The Utah Jazz have struggled with injury, teammate malcontent in
the media and a porous defense (19th since the new year, per
Cleaning the Glass) since the turn of the calendar. Donovan
Mitchell has returned, helping to spark Utah's thus-far-undefeated
February, but the problems that have persisted for multiple seasons
loom large as the playoffs inch closer.
Prior to the NBA trade deadline last Thursday, the Jazz made
their only in-season trade of the year, acquiring Nickeil
Alexander-Walker as a part of a three-team deal with the Portland
Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs.
The Jazz really only had the flexibility to make one or two
moves, as they're fairly locked into their roster with contention
in mind. While Joe Ingles' season-ending injury likely impacted his
trade value, the point stands that Utah's singular trade was relatively
Alexander-Walker is an intriguing prospect — one that I hold in
high regard — but he is not currently a player who routinely
contributes positive on-court impact. In a vacuum, I love the Jazz
adding a young player with upside to an aged roster (third-highest average-aged team
prior to the trade). But, this is a squad that needs to make a deep
run this season. They can't afford another second-round out
organizationally, and recent reporting and rumblings further that
notion — specifically this from ESPN's Brian Windhorst on the Hoop
"Donovan and Gobert, even though they're both under long-term
contract, are under each other's skin. There's all kind of
subtweeting and passive aggressive stuff going on."
(Editor's Note: Mitchell has since denied that report. "No,
no, no, no, no. We’re good,” Mitchell said via The Salt Lake Tribune's
Eric Walden. “I saw that [report] coming in this morning. Nah,
we’re good. That’s just not true. Blatantly not true at all. We’ve
never had this stretch of losses in a row, so now’s the time for
all these things to come out, I guess. But it’s like, ‘C’mon, bro.’
Nah, we’re good.”)
The Jazz ideally needed a wing or combo forward who could defend
at the point of attack and not muck up the offense.
Alexander-Walker is a combo guard who can spend time on the wing
for sure, but is much more of a big guard than a wing due to some
of his physical attributes and style of play.
Can he adapt his game to
fill the gaps for Utah this season?
Alexander-Walker had a 24.9% usage rate in New Orleans this
season (24% for his career), which would rank third in Utah's
regular rotation; I'd be shocked if that carries over even remotely
with the Jazz. Given how reliant Utah is on bending the defense
initially and then continuous ball movement, there isn't a ton of
wiggle room for another shot-creator.
This is where the fit gets wonky.
Does Utah view him as a player who can become a connective,
toolsy wing? Because I have questions if so! NAW hasn't been close
to that role since his freshman year at Virginia Tech, the
lowest-usage season in his last half-decade of
Offensively, he's much closer to Jordan Clarkson than Royce
He had a stretch last season that was easily the brightest of
his career, showcasing the blueprint of his future offensive
success. From March 21 to April 2 (7 games), he started for the New
Orleans Pelicans and averaged 18.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7
assists on 55.8% True Shooting. While the numbers were impressive,
the on-court calculus to get there was telling.
- 54% at the rim (35th percentile per Cleaning the Glass)
- 56% from 4-to-14 feet (89th percentile)
- 41% from three (8.9 attempts per game)
Alexander-Walker really lacks much burst, so even with a hard
closeout, creating separation can be an adventure.
During that aforementioned stretch, he was GUNNING from deep,
which opened up cleaner driving lanes. That goes without mentioning
that Zion Williamson played the majority of that stretch, and
Alexander-Walker — as well as every other player in New Orleans —
really missed Zion Williamson's gravity offensively.
At his best, he's using his length and handle to his advantage,
crafting his way to floaters, touch shots and extension
His below-the-rim nature can really cause problems for him at
the rim as well. Even with a good break or separation on the ball,
any contact or obstacle around the rim can throw him off.
The path forward for him is ideally through quality shooting
(he'll have much better looks in Utah), but finding ways to lean
into his limitations rather than fight against them is easier said
In all honesty, getting to the rim less may be better for him.
His herky-jerky style and lack of balance at the moment lead to
really difficult restricted area attempts; using his handle and
honing in on playing at his pace and focusing on creating paint
touches with guile seem like the most ideal ways for him to find
It sounds counter-intuitive to lean into a harder shot profile,
but it's the profile that's most available and benficial to NAW's
game at the moment. The off-kilter rim drives can lead to some
really rough turnovers and bailout grenade passes. He feels so sped
up even though he's often the slowest player on the court.
I really want to see Utah's development staff drive him towards
playing weird, because by all accounts, that's what
Alexander-Walker is built for!
Defensively, the fit is better, but it's kind of like if you
asked your school nurse for a band-aid and they gave you an Advil
instead. It helps, but dude, you still need a band-aid to stop the
The Jazz are in desperate need of better defense at the point of
attack and on bigger wings, which is far from NAW's calling
Bigger wings and forwards are not only unbothered by NAW, but
easily shed him with any sort of power move. His high center of
gravity is his nemesis on both ends of the hardwood.
I really enjoy Alexander-Walker's off-ball instincts and
activity, but he has a tendency to overplay his hand and overhelp,
leading to some off-kilter (a theme) close-outs. However, when he's
able to use his length and crowd guards or smaller wings, he's
adept at shading them to the rim. Giving ground isn't great, but if
you have to, send the ball to help.
Rudy Gobert is, uh, easily the best rim-protector and defensive
player that NAW has ever played with. Merely staying solid on
defense, making clean rotations, and slowing the ball even if not
fully stopping it will help Utah's defense.
In a vacuum, I really like this trade for Utah. Taking a swing
on a young player with intriguing flashes in need of a new
environment is a fantastic idea. However, for a team that needed to
refurbish its defensive identity and further cement itself as a
true contender, the trade is confusing.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker should factor into the Jazz's main
rotation, but barring significant change, it seems unlikely he
makes a massive difference for them in the season when they
arguably will need it most.