Meet ‘The Rooks’: Pelicans three first-round picks helping each other adjust to NBA
New Orleans rookies Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes spend part of their free time these days hanging out with a famous friend. Their pal doesn’t act like he’s a “star” whatsoever, which makes it even funnier when Hayes and Alexander-Walker see how their buddy is worshipped and adored, especially when he passes through crowds filled with teenagers and 20-somethings. Alexander-Walker, 21, and Hayes, 19, have already turned the predictable scene into an entertaining guessing game.
“It’s funny because dudes just lose their minds when they see him,” a smiling Alexander-Walker described of what it’s like to be out in public with Zion Williamson, the Pelicans’ 19-year-old No. 1 overall draft pick. “I get that it’s not an everyday thing to see someone of his stature and everything he’s been doing, but people act like he’s not even human. Every time you walk by people, you’re going to hear (someone whisper), ‘That’s Zion!’ You just kind of wait and say to yourself, ‘OK, which person in the group is going to be the first one to say it?’ ”
“One time a guy got on his knees and bowed down to (Williamson),” an incredulous Hayes said of an interaction that took place in New Orleans. “That was funny. People feel like he’s not a normal human – everyone sees him like he’s a god. But he’s just a normal person. He’s a 19-year-old kid just like us. All of us are really young guys.”
Like dozens of other first-year pros, Alexander-Walker, Hayes and Williamson are in the early stages of navigating the often-challenging adjustment of going from college life to the NBA. But the trio already seems to have perhaps one advantage over some rookies, having quickly become good friends. They each agree that their group – they call themselves “The Rooks” – consists of three somewhat different personalities, but they share the same goal of trying to make the professional transition as smooth as possible. On the court, but probably more so off the court, it has helped to have two other peers encountering many of the same experiences at the same time.
“As a rookie, you kind of want someone you can go to and talk to,” said Alexander-Walker, the No. 17 pick in June’s NBA draft. “Us three, kind of being brothers and accepting each other, made it a lot easier and more fun. We have a group text and sometimes I’ll text, ‘Let’s go eat somewhere,’ or Zion or Jaxson will. We’re constantly wanting to hang out with each other and enjoy this lifestyle together.”
“It’s been fun,” Williamson said of the trio, a bond that's helped him through a knee injury that's delayed the official start of his NBA career, while the other two get their feet wet on the court. “I feel like when we hang out outside the court, we become closer. We all just left college and all could still be in college. We can relate to each other more than I can with, say, a 13-year vet. The (New Orleans) vets have been giving us some great advice, but it’s nice to have somebody your own age who you can go through things together with.”
Hayes: “We all want to win. For us to win, we’ve got to be close, a tight-knit group. We hang out wherever we go. We say, ‘Yo, you want to go eat? Let’s hang out and play Xbox.’ To try to develop the relationship on the court, we’re working to develop it off the court as well.”
The three young Pelicans have documented some of their time together on social media, starting with the August day when they arrived in New Orleans to begin voluntary workouts. Since then, they’ve participated in a fun-filled tour of South Louisiana, attending football games at local Tulane University, as well as LSU in Baton Rouge, while also playing some pickup hoops at the University of New Orleans. They fit in a visit to the New Orleans Saints’ home opener, which they attended while sporting three different Saints jerseys (in case you’re wondering, Alexander-Walker wore Michael Thomas’ No. 13; Hayes donned the No. 94 of Cam Jordan; Williamson sported Drew Brees’ No. 9).
Although the three Pelicans haven’t known each other for long, there are a few reoccurring themes when they discuss their friends. Let Williamson, Hayes and Alexander-Walker describe what each member of “The Rooks” brings to the table:
The Big Kid
It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Williamson to go anywhere unnoticed, but he sometimes catches people off guard due to how unassuming and downright normal he seems to be. That appeared to be the case when he arrived at LSU’s football stadium and walked in with Alexander-Walker and Hayes.
“When we were kind of navigating through the gates to get to the field, at first people didn’t realize it was me,” the 6-7, 285-pound Williamson said, smiling. “They were like, ‘He wouldn’t be at LSU!’ But I got to the field and the student section was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s him!’ They showed a lot of love toward us, which I really appreciate.”
Alexander-Walker describes Williamson as a fun-loving friend who has some outside-the-box tastes, such as his musical preferences.
“His music selection is not what you would think it to be,” Alexander-Walker said. “You’d think he’d be listening to rap all the time, or maybe something old school, but no, he will surprise you. We were just chilling at Jaxson’s place and he put on (a song from) The Lion King, Hakuna Matata. He’s just a big kid at the end of the day.”
Williamson: I’m the goofy one, the guy who brings happy vibes all the time and tries to make everything fun.”
Seven Feet of Chill
Williamson and Alexander-Walker are fascinated by Hayes’ lack of self-consciousness, illustrated by how Hayes firmly believes he can easily blend into gatherings of people, despite being a 7-footer.
“Of the three of us, Jaxson is the most laidback person,” a smiling Williamson explained. “Jaxson is 7 foot, but he’ll go walk the street like he’s 6-1. I’m like, ‘You can’t do that!’ He says, ‘Nobody stops me, nobody knows who I am.’ ”
“He thinks he’s 5-7,” Alexander-Walker said of Hayes. “He will go anywhere in New Orleans and just walk around. He likes to explore and enjoys his time. He doesn’t think he sticks out in crowds, so he likes to walk around and go places. It’s pretty funny.”
Hayes actually attended consecutive LSU football games early in the Tigers’ season, but “represented” the opposing team in the latter matchup, when LSU visited Texas, where he played one season of college hoops (“the football game was fun, even though LSU beat my Longhorns”). He noted how unexpected it was for football spectators in multiple Louisiana stadiums to begin chanting his name, even though he has yet to play an official NBA minute and isn’t necessarily a household name quite yet.
“It was really fun,” Hayes said of the reception he received during games at LSU and Tulane. “Hearing our names chanted in the stadiums was really cool. It was awesome to hear that from the student section, because we didn’t even go to their school.”
“At the end of the day, we’re all still young enough to still be in college,” Alexander-Walker said of the experience. “So we feel like we’re the same (as the students). Getting that atmosphere and love from the fans and the crowd is pretty cool.”
On the Tulane sideline, Williamson was taken aback by the hospitality of Green Wave football coach Willie Fritz, who briefly stopped by during pregame to greet the three NBA rookies.
“As he was running onto the field, he walked over and said thanks for coming out and showing love,” a smiling Williamson remembers, shaking his head at the memory. “I was (thinking), ‘Man I’m 19. You’ve got players older than me on your team!’ ”
The Drip God
Alexander-Walker, whose cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, is the wise “old” head among the group, the only Pelicans first-round pick who spent more than one year in college. Williamson and Hayes seem thoroughly entertained by Alexander-Walker’s cool persona, which the guard demonstrates partly in his choices in attire.
“Nickeil is the most swaggy among us,” Williamson said. “He’ll come to Jaxson’s place in a swaggy outfit and we’ll say, ‘Wait, are you going somewhere?’ He’ll say, ‘Nah, I’m just chillin.’ He looks like he’s about to be on League Fits (an Instagram account that features photos of NBA player arena walk-ins) or something.”
Williamson is captivated by Alexander-Walker’s eclectic fashion tastes, including an affinity for pro wrestling T-shirts. The Toronto native’s seemingly favorite features Bret “The Hitman” Hart, a fellow Canadian who starred in the ring in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Nickeil is the drip god,” Williamson said of his teammate’s clothing. “If you haven’t noticed, he’s got the most drip. He’ll take the most basic fit – I’ve never seen someone make a WWE shirt look so swaggy. He’ll throw on a WWE shirt on a flannel, and rock a hat. If I wore that, I would look ridiculous!”
“Nickeil is a very swaggy guy,” Hayes agreed.
In Williamson’s eyes, Alexander-Walker is also worthy of respect for his mysterious ability to find sneakers that aren’t commonly seen on the street. Upon looking down at Alexander-Walker’s rare footwear one day, Williamson – a Brand Jordan pitchman – told his teammate, “I’m sponsored by Jordan, and I don’t even have those!”
Although Williamson, Hayes and Alexander-Walker undeniably are enjoying their introduction to the NBA, their older teammates have noticed their professionalism and approach when it’s time to get serious and focus on basketball. It’s made Pelicans veterans even more willing to offer tips and advice, because they know the youngsters are listening.
“Good-character guys,” 29-year-old guard Jrue Holiday said on Media Day. “All three very different personalities, but even seeing them (in workouts), you can see they have a chemistry, and that’s good to build. Maturity-wise, they’re a bit ahead of their time, in that they’ll be able to step out on the court and be able to contribute very quickly. They’ll be able to acclimate to how this game is played compared to summer league or even college.”
“High character,” center Jahlil Okafor, 23, echoed of the trio. “I think (Executive VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin) is huge on guys with high character. All three guys are that way, all willing to learn. The thing I love about them is how close they are. They have each other to rely on. They’re all going through the same stuff. They’re taking advantage of that.”
“The first thing I’d say about them is they are fun to be around,” said second-year guard Frank Jackson, himself only 21. “They are kids my age, dudes who like to have fun, but at the same time, they get their work in. And they’ve really done a good job of embracing the culture and the city.”
From their perspective, “The Rooks” – Alexander-Walker also calls the trio “the Pelicans’ recruiting class” – would like people in their new home to know that at the end of the day, they’re just trying to do what college-aged kids do.
“We like to listen to music, vibe, enjoy ourselves, and not feel like we’ve got to hide from people, or be lowkey,” Alexander-Walker said of wanting to enjoy New Orleans.
“People don’t understand that we are 19, 21 years old,” Williamson said, smiling. “We’re new to this. We’re just trying to fit in.”