No two NBA careers are alike. For all but the league’s superstars, it seems like success is as much a factor of timing and circumstance as will and talent. It’s a meritocracy, no doubt, but one where the breaks can bounce around like dice on a roulette wheel. With the right amount of luck to go along with ability and determination, dreams can come true.
If the breaks don’t come? The health doesn’t hold up? There’s surplus at your position? Coach doesn’t believe in you?
Nothing is guaranteed.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a six-foot-six combo guard who was drafted 17th overall in 2019 after growing up in Hamilton and playing two seasons at Virginia Tech, where his college career ended in the sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament with a narrow loss to a Duke team featuring Zion Williamson and fellow Canadian R.J. Barrett .
Alexander-Walker arrived in Toronto with the Minnesota Timberwolves for Saturday night’s game largely unnoticed two nights after his cousin and best friend Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — in the midst of a breakout, all-NBA season with the Oklahoma City — arrived for the Canadian basketball equivalent of a coronation.
That Alexander-Walker was with the Timberwolves was part of the story. Last season at the trade deadline he was sent from the New Orleans Pelicans to Utah and last month at the trade deadline he was sent to Minnesota in part of the deal that brought Mike Conley to Minnesota from the Jazz and sent D’Angelo Russell from the Timberwolves to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The move brought Alexander-Walker’s career total to six coaches and three teams in four seasons, and three coaches and three teams in the past 13 months.
Not easy and not all that typical of a mid-first-round pick who has shown flashes of being a high-level player: He had a 29-point, seven-assist game as a rookie in his only start that season, and averaged 19 points, five rebounds and three assists in 13 starts in his second season with the Pelicans, scoring in double figures 12 times, including a 37-point night and two more games of 30-plus.
But instead of steady minutes and growing responsibilities, Alexander-Walker has had to navigate his way through coaching changes, getting included on the periphery of larger trades and, in general, learning on the fly.
You had to look no further than the other side of the floor to see how things can be different.
Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam came into the NBA with minimal-to-no fanfare to start the 2016-17 season and took some lumps, but in general have enjoyed a stable environment to develop their games and grow as NBA players. They each have a championship ring, all-star appearances, and significant financial security to show for it.
On Saturday, they were front and centre in another impressive home win for the Raptors. Toronto outlasted the Timberwolves — who arrived in the wee hours of Saturday morning after losing in double-overtime in Chicago on Friday night and were without All-Star guard Anthony Edwards (ankle) — for a 122-107 victory.
VanVleet, who was undrafted out of Wichita State in 2016, scored 22 of his 28 points in the first half and added seven assists to continue a strong run of play. Siakam — taken 27th overall out of New Mexico State that same summer — had his second strong game in a row after poor five-game road trip. He scored 14 of his 27 points in the second half and finished with six assists.
The win was the Raptors’ third straight at home, improved their record to 35-36 and pulled them within a half-game of eighth-place Atlanta in the East . The Timberwolves have lost five of six, are now without both their stars (there is still no date set for the return of Karl Anthony-Towns, who has missed 49 games and counting with a calf injury) and are trying to keep their fingernails on a play-in or playoff spot in the congested West. They are in eighth place, but just a half-game up on 11th.
Alexander-Walker is relishing the moment. It might not have been the flashiest of homecomings, or the win Minnesota was hoping to steal — the game was tied 80-80 with 3:22 left in the third before the Timberwolves hit the wall — but he was solid. He had four points on 2-of-8 shooting in 19 minutes off the bench against his local NBA team.
Had Alexander-Walker been able to knock down one or two of the open threes he had, his line would have looked a lot better. He also missed a lay-up in transition, but there some very good moments. He scored twice on decisive left-handed drives in traffic. He had a clever assist on a quick pass to Naz Reid for a triple in the third quarter and a highlight move when he chased down an offensive rebound, spun and instantly threw a lob behind the defensc to Rudy Gobert in the fourth. He chipped in with a pair of steals and drew a couple fouls, too.
“I feel blessed to be in this organization,” Alexander-Walker said to me in the Timberwolves dressing room before heading out to the floor to meet a large crowd of friends and family. “I know what my role is and I’m getting a chance to play through mistakes, help my team by making winning plays. The way the West is, every game matters and it’s a great chance to grow as a player and person.”
Most importantly, it seems like he’s got an advocate in Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch, who was an assistant on Alvin Gentry’s staff in New Orleans during Alexander-Walker’s rookie season.
Finch was sitting with Alexander-Walker on the bench before the fourth-year guard took his pre-game warm-up. It’s not something you see all the time. Typically, assistant coaches confer with players before the game, going over video clips that relate to the game plan. Finch’s personal touch was telling.
“He’s trying,” said Alexander-Walker, appreciatively. “He’s trying.”
Finch not only believes in Alexander-Walker, if Edwards is out for extended period of time, he’s going to need him.
“We’ve been very pleased with Nickeil. We like him a lot,” said the second-year Timberwolves coach and one-time Raptors assistant. “Offensively he’s got a versatile game that we like. Defensively he’s really grown, as you would expect. That’s where I’ve seen the most growth since his rookie year, which is natural, but he enjoys defence, he takes the challenge. He’s got really good size, he’s very smart and now he’s putting the pieces together, like understanding game plan and his opponent’s tendencies and stuff like that.
“It’s crazy when you think that Nickeil has played for six coaches in four years,” said Finch. “So he just needs to be able to be out there. We’ll put our arms around him and keep encouraging him and I think he’s going to be a really good player in this league.”
Finding a connection with a coach, system and franchise is something Alexander-Walker is craving. It’s one of the reasons he so committed to the senior men’s national team. He has played for Canada the past two summer and intends to this summer again at the World Cup.
“These past two summers have been huge learning curves for me,” he said. “And I feel like I’ve matured as a man and a professional.”
When I spoke with him earlier this season, he was hopeful of finding traction with the Jazz. Now, maybe it will be Minnesota. He knows what he’s looking for.
“Usually when you look at the timelines and progressions of players, usually it’s under the same coach and the same system and they get to understanding their role and then embrace their role and they expand from there,” Alexander-Walker said to me then. “I think it’s safe to say in all four of the years I’ve had so far, I’ve had a different role and it’s not really clear and I’m still trying to figure that out.”
No one gets unlimited chances in the NBA, even rangy combo guards who check off a lot of boxes teams are looking for in backcourt players. No one knows better than Alexander-Walker that he needs to find some traction — and sooner rather than later. Uncertainty is part of the job but it’s not comfortable and ultimately not sustainable.
“It eats at me tons,” he said earlier this season. “But the ultimate defence for it is, a lot of times through life anything that you want there are going to be things in your way and make you question: ‘do you love it, how far will you go for it, what matters and what doesn’t matter?’ It’s all part of the process and I’ve learned to be appreciative of the process. I blink and I’m in year four, so I can be upset with [the lack of stability] or I can get in the gym and work harder and make sure I’m prepared to learn different offences and different schemes.”
From a distance and from and different set of circumstances, VanVleet can relate, simply by not going through what Alexander-Walker is going through. His career has had its own challenges, but he’s been able to navigate them in a familiar environment for seven seasons now.
“We talk about development all the time and the ups and downs that come with that and it’s a lot easier when you’re in one place and one organization that, obviously, has a long-term plan for you and you just try to do everything in your power to stay there,” said VanVleet.
“[Alexander-Walker] has bounced around a little bit but he’s certainly got a ton of talent, a lot of skill, very hard to guard, and I think that he’ll figure it out and find a home that makes sense for him. … He’s a young kid and he’s got a lot of talent, so I think the sky’s the limit [but] you get these opportunities, you gotta make the most of them. You don’t get to choose when, where, and how but you do get to choose how you approach every day and just being prepared and being ready when your name is called.”