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Canada set an NBA record for most non-American players on opening day rosters this season. There were 16 in all, as well as four more on two-way contracts, meaning they could split time between the NBA and its development league, the G League. Two more Canadians got called up during the year.
In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to take a look at how the brightest lights of this golden generation of Canuck hoopsters fared in 2019-20.
Next up: New Orleans Pelicans rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
Alexander-Walker ran the full gamut of experiences in his rookie season in the NBA.
It wasn’t always the preferred experiences, but that’s more the norm for rookies finding their way in the league.
The 17th overall pick in the draft — initially by Brooklyn before a move to Atlanta and then New Orleans before he ever played a game — Alexander-Walker, who arrived in the NBA a year behind his cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, made a huge first impression during Summer League play in Las Vegas, where he finished as the third leading scorer while showing a mature ability to run an offence.
He followed that up with a stellar pre-season for the Pelicans that saw him average 15.4 points per game over five matches while shooting an eye-opening 46.7% from behind the arc.
Those performances had league general managers declaring him the “steal of the draft” in their annual pre-season survey.
But the good times didn’t last. Alexander-Walker opened the regular season right here in his hometown of Toronto and with it came the first real hurdle of his young career.
With an estimated 65 friends and family on hand for the game, Alexander-Walker made just one of 10 attempts from the field as the Pelicans lost the season opener for both teams in overtime.
Alexander-Walker handled the tough night with maturity and class, but it was the beginning of a depletion of his minutes as the season progressed.
He went from playing 15 minutes a night in October to 14 in November and down to 10 in December. He got a bit of a push in January, averaging almost 13 minutes a night but when fellow rookie teammate — and No. 1 overall pick— Zion Williamson finally was healthy enough to make his NBA regular-season debut on Jan. 22, the minutes dried up rather drastically for the Pelicans’ lone Canadian on the roster.
Already in a minutes crunch behind the likes of Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Josh Hart, E’Twaun Moore and Frank Jackson in a crowded Pels backcourt, head coach Alvin Gentry seemed less inclined to play a second rookie much at all with Williamson back in the fold.
Through it all, Gentry remained upbeat with Alexander-Walker’s approach. He consistently praised his fearlessness (in terms of taking shots) and his work ethic, but just didn’t seem to find many minutes for the Virginia Tech product.
In February, Alexander-Walker was sent down to the G League with minutes pretty much unavailable for him with the Pelicans.
That stint lasted only a couple of games but, when he did return, it was with a hairline fracture in his wrist and that, combined with the suspension of the season days later, brought his rookie year to a grinding halt.
To Alexander-Walker’s credit, he remained hard-working and upbeat throughout his first-year struggles and that earned him plenty of praise from his veteran teammates.
On his podcast, veteran teammate Redick raved about the young Canadian’s approach.
“We have a rookie, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who I love,” Redick said. “He basically just does whatever I do, and it’s amazing. Sometimes, I’m just trying to do (work) on my own and he’s like: ‘Hey man, can I come along with you?’”
Alexander-Walker’s wrist is now out of the cast and will not require surgery as was once feared.
But like everyone else, his comeback is on hold until this pandemic gets under control.
The best of Nickell Alexander-Walker’s rookie season:
Oct 28 vs. Golden State: 6-for-11 shooting, 2-for-4 from three, 15 points, nine assists, four rebounds.
Nov. 16 at Miami: 10-of-18 shooting, 6-for-9 from three, 27 points, three assists, four rebounds.
Nov. 17 vs. Golden State: 7-of-18 shooting, 5-for-13 from three, 19 points, four assists, five rebounds
Jan. 8 vs. Chicago: 4-of-8 shooting, 2-for-5 from three, 11 points, six assists, four rebounds
Jan. 16 vs. Utah: 5-fo-11 shooting, 2-for-4 from three, 12 points, three assists, one rebound
It’s safe to say that no one is anywhere close to giving up on this guy — not at 21 years of age and not having shown the glimpses of greatness that this kid already has at the NBA level.
His approach, his work ethic, his entire attitude screams: “I will succeed!”
Opportunity is going to play a role in how soon this happens, or even if it happens in New Orleans. The Pelicans are a young, athletic team loaded at the guard position at the moment. That could change, but if not it just means more time to develop for Alexander-Walker.
His three-point game which was on point through the pre-season and summer league, clearly needs some fine-tuning, as does his ability to protect the basketball. Even for a rookie he was far too turnover-prone in those few moments he was given the rock and told to run the New Orleans offence.
Alexander-Walker, though, has the confidence and the desire to turn those negatives into positives.
He was making just less than $3-million for 2019-20 and will top that mark next season in the second year of his rookie contract. The Pelicans have teams options the following two seasons with a modest bump in 2021-22 and then a larger one up to just more than $5-million in 2022-23 assuming the ’21-22 option is picked up.
The rookie season may not have gone as smoothly as Alexander-Walker might have hoped, but he has given no one any indication that he can’t grow from it.
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