Pelicans first-round picks Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker focus on growth, improvement
When an NBA head coach describes younger players and their “growth,” he nearly always means that figuratively, referring to a rookie or early-career pro maturing or improving in some way basketball-wise. On Monday, Alvin Gentry actually meant it literally, while discussing 21-year-old New Orleans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who grew by three-quarters of an inch during the NBA’s hiatus.
“I think it’s a great thing when we have guys continuing to grow,” a laughing Gentry said of Alexander-Walker, who was listed at 6-foot-5 on opening night of the regular season. “We like that.”
Although the No. 17 overall draft pick from last June apparently is still developing physically, it’s the mental part of the NBA where the Pelicans hope to see Alexander-Walker and fellow rookie Jaxson Hayes (No. 8 pick) continue to make progress this summer in Orlando. Both players were drafted by New Orleans partly due to their off-the-court traits, including a mature perspective that belies their youth (Hayes just turned 20 in May).
The 6-foot-11 Hayes began 2019-20 not necessarily expected to contribute on a nightly basis, but the University of Texas product has started 12 games and logged 951 minutes. While wowing New Orleans fans – and sometimes teammates – with his high-flying dunks and out-of-nowhere rejections, the Cincinnati native seemed to just scratch the surface of his potential.
“It’s a situation where you’re going to get to the finish line – you just may not get there as quickly as you’d like,” Gentry said of Hayes’ learning curve and talent. “He’s going to be a terrific player in the league. Obviously there are some things he has to learn. He has to get stronger and a stronger base, a stronger core. But that’s all going to come. You’re talking about a (20)-year-old kid, so there’s a lot of growing to do there.”
Hayes was periodically needed to fill in for Derrick Favors at starting center, with Favors being sidelined for a total of 19 games. Gentry appreciates what Hayes has been able to contribute so far as an inexperienced rookie.
“I think he gave us some energy when he was in the lineup,” Gentry said. “He has the ability to get out and run with just about any big guy in the league. He’s a really, really good weakside shot-blocker. He continues to learn pick-and-roll defense, as far as what we do when we have our big dropping (toward the paint). That’s a process, also. But he’s a good young player who’s going to continually get better, No. 1, because of the whole maturation process that you go through in this league. No. 2, because he has the desire to do that.”
Meanwhile, Alexander-Walker has not logged as much playing time (501 minutes, 41 appearances as a reserve) as Hayes, but in addition to gaining nearly an inch of height, he’s honed in on some of the mental aspects of trying to get better.
“Fortunately I got a lot of time to reevaluate and understand where I’m at right now, as well as at the time of the hiatus (in March),” the Toronto area native said of examining his game. “Just focusing on what I need to improve on. Where I lacked in the season and how can I improve now. During the quarantine, it’s not as easy, but I was (also) able to get in the gym, still work out, still get lifts in, stay in shape.”
Alexander-Walker sustained a right wrist injury in March and ended up playing a G League game for Erie anyway, by using his left hand to shoot. He noted Monday that he’s been watching old tape of a Hall of Fame southpaw during the NBA’s unexpected break.
“I watched a lot of film,” he said. “I messaged one of the (Pelicans) film guys about Manu Ginobili specifically, because I had to use my left (hand) a lot. His craftiness, his speed, his change of pace. He was a great player in my opinion. I’m just trying to pick up as much as I can from him. Also kind of older-era guys who are (retired) now, but were effective.”