Timberwolves

NAW’s Inconsistent Playoff Run Highlighted His Importance For Next Season

Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Since arriving in the Twin Cities at the trade deadline two years ago, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has always carried an upbeat demeanor on the court and during his media scrums. His love for the game and the opportunity with the Minnesota Timberwolves radiates frequently, whether he’s acting like he is playing defense while on the bench or consistently smiling while responding with thorough answers to the press.

However, during his exit interview, that joy many have grown accustomed to seeing was understandably stripped away after Minnesota’s season ended abruptly.

The Wolves hit their apex after sweeping the Phoenix Suns in the first round and knocking off the defending champion Denver Nuggets in seven games. Las Vegas pegged them as favorites to advance to the Finals for the first time in franchise history. However, the red-hot Wolves rapidly regressed against Dallas, learning a valuable lesson on conditioning.

Most players and coaches are disappointed, or even sick, with how Minnesota’s most successful season in franchise history ended. However, it was a building block campaign littered with many lessons the team will carry for years. As Minnesota aims to go even deeper in the playoffs next season, Alexander-Walker will be critical to its success.

Nickeil first opened eyes with his unexpected performance in the playoffs two years ago. He started in place of the injured Jaden McDaniels against the Denver Nuggets in the first round after McDaniels hurt his hand. Alexander-Walker played reliable spot-up offense and sound defense. According to the NBA’s matchup stats, he held Jamal Murray – who averages over 25 points per game in the playoffs – to 32 points on 13 of 36 from the floor and 4 of 12 from deep with six turnovers through 182.4 partial possessions.

At the time of the D’Angelo RussellMike Conley trade, many fans viewed Alexander-Walker as a throw-in to make the salaries match. However, Tim Connelly and Chris Finch knew precisely what they were getting in the young, budding two-way threat from the Utah Jazz.

“Good positional size, can play positions 1 through 3, knock down a shot, and has really had a nice season,” Connelly told the media after the deadline when they asked about Nickeil. “There is familiarity with our coaching staff, so it will be fun to get him in the gym and see what he can do.”

After seeing glimpses of what Alexander-Walker was capable of against Denver in the playoffs, Minnesota’s front office quickly offered him an extension. On July 30, NAW and the Wolves agreed to a two-year, $9 million deal, giving the 25-year-old guard a place to call home for longer than any of his previous NBA stops.

Alexander-Walker didn’t have the pressure of a looming free agency summer or the thought of possibly being traded for the third time. As a result, he put together the most successful season of his career for the Wolves this year. He played in all 82 games and averaged eight points, 4.8 points lower than his career high. But Alexander-Walker shot 39.1% from deep and was arguably Minnesota’s best perimeter defender with the way he used angles, shuffled his feet, and stayed out of foul trouble. NAW also filled in for McDaniels as the small forward in the starting lineup and played backup point guard.

The Ontario, Canada native blossomed into a crucial component of the best defensive team in the NBA, and his regular season success didn’t stop after Game 82. He started the playoffs on an impressive run. Through the first three games against the Suns in the first round, Alexander-Walker averaged 14.7 points on 46.9% from the floor and 39.1% from deep while playing lock-down defense against Devin Booker, which he said gave him more confidence on offense.

During the Phoenix series, a reporter asked Alexander-Walker what needs to do to get the green light from three-point range. “Definitely on defense,” he responded. “Being able to guard defensively and provide something to the team. And knowing myself, knowing my abilities, and what I do well, and trying to sharpen that and heighten that so it can buy me more time on the court.”

Nickeil boasted a +21.7 plus/minus rating through the first three games against Phoenix, the second-highest first-round plus/minus in the NBA since 1997. To put into context how impressive that is, Kobe Bryant (+22 in 2001) was the only player with a higher plus/minus. Chauncey Billups (+21.4 in 2009), Russell Westbrook (+20.2 in 2016), Jalen Williams (+20 in 2024), and Stephen Curry (+19.8 in 2017) fell behind NAW.

NAW was stepping up as a playoff performer for the second straight season. Finch’s ability to call him off the bench to replace McDaniels and not get any worse offensively or defensively gave the Wolves a unique advantage. However, Nickeil’s play had a stark and sudden drop-off after the Phoenix series, and Minnesota felt the negative impact every game.

Alexander-Walker’s defense will always earn him meaningful playing time, especially if he fills a bench role. But the Wolves learned that defense can only get you so far. After fighting hard through seven games against the Nuggets, Minnesota was tired against the Mavericks, and its offense suffered the most.

Collectively, the Wolves shot 45.7% from the floor against Dallas. Finch and his staff didn’t receive enough consistent shot-making from their stars, and the bench didn’t pull their weight with open shot-making, which is especially true for Alexander-Walker.

Nickeil’s per-game averages dropped to 5.6 points on 33.8% from the floor and 28.3% from deep against Dallas and Denver. He also had six games with zero made threes. The Wolves suddenly lost their most reliable shooter off the bench. While Minnesota’s offensive woes were on a team-wide scale, Alexander-Walker’s inability to make open shots hindered their ability to compete against Dallas.

Being an off-ball combo guard has pros and cons. You have less pressure because you’re not running the offense, but you can become an offensive liability when your shot is not falling. Nickeil is committed to adding to his game this summer and becoming a much more versatile player as the Wolves aim to reach the Finals next season.

At his exit interview, a reporter asked Alexander-Walker if he would be fine-tuning or adding to his game in the summer. “Definitely adding,” he responded. “I think there is more I could have brought to the team. I think I could have helped Mike with playmaking. I want to become a better defender … just adding in every facet and becoming a high-IQ guy. Being able to make plays, not so much relying on Ant to do everything or relying on KAT and Mike to get me open shots. And vice versa. Helping them get open shots and easy looks. Just becoming a more complete player.”

It sounds like Nickeil plans to add more traditional point guard skills this off-season. He occasionally played point guard when Conley was hurt or straddled on the bench. However, the Wolves lacked stability whenever Mike wasn’t leading the offense. If Finch can count on NAW developing into a reliable backup for the 36-year-old guard, it will bode well because of Minnesota’s impending cap space situation next season.

Alexander-Walker is set to make $4,312,500 next season, which is a team-friendly figure considering what we saw from him this year. Counting NAW, the Wolves already have $273,554,473 in total cap allocation for only ten players, which is the most in the NBA. They are also $17,315,442 over the first apron of the NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement and $6,484,442 over the second apron, which will bear certain penalties.

Being over the second apron for one season is not the end of the world. However, because the Wolves are the most expensive team in the NBA, it will possibly limit what Connelly and his staff can do regarding signings and trades this summer. That’s why internal development from guys like Alexander-Walker is so critical.

Nickeil will become an unrestricted free agent after next year. If he can put together another impactful season on both ends of the ball, the 6’5” guard is in line to sign a relatively lucrative extension. Being a second-apron team for two straight years calls for even more penalties that are much more severe, such as only being able to resign returning free agents or players to minimum contracts. Therefore, the Wolves may be unable to re-sign NAW after the 2024-25 campaign without exceeding that threshold. However, Connelly has always rewarded internal development with extensions, and we all saw just how vital Alexander-Walker is to Minnesota’s success in the postseason.

Alexander-Walker has played for Minnesota longer than any other NBA team and seems poised to redefine his game this summer. Potential cap situations could play a role in what team he plays for in the future, but Alexander-Walker proved how valuable he is to the Wolves. If he can make the additions to his game that he spoke about during his exit interview, Connelly and Co. would be foolish not to try to keep him around for a long time, even if that means making money-saving decisions elsewhere on the roster.

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