New Orleans Pelicans

Nickeil Alexander-Walker: New Orleans Pelicans guard is seizing the opportunity in front of him

In sports, sometimes injuries mean opportunity.

In the case of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Lonzo Ball's unfortunate hip injury has opened up the door for the Canadian to get more minutes in a very crowded New Orleans Pelicans backcourt.

It's even allowed him to start, and Alexander-Walker is taking full advantage of the opportunity.

In his last six games, all of which he's started in, Alexander-Walker is averaging 20.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting 48.0 percent from the field and 42.6 percent from 3-point range.

He has been solid as a reserve this season for New Orleans, but he's been even better as a starter.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker Starter vs. Bench stats 2020-21
GP MIN PTS FG% 3P% FT% REB AST
Starters 9 32.7 19.8 51.1 45.6 50.0 5.7 2.7
Bench 30 16.9 7.5 37.6 29.1 87.1 2.4 1.8

After a typical rookie season with plenty of ups and downs, Alexander-Walker is starting to find some consistency in his sophomore season. It could be part of the reason the Pelicans front office was reportedly willing to put Ball on the trade block around the deadline.

Alexander-Walker is settling in offensively. It's led to a more efficient season for him, highlighted by his much-improved true shooting percentage. A true shooting percentage of 50.0 would typically be about average. Last season, Alexander-Walker was well below that mark, posting a true shooting percentage of 47.3. This season, his true shooting percentage is up to 53.3 percent on an even higher volume of field goal attempts. His improved shot selection has a lot to do with that.

Alexander-Walker is also making strides navigating the pick-and-roll as a ball handler. He's not yet elite in that realm but the year-over-year improvement has seen him go from ranking in the 18th percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency to the 58th percentile, according to NBA Stats. That type of improvement can be attributed to hard work - Alexander-Walker is a known gym rat - but also experience.

The game is starting to slow down for the 22-year-old and his ability to process information in real-time is starting to shine.

On the other end of the court, Alexander-Walker has seen similar improvements. While the Pelicans aren't exactly locking teams up - they currently rank in the bottom five in defensive efficiency - it's to no fault of Alexander-Walker, who has been one of the team's most consistent defenders this season.

With him on the court, the Pelicans are giving up 111.1 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, that number goes up to 116.1. Alexander-Walker is second on the team in deflections this year, only trailing Ball, who has logged just over 400 more minutes than him on the court.

That knack for getting his hands on the ball has been contagious. When Alexander-Walker is on the floor, opposing teams have a turnover rate of 14.2. That number falls to 12.0 when he hits the bench. That's the difference between the Pelicans ranking 15th and 29th in the league at forcing turnovers.

Alexander-Walker's activity, smarts and length could eventually turn him into one of the better perimeter defenders in the league.

With two extra teams getting a shot at the postseason with the ninth and 10th seeds qualifying for the play-in tournament, New Orleans is still in the thick of the playoff race. The Pelicans would of course like to be healthy for the stretch run and have Ball back in the lineup at some point in the near future.

But looking ahead, Alexander-Walker's play this season might have opened the Pelicans' eyes to what they have in the Canadian - a potential starting guard who's slightly younger and might be less expensive as they continue to find a way to build around Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

Alexander-Walker is rounding into form right before our eyes. All he needed was opportunity.

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