Nickeil Alexander-Walker Q&A with Chris Coleman

To gain more insight into one of the newest members of the New Orleans Pelicans – No. 17 overall NBA draft pick Nickeil Alexander-Walker – we caught up with Chris Coleman, the managing editor for TechSideline.com, a site devoted to Virginia Tech sports.

Coleman, who was on the beat during Alexander-Walker’s two college seasons with the Hokies, has covered Virginia Tech football and basketball since 2002.

Pelicans.com: As was the case for many players in an unpredictable June 20 draft, there seemed to be a wide range of projections for where Alexander-Walker might be selected. What was your reaction and that of Virginia Tech fans to him being picked 17th, just outside the lottery? Coleman: I don’t think anybody around these parts expected him to be a lottery pick. In the end, he went about where he was projected. He could have gone anywhere from that No. 13 to No. 20 range, depending on team need, trade offers, etc. I think if you asked most Virginia Tech fans, Alexander-Walker ended up about where they would have expected.

Pelicans.com: He’s been described as a potential sleeper of the first round by various analysts. Why do you think that is? What parts of his game should make New Orleans fans the most optimistic about Alexander-Walker’s potential?Coleman: Alexander-Walker is good across the board offensively. I wouldn’t give him an A+ at anything, but he’s not bad at anything, either. He’s a good shooter, he’s creative in the lane, he’s got a good enough handle, he’s got good vision, and he can finish around the basket when he goes to his left. To become a complete offensive player, he’ll need to add some strength, and he’ll need to work on finishing with his right hand. He’s a right-handed shooter, but for some reason his left side is his strong side when he’s driving to the basket.

What I really like about Alexander-Walker is his maturity level. A lot of guys are hard workers, but he is an efficient worker. Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams told the media multiple times that Alexander-Walker understood how to get a lot of things accomplished in a day, and he was able to develop a lot as a result. He’s got a high IQ, he’s not going to get in trouble, he’s cognizant of his strengths and weaknesses, and he knows how to work.

Pelicans.com: What were some of the areas basketball-wise he improved most throughout his time in Virginia Tech? What do you think was behind how much of a jump he made from his freshman to sophomore seasons?Coleman: I thought he finished around the basket better as a sophomore as he added more strength.  I thought he was more confident in his jumpshot, and I thought his handle improved. I also thought he became a better passer. In general, he improved gradually across the board, as you would expect most 19-to-20 year olds to do.

The experience level of the players around him also helped as a sophomore. The Hokies had a very mature team, including a senior point guard (minus the games he missed with an injury), a fifth-year senior and a sixth-year senior on the wings, and a fourth-year junior in the paint. Tech always put an experienced lineup on the court, and they fed off each other.

Pelicans.com: He’s often described as a “combo guard,” with the ability to play both backcourt positions. The NBA has started to become somewhat position-less anyway, but based on what you saw at Virginia Tech, which backcourt spot do you expect him to be more comfortable playing, at least as a rookie?Coleman: I’m not sure I would agree with the “combo guard” description as much as some others do.  I don’t think Pelicans fans can expect to get a ton of minutes out of Alexander-Walker at the point guard position. It’s not his natural position. In fact, he had to play point guard for 11 games this past season when Justin Robinson went down with a foot injury, and the offense didn’t run nearly as smoothly. 

Not all of that is Alexander-Walker’s fault, as Robinson could be an NBA-caliber point guard (he signed with the Wizards), but I still don’t view him as a guy who should see many minutes in the NBA as a point guard. He’s a good passer, and he’s got a good handle… for a shooting guard. However, he’s much better suited for a shooting guard role on the offensive end, in my opinion.

It might be a different story on the defensive end. He’s still a little bit slight of build, and he could get outmuscled by some of the NBA’s bigger, stronger 2-guards. However, he has the length to create some problems for NBA point guards, in my opinion.

Pelicans.com: What areas do you think he has the most room to make strides, or aspects of his game he may need to improve or adjust as he transitions to NBA competition?Coleman: Though he added muscle mass and improved his strength from his freshman year to his sophomore season, he still needs to continue to fill out and get stronger. Many NBA players will present problems for him, and he’ll face a certain level of strength that he didn’t face in college.

From a pure skills standpoint, Alexander-Walker is a very good player, but he needs to continue to work on developing his right hand. He’s the rare right-handed shooter who is stronger with his left hand when he’s going to the basket. If he can develop his right hand, I don’t see any reason why he can’t develop into a consistent offensive performer at the NBA level.

Pelicans.com: Based on his draft-night interviews and interaction with the New Orleans media, he seems to be a very mature and poised individual, despite only being 20. How would you describe his personality off the court?Coleman: That’s not a perception. It’s reality. I met with an NBA scout back before the season to answer some questions about the team, and one of the things he said about Alexander-Walker was “he’s really smart.” I read a lot of scouting reports leading up to the draft, and I was disappointed to find that all of them focused on his physical ability, and none of them bothered to discuss two of his most important traits: his intelligence and maturity. 

Obviously, each NBA player must possess a certain amount of talent and athleticism, but Alexander-Walker has a good feel for the game, and he’ll be the type of player that is easy to coach. He won’t show up late to workouts, he won’t cause trouble off the court or in the locker room, and there will be no distractions. 

Alexander-Walker takes his profession very seriously, and his intelligence, maturity and work ethic will help him become a better basketball player than his physical ability alone would allow.

Pelicans.com: What's one thing even diehard Virginia Tech basketball fans may not know about Alexander-Walker?Coleman: Alexander-Walker was a multi-sport athlete before enrolling at Virginia Tech, also playing baseball, hockey and soccer. He’s a Canadian kid who has lived in Toronto, Chattanooga, Blacksburg, Va., and perhaps a couple of other places. He’s as well-rounded a person as a 20-year old can be.