NBA Hoops

How Nickeil Alexander-Walker became an X factor for the Timberwolves

How Nickeil Alexander-Walker became an X factor for the Timberwolves

LATE IN GAME 4 of the Timberwolves‘ first-round series against the Phoenix Suns, with Minnesota looking to secure the sweep, Wolves guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker knew he had to make a play.

It was April 28, and Minnesota was clinging to a 113-111 lead in the final minutes. After a missed 3-point attempt from the Wolves’ Mike Conley, the Suns had a chance to tie or take the lead to extend their season.

Alexander-Walker watched as Devin Booker threw a pass to Kevin Durant, who got doubled in the post. Durant tossed it back out to Eric Gordon, who swung it to Bradley Beal in the left corner as Durant slipped back to the right.

As the sequence developed, Alexander-Walker made the type of play his coaches and teammates now trust him to make: He saw Durant open after Karl-Anthony Towns cut off a driving Beal in the lane, and as Beal let a bounce pass go in Durant’s direction, Alexander-Walker stretched out his arm for the tip and the steal.

Sixteen seconds later, Anthony Edwards detonated at the rim for a dunk on Durant that pushed the Wolves’ advantage to a two-possession game. Minnesota never led by less than four again in completing the sweep.

“I think that play right there was like, ‘I’m going to win this game and impact it as best as I can,'” Alexander-Walker tells ESPN. “Before it was like, ‘Man, I don’t got it going. I’m trying to find it.’ Now it’s like, ‘I’m going to impact this no matter what.'”

After playing for three NBA teams in five years, the 25-year-old Toronto native who arrived in Minneapolis at the 2023 trade deadline has shown why he’s a key part of the Wolves’ hopes to advance from the Western Conference semifinals against the top-seeded Denver Nuggets.

“He’s been one of our best players in the playoffs so far, and a lot of it has been his mental side,” Conley tells ESPN. “He’s really worked on that a lot. He’s not letting anger take over, not letting past mistakes take over the next play.

“When he’s 100% on that, man, he’s one of our better X factors for our team.”

ALEXANDER-WALKER HAS quietly turned himself into one of the NBA’s best defensive players.

His journey has been anything but linear. As a rookie out of Virginia Tech with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019-20, Alexander-Walker held opponents to 48.4% shooting as the contesting defender. That ranked 288th out of 317 players who defended at least 250 shots.

Alexander-Walker was initially billed as a bench scorer but quickly struggled to find rhythm…

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