‘Poised’ guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker third in scoring, second in assists in summer league

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

LAS VEGAS – Peruse the NBA Summer League’s statistical leaders through pool play and you may notice something generally missing: Names from the early portion of the June 20 draft. Partly due to injuries and teams exhibiting caution on how they’re handling top draftees, only two of the first 20 players selected rank in the top 10 of Las Vegas scoring. Similarly, only one top-20 choice appears among the assist leaders.

All three of those names are New Orleans Pelicans.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker (third in scoring, second in assists) and Jaxson Hayes (eighth in scoring) helped lead the summer Pelicans to a berth in Saturday’s quarterfinal round vs. Miami (5:30 p.m. Central, ESPN TV, ESPN Radio New Orleans), as rare high draft picks making a major impact in the desert. Hayes became part of the national hoops conversation Monday during his summer debut, when he leaped over Chicago’s Mychal Mulder for a dunk and SportsCenter top play. Alexander-Walker, 20, has exhibited a beyond-his-years game that – if he continues to excel – could have him in the conversation for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

The No. 17 pick of the ’19 draft has been the best guard on the floor twice this week, going for 23 points, eight assists, three steals and two blocks vs. Chicago, then following that up with arguably an even better performance, notching 26 points, five rebounds and six assists against Cleveland. Although he was primarily a shooting guard at Virginia Tech, the native of Toronto has shown impressive ability to see the floor and dish to teammates, particularly No. 8 pick Hayes, in cuts to the basket for layups and dunks.

“Nickeil’s been great running the offense,” Pelicans summer head coach Fred Vinson said. “That was a change I saw the first game, I saw his ability to play at the pace where we want to be, along with his ability to score. He was outstanding out there today. We’re just excited to have him, because of his ability to pass and find his teammates, and he’s an unselfish player.”

“Nickeil finds people, he gets buckets, he’ll drive to the hoop, hit a three, dime somebody,” Hayes said. “I’ve just been really impressed.”

With Alexander-Walker at the controls, New Orleans has scored 109 and 99 points in two games, receiving contributions from a wide array of sources. Playing at the team’s preferred lightning-fast pace – the Pelicans have a goal of leading the NBA in tempo in 2019-20 – they racked up 50-plus points in both 20-minute halves vs. Cleveland.

“It’s really fun,” Alexander-Walker said of the style of play. “You enjoy it because we have guys with the talent and capability of playing fast. So it makes the game a lot easier when you have guys who can finish above the rim, run the floor, shoot the ball. On this team, there are so many different specialties and guys that embrace their role and do it well. It makes my job easier in trying to find guys and create.”

While Alexander-Walker is quick to deflect credit to his summer teammates for the individual accolades he’s received this week, other Pelicans have rapidly noticed the effect he's had on the club's offense and its ability to create open shots.

“What’s been the most impressive to me is just his poise,” said Williams, who started 29 regular season games for New Orleans in 2018-19, all of those after Feb. 1. “To be a first-year guy coming in, he has a high IQ. That’s what’s going to separate him. He knows how to play.”

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