Virginia Tech Backcourt Mates Face Different Paths to NBA

Justin Robinson is Virginia Tech's all-time assists leader, but his most impactful contribution will never show on a stat line. That would be the break he gave a teammate.

Robinson suffered an injured left foot during a game against Miami last season, just as his season was peaking. His 12-game absence required backcourt partner Nickeil Alexander-Walker to slide over to the point guard role. That enabled Alexander-Walker to both display and expand his skill set, which in turn has boosted his stock in Thursday's NBA Draft.

"I owe him a few dinners," Alexander-Walker said with a smile following the Pacers' final pre-draft workout on Monday at St. Vincent Center.

Robinson was sitting about 30 feet to Alexander-Walker's left at the time, having also just competed in the workout. It was the first time the paths of the two former backcourt partner had crossed in the pre-draft process, which somehow seems inappropriate given how intertwined their careers have become.

Alexander-Walker is projected to be drafted in the range of the Pacers' first-round pick (18). He not only averaged 16.2 points while hitting 38 percent of his 3-pointers as a sophomore, he has upside as a 20-year-old veteran of two college seasons. He also has length as a 6-foot-5 guard with a 6-foot-9 wingspan and the sort of slender frame that should fill out with age.

Robinson is four inches shorter, a year older, and a veteran of four college seasons, the last of which was reduced by the sort of injury that could give pause to any team considering him as a draft prospect. With those "flaws" working against him, he's regarded as a bubble player who will be drafted late in the second round or not at all despite being one of the most effective and admired point guards in the country last season.

Don't expect to hear any complaints, though. Robinson is confident he can clear his own path into the NBA and happy to have aided Alexander-Walker's prospects — both via his opportunity-creating injury and his on-site mentoring.

"There were a lot of times during the games, I would try to jump down the sideline in a boot and call him over and just tell him the simple things that would change everything," Robinson said.

"Literally, he would make the play and point at me. I like seeing other people happy and succeeding. For him to take the stride he did while I was hurt and going through the good and bad is a testament to who he is.

"It's going to help him on the next level. He has experience now handling the ball and coming off ball screens, being able to read things. I just continue to pray for him and hope he (succeeds) at the next level."

Alexander-Walker, meanwhile, makes no effort to downplay Robinson's influence. The transition from shooting guard to point guard was difficult at first, but progress was made.

Alexander-Walker had seven assists and 16 turnovers in his first three games after Robinson went down, but gradually corrected his quarterbacking equations. He had seven assists and two turnovers in the next game against Georgia Tech, and later had six assists and one turnover in a victory over Duke. In the final regular season game against Miami he had eight assists and three turnovers, and later 12 assists and six turnovers in the Hokies' three NCAA tournament games, the last of which was a two-point loss to Duke.

"It was really hard at the beginning, trying to follow up an all-conference guy," Alexander-Walker said. "Him just teaching me, it really helped me a lot in my (draft) stock and who I am as a player and being able to show my versatility. It's unfortunate he went down, but..."

Alexander-Walker paused for a moment, as if hesitant to take a positive from a teammate's injury, but then spoke the truth.

"It's helped me."

Helped him, because he can now legitimately claim to be a combo guard capable of playing either backcourt position. He wound up averaging 4.1 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.9 steals to go with his scoring production, making him one of the more complete guards in the draft.

Paul Jorgensen

Justin Robinson boxes out his former Virginia Tech teammate Nickeil Alexander-Walker at Monday's pre-draft workout. (Photo Credit: @Pacers)

Robinson returned for Virginia Tech's three NCAA tournament games, but played off the bench. He had 14 points and five assists in the two-point Sweet Sixteen loss to Duke, which at least indicated he had recovered from the injury.

If his mishap was a positive for Alexander-Walker, it drew a silver lining for Robinson as well. It enabled him to more publicly display his maturity and selflessness, and, most of all, his absence made his contributions all the more conspicuous. Although the Hokies upset Duke without him, they went 7-5 in the games he missed after going 17-3 before his injury.

Purdue fans might remember him for scoring 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting and passing out six assists in Virginia Tech's six-point victory in the Charleston Classic in November. (Alexander-Walker scored 25 in that game.) Syracuse fans no doubt recall him for scoring 35 points while hitting 9-of-13 3-pointers and passing out eight assists on Jan. 26. He continued his momentum into the Hokies' next game against Miami four days later by scoring 17 points in his first 19 minutes, but then broke a bone in his left foot when he went up for a floater and landed awkwardly.

"Who knows what trajectory I was on and where I could have been?" he said. "I thought I was on the right path to be an all-conference player, but when you miss 12 games you can't get that accolade."
Robinson has made up for his lost time with a standout performance in the Portsmouth Invitational, and in the new G League Elite Camp. He barely missed an invitation to the Chicago NBA Draft Combine, where he really could have elevated his draft position.

"Got robbed," he says now.

But even amid that slight he found a benefit. It enabled him to go back to campus and walk across the stage to accept the diploma he earned in 3 1/2 years in front of his parents.

The combination of his injury and talent has made Robinson one of the hottest commodities on the pre-draft circuit. Monday's workout with the Pacers was his 14th. He's going back to Detroit on Tuesday and Boston on Wednesday for second looks.

He thought he played well on Monday, but considers himself the type of player who doesn't shine brightest in a structured six-player pre-draft workout. He needs to be in a real game for that because he's the type of player who excels in the nuances of the game, the kind captured by advanced analytics. His Player Efficiency Rating, true shooting percentage (.632), and win share average last season were all superior to those of Alexander-Walker.

"Some of these workouts are meant for people who are just scorers and like to score," he said. "I can do that, but my game is to set others up and just control the tempo and control the game and be the coach on the court."

Thus, he realizes he might not be drafted. But he also realizes that might not be a bad thing.

"I want to hear my name called, but I don't think that's the end goal," he said. "The end goal is to be in the right situation at the right time. I would much rather go undrafted and go to the best situation for myself than get drafted but be in a position where I'm stuck."

Alexander-Walker doesn't have that concern. He's a virtual certainty to hear his name called in the first round, and will be waiting in the green room on draft night to walk on stage, don a cap, and share a bro-hug with commissioner Adam Silver. He doesn't have a specific expectation or desire, though, being wise enough to pay no attention to the myriad mock drafts that have pegged him for various spots.

He's also worked out for Charlotte, Boston, Detroit, Orlando, and Miami, for whatever that's worth. Monday's was his final session unless a team calls him back for a second look.

"I think it's all bogus in a sense," he said. "You've got guys basing it off the last game they've seen you in, or just their opinion. I trust the teams, I trust my agent. I don't feel like an NBA team is going to go out and tell their media sources who they're going to pick. You can't pay attention to it.

"I'm just excited to see what happens."

So is Robinson. They've done all they can for themselves by now. And for one another, too.

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