Draft preview: Alexander-Walker’s size, versatility puts him on the radar for Pistons pick at 15

Nickeil Alexander-Walker proved to be an efficient scorer as a Virginia Tech sophomore and will be in the mix of prospects for the Pistons with the 15th pick.
Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons go into the off-season with four roster openings – five if they decline the option on Glenn Robinson III.

If the glass is half full, then they’ll embark on roster construction with a certainty of continuity should they not find any deals irresistibly tempting. If it’s half empty, the lack of roster openings coupled with the fact they’ll be over the salary cap on July 1 limits their ability to boldly reconfigure the personnel around Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond.

The reality is they’ll have two draft picks, three clear needs and a decision to make about Robinson that has to come before the Pistons will know what free agency yields. His option comes due on June 29. That’s nine days after the draft, but way too soon for Ed Stefanski and Dwane Casey to feel any degree of confidence that whomever they draft at 15 can be counted on for a single important minute in 2019-20.

If they decline Robinson’s option, then the off-season blueprint is pretty clear: Use your cap exceptions – mid-level, biannual, veteran’s minimum – to fill the need for a wing player with more size than they have at present, a backup point guard and a big man behind Andre Drummond while allowing the first- and second-round draft picks the opportunity to fight for playing time without creating an absolute need for them to win that time.

That’s a full roster of 15. Trades that send out more players than they bring in would alter the equation and it’s at least 50-50 that Stefanski and his front office pull off something of substance this summer. Given their cap situation, trade possibilities surely will be pursued aggressively – and likely starting before the draft while the Pistons still have the cachet that the 15th pick carries.

But the odds are still in favor of the Pistons going into draft night with the 15th pick. And if that’s the case, then it’s pretty obvious why they’ll have to conduct the rest of their off-season business on the assumption that the 15th pick won’t be part of the rotation on opening night or any time soon after that.

Going into the NBA draft combine, I identified 10 players that would surely or very likely be unavailable to the Pistons at 15: Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett, De’Andre Hunter, Darius Garland, Coby White, Jarrett Culver, Jaxson Hayes and Sekou Doumbouya.

I’ve identified another group of 1 players after that from which the Pistons pick at 15 could very likely come. Of the 10, six are one-and-done players and three are two-year players.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll post draft profiles on those players. It starts today with Virginia Tech’s Nikeil Alexander-Walker.

FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: Nickeil Alexander-Walker

ID CARD: 6-foot-5½ guard, Virginia Tech, 20 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 23rd on ESPN.com, 18th by SI.com, 21st by The Athletic

SCOUTS LOVE: Alexander-Walker’s size, versatility, basketball IQ and character all draw high marks. A two-year starter at Virginia Tech out of the burgeoning Toronto basketball hotbed, Alexander-Walker’s cousin is Shea Gilgeous-Alexander, a lottery pick in 2018 after one season at Kentucky who became a starter with the playoff-bound Los Angeles Clippers. Alexander-Walker was an extremely efficient scorer as a sophomore. He averaged 16.2 points on just 11.8 shot attempts per game with .474 shooting. Alexander-Walker made 37.4 percent of his 3-point attempts and took 39 percent of his shots from the arc. His frame, length and ballhandling experience should allow him to play any of the three perimeter positions and in combination with a variety of players. “I know I can guard my position – combo guards, wings, point guards. I think I can do that well,” he said at the NBA draft combine last week in Chicago.

SCOUTS WONDER: The thing that separates Alexander-Walker from his cousin, Gilgeous-Alexander, at this point is the uncertainty of his viability as a point guard. Alexander-Walker played off the ball for the most part at Virginia Tech – until teammate Justin Robinson, a senior who fits the profile of a pure point guard and was invited to last week’s G League elite camp, was injured and missed more than a month late in the season. Robinson this week said of Alexander-Walker, “When he first started out, the first three games he had some trouble. Then me and him sat down. He asked me to watch film with him. We did. I taught him that with my experience, it’s not about who’s guarding him, it’s about the help side. As you saw, the later six or seven games before I came back, he started excelling, having the ball in his hand. I think his assist-to-turnover ratio got better because he understood reads. I think he does have that ability to (play point guard in the NBA).” Alexander-Walker said his confidence in pick and roll “just skyrocketed” after Robinson’s injury. “Now I feel really comfortable out of pick and rolls.”

NUMBER TO NOTE: 2.0 – That’s how many steals per game Alexander-Walker averaged as a Virginia Tech sophomore, a number that speaks to his defensive anticipation and hand-eye coordination. Given his length and lateral movement, Alexander-Walker should grow into a plus defender who’ll have the tools to facilitate a defense that employs multiple switches as has become the NBA norm.

MONEY QUOTE: “The word I use for him is perfectionist. Competitor. He’s a great person on and off the court. He’s always up early. He knows I’m up early. We used to compete to see who could get in the gym the earliest and we kind of got in trouble for it for not sleeping, but that’s just who we are. That’s how he is. His potential is through the roof. He’s a great person, so whoever gets him is getting a steal no matter what.” – Alexander-Walker teammate Justin Robinson after he worked out for the Pistons on Monday.

PISTONS FIT: Alexander-Walker’s shot profile shows he’d be a quick study in Dwane Casey’s offense, which places a premium on 3-point shots and only the most efficient 2-point shots. Whether Alexander-Walker profiles as a point guard or more as a combo guard might be less critical to Pistons personnel evaluators than it is for some teams given the structure of Casey’s offense, which places less of the playmaking burden on the shoulders of the point guard but values multiple ballhandlers. Alexander-Walker could serve as the No. 3 point guard early in his career while earning playing time in the meantime at the other perimeter spots given his size and versatility.

BOTTOM LINE: Given the nature of the 2019 draft, there will be other prospects on the board at the 15th pick with higher ceilings than Alexander-Walker, but perhaps not many with his combination of upside and a relatively high floor. In other words, it seems that even if Alexander-Walker doesn’t evolve into a full-time point guard – where his size would be a major plus – he’ll have value for all the things he can provide in a versatile, intelligent, high-character package.

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