After five coaches in four years, Nickeil Alexander-Walker hoping for stability in Utah
Jazz guard has endured challenges and changes during his four years in the league. Now he’s hoping to stick with the Jazz and prove he belongs
Alvin Gentry, Stan Van Gundy, Willie Green, Quin Snyder and now Will Hardy.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker is just 24 years old, heading into his fourth NBA season and although he’s only been on two teams, the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz, he has already worked under five different head coaches and that doesn’t include Nick Nurse, head coach of the Toronto Raptors and of the Canadian national team, which Alexander-Walker has played for during the past couple of years.
“It’s difficult to say the least. It’s hard to develop under five different coaches in four years.” — Nickeil Alexander-Walker on the challenges he’s faced since NBA career began
“I’d say he needs a little stability,” Nurse said. “I don’t know how many coaches he’s had, four? Five? But he needs a chance. Right place, right time, he needs to fall into a rotation so he can go out there and try to build on it every night.”
That’s what Alexander-Walker is hoping to have found with the Jazz this season, and the early returns have been in his favor.
Throughout training camp, Alexander-Walker has stood out and impressed both the coaching staff and his teammates. He’s been consistent, mature, a quick study and has seemed wise beyond his years. But that doesn’t mean that he feels completely comfortable or settled.
The constant changes in leadership are not just something in Alexander-Walker’s life that has been observed by others. It’s taken a real toll on the young guard.
“It’s difficult to say the least,” he said. “It’s hard to develop under five different coaches in four years. When you look at NBA systems and timelines and the progression of players, usually they’re under the same coach and understand the system and understand their role and then they embrace their role and expand from there. I think it’s safe to say that in all four years I’ve had a different role and it’s not always clear what that role is. I’m still trying to understand that and understand how I can get better.”
On Sunday, in the Jazz’s first preseason game, Alexander-Walker was a part of the main 10-man rotation that saw significant minutes against the Raptors. He went 0-for-4 shooting but finished the night with five rebounds, three blocks, a steal and an assist.
Offensively, it wasn’t the kind of performance that he wanted. But, the Jazz aren’t necessarily concerned about his offensive game. Alexander-Walker is a versatile scorer and when he’s settled and comfortable they trust his shot-making abilities.
“I told him today that he didn’t make a shot, but he affected the game in a lot of different ways,” Mike Conley said after the game against Toronto. “He can pressure guys defensively and make plays for others. He has the body and the size and he has the ability. He’s doing all of the right things.”
The Jazz are in an interesting position when it comes to the roster. There are 18 players under contract for the 2022-23 season and the Jazz have to cut that down to 15 by the beginning of the regular season. There’s been a lot of speculation about the players at the end of the roster and who could be waived if the Jazz don’t end up shortening the roster by way of trade.
Prior to training camp opening, Alexander-Walker was one of the players that many would have believed was on the fringes of the roster and might have been considered if cuts need to be made.
He’s clearly done something right throughout training camp, earning a spot in the preseason rotation and getting good feedback from the coaching staff along the way. But is it enough? With less than two weeks left before the start of the regular season, the Jazz could have to make some tough decisions.
It seems as though players who could also be considered on the chopping block are; Saben Lee, who came to the Jazz in the trade that sent Bojan Bogdanovic to the Detroit Pistons; Stanley Johnson, who the Jazz got from the Los Angeles Lakers in the trade for Patrick Beverley; Udoka Azubuike, who has yet to return from ankle surgery he underwent last season; and Jared Butler, who the Jazz were ecstatic about drafting last year but who hasn’t been able to show that he can produce at the level he did when he was with Baylor.
The pressure of those decisions could be a lot if Alexander-Walker gave them much thought. The worries about his shot consistency, the questions about his decision-making on the court and the concerns over whether he is a point guard or a shooting guard in the NBA could bog him down.
Hardy, the Jazz coaching staff and Alexander-Walker’s teammates have said that he doesn’t need to be concerned about what position he plays. His shot-making with the Canadian national team have settled some of the worries about what he can do from an offensive standpoint. And focusing on making the players around him better and making plays for others has made Alexander-Walker feel more confident.
“There are going to be a lot of things that are in your way and can make you question, do you love it? How far will you go for it? What matters? What doesn’t matter? All of that is just what comes with the process,” Alexander-Walker said. “I’ve learned to be more patient with the process. I’ve blinked and I’m in year four. So I can be upset that I’ve had five coaches in four years or I can get in the gym and work hard and make sure I’m prepared to learn.”
Hardy has said that as he’s evaluating players, especially the younger players on the roster that there isn’t a magic button or one thing that he could point to that would win a player more minutes or more opportunity.
“If they want to play and earn a spot in the rotation, they have to do the dirty work,” Hardy said. “Those guys have to step up to an NBA level of physicality, play defense, try to do all the little things out there on the floor.”
That is where Alexander-Walker’s focus is.
He wants to prove himself so that he can have a chance at NBA stability. He wants to do the little things and be trusted so that he can carve out a role, embrace his role and expand it. At some point in the next couple of weeks, he’ll know if that chance will be with the Jazz or if he’ll have to pivot once more.