Before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives, Peachtree Hoops will break down more than 70 available prospects with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks may look to do in late June.
This edition evaluates Virginia Tech guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
In an era defined by versatility on both ends of the court, the big guard archetype has become more valuable than it was in previous decades. Rather than pigeonholing players into specific roles – point guard as playmakers, shooting guards as scorers – teams are more interested in players who can do lots of things well. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is the latest in the line of big guards who can do a handful of things on both ends of the floor without necessarily having a single elite skill that sets him apart from the rest of the players in the 2019 NBA Draft.
A 6’6 guard out of Virginia Tech, Alexander-Walker brings a little bit of everything to the table. He’s a good shooter without necessarily being an elite one. He’s likely going to top out as a secondary playmaker without a ton of primary creation upside. He can get in the post against smaller guards, but doesn’t have the most advanced package of post moves to be an immense threat down low. He’s a solid on-ball defender but doesn’t have full-blown wing stopper upside and has some off-ball issues. He’s slightly above average in nearly every area of the game of basketball without being immensely talented in any individual area, making him a perfect complementary piece to nearly any team but should not be relied upon to be too much more than that.
Alexander-Walker fits nicely into a secondary playmaker role in lineups that have another playmaker on the floor, whether at the point guard spot or elsewhere. The secondary playmaker role asks a lot of players; they have to be able to hit spot-up jumpers, slash to the rim, and create shots for their teammates in second-side pick-and-roll and dribble handoff (DHO) actions. Alexander-Walker exhibited all of these skills during his time with the Hokies and even migrated into a primary role for stretches after Virginia Tech lost their starting point guard to injury.
He’s a comfortable playmaker with the ability to make passes out of pick-and-roll with either hand to either corner. The Hokies ran a ton of pick-and-roll and DHOs in their base offense, leading to Alexander-Walker getting a lot of experience in actions he’ll run at the NBA level. The skills that made him a strong collegiate player will be the same skills that make him a strong NBA player; teams won’t have to project how well he’ll operate pick-and-rolls or read weak-side defenses since he’s had so much experience doing it already.
He’s got a comfortable handle in pick-and-roll, with good patience and a useful hesitation dribble to lure defenses out of position. He’ll be able to get to his spots and create openings in the defense, though he’s not an absolutely special ball handler with the ability to create something from nothing. He’s not an isolation scorer but will instead get his offense within the flow of the greater scheme.
Alexander-Walker’s shooting is another strong point in his game. He made 37 percent of his threes in his sophomore season and hit 78 percent from the line, indicating a projectable jumper that can be extended out to the NBA three-point line. He’s a catch-and-shoot threat, either from a standstill or on the move, where he flashed quality footwork to get on balance before launching from distance. His shot is a little funky; it’s a bit of a catapult that takes too long to release, but teams will have their player development people working with him on shortening up the entire motion.
The release and relatively average athleticism are the two key areas that keep Alexander-Walker from excelling as a primary playmaker. Pull-up shooting is immensely important to an every-possession creator, but his janky shooting form holds him back from being able to hold down that role in the NBA. Add that to lackluster burst and vertical athleticism at the rim and it becomes clearer that Alexander-Walker is better at getting his offense against a previously compromised defense rather than creating those openings himself.
Defensively, Alexander-Walker has a decent amount of upside to explore with a physical toolbox that should put him as an above average defender at both guard spots and even against some of the smaller wings in the league. He’s quick enough laterally and plays a physical defensive style that can bother players on the perimeter. Built like a combo guard with an extra bit of length to his arms, he should be able to be a plus on-ball defender in his rookie year.
He’s a better individual defender than team defender at this point. Alexander-Walker gets into the airspace of bigger players and bother them off the dribble, then use his length to contest jumpers and shots around the basket. Team defense is a bit of an adventure right now, with multiple missteps in switching or ball-watching in most games. He loses focus off the ball and has a difficult time keeping an eye on his mark and the ball at the same time, often opting to watch ball handlers at the expense of his individual defensive duties off the ball. His physical tools are ahead of where he is mentally, but a smart coaching staff can hold him accountable for his off-ball mistakes and bring the mental side of defense out of him. He shows a strong basketball IQ offensively, so it’s safe to assume that he can develop his basketball IQ on the other end as well.
Alexander-Walker likely won’t blow anybody away and probably won’t be a team’s best or second-best player, but he’s nearly certain to be a solid role player for a long time with his diverse skill set. The lack of upside keeps him out of the group of wings and guards at the top of the draft, but once the first several picks are made, teams that are more risk-averse will be drawn to his all-around offensive game and defensive toolkit. Teams who look to hit home runs in the draft will have him much further down their board, but a team looking to hit singles and doubles will likely have him tabbed as a sleeper pick in the teens.
For the Atlanta Hawks, who already have their long-term primary playmaker in Trae Young, Alexander-Walker’s skills fit their team and their culture perfectly as somebody who can handle, make plays, and shoot the ball from outside and plays really well within the flow of the offense. While No. 10 may be a little high in terms of raw value, he’d be such a strong fit on the roster that it wouldn’t be impossible to justify a reach for him with their second top-ten selection.