A few months back, fresh off a run into the Sweet 16, and after a flurry of action on the coaching, transfer portal, and recruiting fronts, Virginia Tech shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker finally consummated perhaps the worst-kept secret in all of Blacksburg (Perhaps other than the fact that Buzz Williams was leaving to take the Texas A&M job), and announced that he was turning pro. It’s a decision that, objectively, should be met with some mixed emotions and thoughts (And not just from the standpoint of Tech fans, who will be sad to see such a tremendously-gifted player to leave, and doubly so given the mass exodus of talent from the program). What emotions should the decision elicit, and how will the reason for those emotions impact his draft position in tonight’s NBA Draft? I’ll detail them below.
Reason For Congratulations:
Alexander-Walker committed to the Hokies all the way back on May 5th, 2016, making him the first commitment of the 2017 recruiting class (No doubt due to his familial connection with now former Hokie assistant Jamie McNeilly, who Buzz astutely hired, and whose Canadian connection has made him a major asset as the land to the North pumps out more quality basketballers every year). His inclusion in the class gave it instant credibility, as he was immediately one of the highest-rated recruits in program history (As he was ranked anywhere between the 21st and a 5-star player (ESPN) and 40th and a 4-star player (247Sports) in the country by the major recruiting services). In fact, according to 247Sports, Alexander-Walker is still the second-highest ranked recruit the Hokies have ever landed on the hardwood in the recruiting site era (Second only to Dorian Finney-Smith). The same was true for when he finally matriculated to Virginia Tech over a year later, when he scored 24 points in his first-career game, and followed that up with 29 in his second game. On the whole, as a freshman, he averaged 10.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, and 1.5 APG, with just under a steal per game, while shooting a .45/.39/.73 line, and starting all 33 games. As a sophomore, he expanded his game significantly, upping his averages in every category (Including turnovers, where he produced a whopping 3 per game), including 16.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4 APG, and nearly 2 SPG as well, all while shooting a .47/.37/.78 line (Numbers that were all significantly better with Justin Robinson in the lineup) in 34 starts. All told, his two-year stint at Virginia Tech was maybe the best first two years in program history, and without his contributions, the last two seasons could have gone very differently for the Hokies. He provided them with a go-to scoring punch that they lacked in previous seasons. Therefore, a very thorough congratulations is owed to Nickeil by the Hokie faithful for his time in the program and his significant contributions.
Skepticism With His Projections:
Alexander-Walker will always be one of those Virginia Tech players for me who was a victim of circumstance in my mind. Overall, I think the memory of his career will be overhyped, perhaps as the basketball version of Kam Chancellor while at Virginia Tech. Yes, Chancellor had one transcendently-good year—his sophomore year when he played rover—and might have had the best single year at that position in team history—only one year removed from Aaron Rouse setting that standard—AND as a first-year starter. But, once the coaching staff moved him to free safety for his leadership qualities and to captain the defense, it exposed his limitations as a player—namely in coverage, and he proceeded to still hit guys really hard, but also to give up a lot of big passing plays over the top. Fortunately for him, the Seattle Seahawks saw this, and as soon as they got him in camp, switched him back over to strong safety (The position most closely associated with the amalgam that is the rover position at Virginia Tech). Similarly for Alexander-Walker, his raw talents perhaps outshined his performance—though impressive it was—and will require a team that similarly sees how best to utilize him like the Seahawks did Chancellor to take advantage of those raw talents (Perhaps also waiting on his contributions for a year, much like Chancellor).
Alexander-Walker was an incredibly effective as a scorer WHEN Justin Robinson was on the floor. If JRob was healthy all season, we would’ve never been given an opportunity to be introduced to the other NAW: true volume shooter/scorer. Playing with Robinson was the kind of thing that you definitely couldn’t knock him for when they were both in the lineup, as that was just the circumstance that existed: Tech was supremely talented in the backcourt, and it would be unfair to denigrate him for the quality of that pairing. But once the cat was out of the bag, you couldn’t act like you didn’t see it. While he still can be effective in that volume shooting/scoring role, including hitting some of the most ridiculous circus shots and making them look ordinary, he’s a significantly worse player when he’s not being set up with the kind of good looks that Robinson continually helped him get. With Robinson on the floor, Alexander-Walker averaged 16.8 PPG, 4 RPG, 3.8 APG (But with only 2.2 turnovers per game), and 2.1 steals per game, while shooting a .53/.40/.79 line. Without Robinson, NAW posted averages of 14.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 4.3 APG (But also ballooned to 4 turnovers per game), and 1.5 steals per game, while shooting a .37/.33/.75 line. Basically, all of his relevant statistics (When looking at efficiency instead of volume in his assist-to-turnover margin) took a nosedive, despite the fact that he was handling and shooting the ball much more often, and was playing much more as well. That speaks to the value of Justin Robinson more than anything else, but it also signifies the need for Alexander-Walker to be moved off the ball, back to his natural position of shooting guard, and to have a point guard who can free him up to get good looks. While he has developed to a capable ball handler and passer, I think the evidence to date shows that anything NBA teams get from him there will be icing on the cake.
Despite everything that I have outlined above, the simple fact is, Alexander-Walker had a tremendous year, and really two years at Virginia Tech. While he certainly struggled when Justin Robinson went down, and he was forced to essentially man the point guard as the Hokies’ primary ball-handler for long stretches of play, there were also some successes during that time. Overall, the NBA scouts are likely to be more forgiving of him during that period, since he was playing out of position on the offensive end, but also because ultimately, his overarching play over his two years, and that wins out. They can gloss over some rough moments, especially if his talent outweighs any stumbling blocks he might’ve run into. But it’s also important to think about Alexander-Walker’s development while Robinson was gone. Despite the fact that he didn’t look like the same player on the floor without him, Alexander-Walker grew without Robinson, particularly when it came to becoming a complementary second ball handler. Imagine how valuable, especially in the present day NBA where everyone who is anyone is expected to be a ball handler, and considering that, according to this report, he (And the NBA) seems to see himself as a combo guard. From that vantage point, Alexander-Walker has helped himself immeasurably across the last several months there.
Most importantly, and in conclusion, it doesn’t really matter what myself or anyone else thinks. If every single mock has Alexander-Walker solidly in the first round of the NBA Draft—most of which have him in or just outside the lottery (The first 14 picks)—then it would be absolutely bad advice (Unless it was good for the long term health of his career) to return to school, even if it could help him, as he still has things to learn. Frankly, he went with the good advice, and so now, for the exposure of the program, for his personal success, and for—well, just hoping that any player makes it, all Hokie fans can do is to wish NAW adieu with a giant and well-deserved merci and bonne chance—and I will certainly be doing the same, even though I don’t speak French.