If New Orleans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker sometimes sounds much older than his 21 years when he speaks, there’s at least one explanation: Since he was very young, he’s been preparing at a level beyond his age. Credit that to his uncle, Vaughn Alexander, who took the unusual step of immediately teaching his basketball pupils more than just how to dribble, pass and shoot.
“I’d be in third grade, and he would be talking to me about valuing possessions, making the right play at the right time,” Alexander-Walker remembered, smiling while thinking about a 9-year-old soaking up those advanced concepts. “He’d be talking about time, score, momentum. A lot of kids my age were like, ‘Let’s have fun.’ He was about his business. At a young age, when you focus on that, it helps you mature faster.”
Growing up in Toronto, Alexander-Walker spent countless hours practicing and playing with his first cousin, Oklahoma City Thunder second-year rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Vaughn’s son. A former high school player, Vaughn stressed the importance to the boys of being able to use both hands equally well on the court. Years later, the cousins sometimes appear ambidextrous, as comfortable finishing around the rim with their “weaker” left hand as their right.
“At a young age, my uncle always said, ‘If you can do (something) with your right hand, you should be able to do it with your left,’ ” Alexander-Walker said. “That literally, word for word, has not left my brain since I started playing basketball. I always tried practicing with my left hand. I’m not sure how old I was, but I had a Fisher-Price net at home, and I would shoot with my left, and he’d say (encouragingly), ‘Do it again! Keep doing it!’ I started really loving being able to go both ways. By the time I was probably in sixth or seventh grade, I could do a workout right-handed and left-handed, including pull-up (jumpers).”
Vaughn was never officially his nephew’s basketball coach for any youth team, but Alexander-Walker fondly recalled seeing and hearing his uncle at every game. Especially the hearing part.
“He was never the head coach. He was the sideline head coach – you know, the guys who are in the stands, and no matter what they’re going to be the loudest,” Alexander-Walker said, grinning. “He was definitely there always, took me to practices.”
After becoming one of Canada’s top high school players, the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder played college ball at Virginia Tech, where he rapidly developed over two seasons, setting the stage for him to be chosen 17th in the 2019 NBA Draft. His cousin was the 11th pick a year earlier, which Alexander-Walker sees as a testament to his uncle’s basketball guidance, as well as the time Vaughn spent instilling the right mindset in the two aspiring hoopers.
“His method is, ‘You’ve got to be a man,’ ” Alexander-Walker described of what he was taught, even in grade school. “He always told me, ‘You’ve got to earn it. You’re never going to just get something (handed to you).’ He gave me a chip. His hunger, his aggression, his passion – you can tell he loves the game to this day.”
Alexander-Walker paused, before referencing how effective Vaughn was in getting family members to the NBA: “I mean, so far he’s 2-for-2.”