Quietly, a college basketball pipeline has been built in Canada. Virginia Tech Hokies guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker is not only a talent who aided in building the foundation, he might be one of the best examples as to how programs can find tremendous athletes where few are looking.
There’s a relatively long list of guys who came from Canada to dominate college basketball, with plenty then heading to the NBA. RJ Barrett is trotting about collegiate hardwoods for the Duke Blue Devils, Andrew Wiggins turned his time with the Kansas Jayhawks into large sums of money in the NBA, Jamal Murray has done similarly, etc.
Without naming every player to begin their journey in Canada, it has become increasingly clear the country’s basketball product has been getting better with each generation of talent coming through.
Basketball, as it continues to extend its international reach, is fine in all the places everyone traditionally praises such as domestically and in Europe. The sport has now, consequently, found tremendous riches where no one is looking to construct any walls.
Circling back to Nickeil Alexander-Walker, it wasn’t as if he was an unknown talent. Thanks to an increased number of smart basketball minds realizing Canada has top-tier talent, he was a four-star prospect early in his recruitment process, bolstered by playing alongside his teammate and cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in high school.
It didn’t take long for people to take notice. Alexander-Walker chose the Virginia Tech Hokies over the USC Trojans and Maryland Terrapins. Since then, he’s been nothing short of sensational.
Semantics out of the way, his freshman season highlighted his promise, as Alexander-Walker averaged 10.7 points on 45 percent shooting from the field while making 39 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Now a sophomore, the versatile 6-foot-5 guard has taken a massive leap in development. An absurd leap, if being honest. Helping Virginia Tech to a 12-1 record to start the 2018-19 college basketball season, he’s averaging 18.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.4 steals per contest. More importantly, he’s somehow managed to become more effective on the offensive end, making an insane 58 percent of his attempts from the floor and a mind altering 48 percent of his shots from distance.
To put that into hyperbolic perspective, the aforementioned Barrett, who came to the states with far more hype, is shooting roughly the same from the floor as the Hokies guard, but is a far worse shooter from deep, making only 32 percent of his shots from range.
Furthermore, Alexander-Walker’s PER is at 30.0, with a true shooting percentage at 67 and a defensive win-share of 1.3. Oh, let’s not forget he’s eighth in the entire nation in win shares per 40 minutes. Without picking on Barrett too much here, his PER is at 26.2, true shooting percentage at 54 and operates with a defensive win share of 1.1. Also, despite Barrett’s high usage rate, his win shares per 40 minutes sits outside a top 10 ranking in the nation; though, for the sake of clarity, it rests eighth in the ACC (Alexander-Walker’s is third best in the league).
Deep breaths, everyone. It’s easy to get all hot and bothered when conjuring images of Alexander-Walker being magically better than one of the nation’s very best players, but the two studs are asked to do very different things. However, it might be time to inject the Virginia Tech sophomore into the best players in the country dialogue.
Eh, a slight digression…
As you can tell in the following video, Alexander-Walker possesses one of the key traits Barrett is praised for, drawing and finishing through contact. It’s a monumental deal for the Hokies, as it builds a flow for the entire offensive system.
When a player is able to couple elite volume-shooting from deep with excellent rim attacking, if clever, a creator on the behalf of others is born. It’s exactly what’s starting to happen for Alexander-Walker, even if his assist numbers don’t yet dictate it.
In this video, you will see opposing teams respecting his offense (as they should) to the point it opens up Virginia Tech players cutting to the basketball and/or dropping behind the 3-point line. With a high basketball-IQ, as well as a general floor awareness, Alexander-Walker doesn’t force any issues, instead giving his teammates easy chances to score.
Obviously, he’s not perfect. People who only dabble in college basketball through the lens of the NBA Draft will tell you about his inability to create space, although that’s nitpicking and not important to how he helps the Hokies this season.
Nevertheless, as a nation pays attention to The Duke Collective, or an insanely gifted Romeo Langford leading the Indiana Hoosiers, or the debacle happening at UCLA, or the billion other entertaining teams and/or narratives, Nickeil Alexander-Walker shouldn’t get lost in the mix.
He is, after all, nearly everything people want in a college basketball player. Smart, savvy, crafty, full of moxie… Oh, who are we joking? He’s those lazy tropes, but so much more. A remarkably efficient offensive player who is developing rapidly in real-time, becoming a balanced adept in the process.
A guy who was above-bar as a freshman, yet developed into a bucket making marvel over the offseason, is currently showcasing next-level vision as opponents attempt to adjust to his prowess.
It’s rare to see a player develop as quickly as this. At least do so in front of our eyes. Alexander-Walker was always a kid who projected to be a gifted player, though few could have predicted this expedited rise.
Luckily for the Hokies, it’s happening while he’s wearing their uniform. If he keeps this up, who knows for how much longer that will be the case. Everyone might as well enjoy it while they can. March will be here quicker than we realize, and Alexander-Walker is likely to be one of the month’s brightest stars.
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade at various outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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