During training camp and the preseason, I asked newly minted Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy what it would take for some of the younger or end-of-bench players to prove that they deserved more playing time.
“If they want to play and earn a spot in the rotation, they have to do the dirty work,” Hardy said. “They have to step up to an NBA level of physicality, play defense and try to do all the little things out there.”
Hardy has shown that if an opportunity presents itself to get a player some extra minutes, and that player shows that they’re willing to do the little things and is committed to their role and making an impact on the game, he will reward them with extended minutes.
That’s what happened with Nickeil Alexander-Walker on Saturday night.
With Mike Conley resting the second game of a back-to-back set, Alexander-Walker checked in against the Memphis Grizzlies near the end of the first quarter. Pretty quickly he hit a 3-pointer and went to the free-throw line after drawing a foul on John Konchar.
But things started to ramp up from there and it was Alexander-Walker’s defense on Desmond Bane that earned him 20 minutes, 50 seconds of playing time in the Jazz’s 124-123 win.
In the final seconds of the first quarter, Alexander-Walker sent the message to Bane that he wasn’t going to let up, that he wouldn’t be an easy defender to deal with.
“He’s just so used to comfort,” he said of Bane. “So I was just thinking, as much pressure as I can give him, do my work early so I can try to get a few illegal screens and if you put it down close enough to try and steal it, use my length to my advantage.”
Bane made that mistake in the second quarter. Alexander-Walker picked him up full court and waited for the right moment to poke the ball away and not only came up with the steal, but then scored on the other end.
The next time Alexander-Walker stole the ball from Bane, he wasn’t able to get ahead of Bane on the break, but rookie Ochai Agbaji was and Alexander-Walker made the perfect read, passing to Agbaji for the fast-break bucket.
But it wasn’t just forcing live-ball turnovers that made Alexander-Walker’s defense so good on Saturday. He was also able to draw multiple fouls. The amount that Alexander-Walker was able to do this takes a lot of skill.
It’s about timing, and knowing the personnel on the court and also takes some acting and being able to sell the fouls without looking like you’re flopping. Alexander-Walker had all of that in spades and used every moment that he was on the court to try to get the Jazz an advantage and his efforts were contagious and energized the rest of the team.
“He came in with such a fire,” Hardy said of Alexander-Walker. “He really got into the ball with Desmond Bane and I think he got two steals on the ball, just taking the dribble. He has really good instincts and really long arms and he did a good job of just trying to speed up their ball handlers, which I thought was great ... It’s a a difficult situation. He hasn’t played that much and he got thrown into a big game with Mike out, and I thought he handled himself great.”