that allows defenders to rely on Rudy Gobert for the blocks.

Alexander-Walker’s ability to contest shots and force the ball out of his opponent’s hands further highlights his discipline. He allows opponents to shoot 43.9% from the field and 38.3% from three, the worst shooting percentage he has allowed in his career. However, his biggest impact is that the opponent he is guarding only shoots the ball 9.1 times on average per game.

Considering that Alexander-Walker often defends the opposing players’ best guards to relieve the burden on Edwards and McDaniels, it’s impressive that he can limit those matchups to only 9.1 shots in 23.5 minutes. That’s a result of something stats can’t measure. Alexander-Walker plays defense with ferocity, constantly making contact with opponents, staving his long arms at the ball, and picking players up full-court on inbounds.

He has adapted to the role vacated by players like Josh Okogie and Patrick Beverley. In filling that role, Alexander-Walker has developed into a savvy on-ball defender who doesn’t foul often and can pry the ball out of the hands of the opposing team’s best players.

Alexander-Walker is in the middle of his best professional season statistically. He has become a valuable offensive player and a crucial cog in Minnesota’s defensive machine. The Wolves are battling for the 1-seed to close the season, and Alexander-Walker has become a valuable contributor. More importantly, he has taken an opportunity they offered him one year ago and never let it go. Perhaps he said it best while talking to Bally Sports North: “My mindset was just to win.”

With high expectations for the Wolves, Alexander-Walker will help them do just that: win.

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