Hard work transformed Timberwolves’ Nickeil Alexander-Walker from benchwarmer to one of NBA’s elite 3-and-D wings

There may be no better wingmen for Timberwolves star guard Anthony Edwards at the moment than Naz Reid and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, particularly in this first-round series against a very dangerous opponent.

The Phoenix Suns suck into the gaps to take away even the idea of a driving lane when Edwards is at the top of the key.

At that point, one pass over is likely an open teammate who, if ready to pull, has an open 3-point attempt. And Reid and Alexander-Walker are always ready to pull.

“They’re two of our 0.5 (second) mentality players,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “They move the ball quickly, or do something with it quickly.”

Neither ever plays with hesitation. Both reserves — who would start for many, many NBA teams — execute with supreme confidence on the offensive end.

That Alexander-Walker has reached that point as a player defies logic.

Remember, just more than a year ago he was not an NBA rotation player. Alexander-Walker collected “DNPs” — games that you don’t play — like candy in Utah at the start of last season. Even in Minnesota, at the end of March last season, he logged four straight games of fewer than 10 minutes of playing time. Even after a successful playoff series last spring where he harassed Denver guard Jamal Murray for five straight games, Alexander-Walker’s tepid free-agent market resulted in a two-year deal with Minnesota worth just $9 million.

How is that guy now one of the most confident players on the court with the ball in his hands? Where did that internal green light come from?

“Definitely on defense,” Alexander-Walker said.

The offensive confidence came from defense?

“Being able to guard defensively and provide something to the team,” Alexander-Walker said. “And knowing myself, knowing my abilities and what I do well and trying to sharpen that, heighten that so that it can buy me more time on the court.”

Alexander Walker had to discover what was going to allow him to stick in the NBA. He hasn’t had the same relatively linear path to glory like an Anthony Edwards, Mike Conley or Karl-Anthony Towns. Or, looking at the opposite side of the floor in this series, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant or Brad Beal.

“I had to learn what was gonna make me a better player. I gotta work. I’m not blessed in that way of taking the summer off, coming back and I’m the guy,” Alexander-Walker said. “So for me, it’s just enjoying that. I love to play basketball. This is the game I love.  I’ve wanted to be here since I was a kid. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of. So just putting in that work, trying to be great each and every day and improve.”

He eventually realized it would be defensive excellence that would allow him to play bigger, consistent minutes. That’s true for a lot of players in the NBA. But realizing it and doing it are two different things. If defending at a high level was easy, it wouldn’t be such a special skill.

“Film, a lot of paying attention to the scouting report, and knowing who I’m going up against. Tendencies. Want. Like, a want to, a will. A desire to want to do it,” Alexander-Walker said. “Because it’s not easy. But definitely, the mindset of what’s important. I think I have a bigger picture in mind all the time. Knowing it’s not about me. It’s not about how I feel in this moment. It’s about what the team needs and providing that. And making sure that each and every possession, I’m giving my effort.”

Every single day. Alexander-Walker is part of the exclusive club of NBA players who competed in all 82 regular-season games this year. He managed that while giving max effort every night, and developing into one of the game’s premier 3-and-D players.

Alexander-Walker was ninth in estimated defensive plus-minus, per the analytics site DunksAndThrees.com, while shooting 39 percent from 3-point range. All while the Timberwolves also asked him to run some point guard.

On Saturday, Alexander-Walker was a key offensive cog for the Timberwolves, while making life for Booker and Beal hard on the other end.

The 25-year-old quickly evolved from someone who never played to someone who cannot be taken off the floor because, on a game-by-game basis, you know exactly what high-level play he’s going to bring.

“To be consistent it’s a lot of work. You gotta do it day in and day out. In this league, to have success, with so much talent from guys who don’t play to guys who do play, you gotta know that not every opportunity is just gonna be given to you, handed to you,” Alexander-Walker said. “And I’ve seen it first-hand through my experience. Starting, not starting, coming off the bench and playing, DNPs like crazy — like, I’ve been everywhere. So for me it’s just about what can I do to bring some peace to my life, some consistency each and every day. And that’s just working.”

The work is indeed paying off.

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