Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly was asked back on media day which player he felt was primed to make a “leap” this season for his franchise.
Anthony Edwards, he noted, was an obvious response. The young superstar guard is seemingly ascending to new heights every season.
But that wasn’t Connelly’s answer.
“You know who had a great summer and isn’t getting talked about enough is Nickeil,” Connelly said.
Which is fitting, because Nickeil Alexander-Walker wasn’t discussed much when he arrived in Minnesota. He was an afterthought for many in the trade that brought Mike Conley to the Timberwolves to replace D’Angelo Russell as the team’s floor general.
Alexander-Walker didn’t really enter the Wolves’ conscience on a grand scale until he was pushed into starter duty in Minnesota’s second play-in game against Oklahoma City last season, when he was tasked with guarding his cousin — star Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — as Minnesota was without Jaden McDaniels after McDaniels went down for the season in the regular-season finale.
Alexander-Walker shut down his cousin. He then made life difficult for Denver’s Jamal Murray in Minnesota’s lone playoff series.
Then, he played a large role for Team Canada, as Canada brought home a bronze medal from this summer’s World Cup.
The star of the 25-year-old guard, who signed a two-year deal to stay in Minnesota this offseason, continues to rise. And it all started with that win over the Thunder last season.
“I think it’s unbelievable. I think it’s great. I’ve never seen a player gain so much confidence, and rightfully so, from one game,” Timberwolves assistant coach Micah Nori said. “He’s found a role, he knows he’s going to play, he knows his niche is defense. He can simplify his game, and I think that’s led to his confidence. He’s had some success, he knows that Finchy and the rest of us believe in him.”
Connelly said Alexander-Walker has “All League” defensive potential. His recent showings suggest as much. Pair him with McDaniels and Edwards, and the Timberwolves suddenly sport three potentially premier perimeter defenders.
Alexander-Walker wins with relentlessness and physicality. The latter, he noted, hasn’t always been a big part of his game.
“As I’ve gotten better, I’ve learned just small things about playing a lot of high-volume players. And one thing I can do is, with physicality as much as you can, you wear him down,” he said. “That allows you to make things difficult. You don’t want to give them a rhythm. Because with a rhythm, it’s going to be a long night.”
Also playing to his advantage is the way he studies the game. Alexander-Walker’s approach is beyond reproach. He’s consistently dialed in to the task at hand. He knows his opponent’s tendencies and how best to mitigate the effectiveness of them.
And now Alexander-Walker believes he knows his own game as effectively as he knows his opponents’. That matters.
“Just kind of being able to make plays, get downhill, guard and just make the right pass. Not so much trying to score or be eager for status like the young player with something to prove,” Alexander-Walker said. “More so just someone who’s finding his footing and carving a role. And then with that small role, making it bigger, and then a bigger one, and just take it one stride at a time, one day at a time.”
Alexander-Walker said his mentality “now more than ever” is what it needs to be. There is no disbelief in regards to his recent success, or belief that his growth will stop anytime soon.
“I’m doing the right things, and I know that these guys are behind me and I’m in a position that I have support and trust and opportunity,” he said.
That that is all finally true entering the fifth year of his NBA career is not a common occurrence. But Alexander-Walker made it happen.
“At some point in time, you had to force yourself to get over that hump. And, at a certain time, you can’t wait for things to change, and you’ve got to be ready for that change,” he said. “And at the same time, having that opportunity to show yourself. And they just go hand in hand, and you start feeding into each other. And, next thing you know, you’re spiraling into the right direction.”
‘It’s light, it’s fun, it’s stress-less’: Timberwolves coaching staff has formed a ‘super rare’ bond
Healthy again, Timberwolves’ Jordan McLaughlin looks like the player of old
Timberwolves’ preseason victory provides young guys a chance to show their stuff
Timberwolves analyst Jim Petersen has prostate cancer removed, still plans on calling team’s regular-season opener
Conley’s Corner: Timberwolves’ ‘Old Guy’ has still got game