Utah Jazz’s ‘Breakfast Club’ prepared Nickeil Alexander-Walker for breakout game vs. Bulls

After scoring 16 points against Chicago, he cited the work he’s done within a group of young players and staffers getting together for hours of extra development as the key to his breakout performance.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6) takes the ball inside as Chicago Bulls guard Coby White (0) defends, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls, at Vivint Arena, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

If you thought “The Breakfast Club” was a seminal ’80s dramedy from John Hughes and the “Brat Pack” … well, yeah, it is.

Turns out, though, the Utah Jazz have their own “Breakfast Club.”

Rather than navigating personal demons during a Saturday detention session alongside Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez, however, the basketball team’s version entails a group of young players (Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jared Butler, Juancho Hernangomez, Xavier Sneed) and assistant coaches/staffers (Keyon Dooling, Bryan Bailey, Jeff Watkinson, Sanjay Lumpkin) all gathering hours in advance of team practices and shootarounds to get in some developmental work.

“You don’t see this, but every day before shootaround … those guys are in there at 8 o’clock, 8:30, working out — hard too — sometimes playing 2-on-2, 3-on-3, and then staying after practice to work out again,” Donovan Mitchell noted Wednesday night after the Jazz’s 125-110 victory over the Bulls. “Then they come to the gym and work out again. And then they possibly play in the game. … It’s a lot.”

And after all those breakfast sessions, Alexander-Walker finally got to feast.

With each of Bojan Bogdanovic, Danuel House, and Trent Forrest out for the night against Chicago, NAW got 22 minutes of action, and racked up 16 points, four rebounds, three made 3s, and two steals.

The primary piece of the Jazz’s return haul for dealing away injured fan favorite Joe Ingles, Alexander-Walker has largely been languishing deep on Utah’s bench since his acquisition. He’d scored a grand total of nine points in his first seven appearances with the team, after previously being a rotation regular in New Orleans.

On Wednesday, entrusted with some rotation minutes given the Jazz’s short-handedness, he racked up 14 points in the fourth quarter alone, helping the Jazz avert another late-game collapse, as they expanded a four-point advantage all the way to 19 before the visiting Bulls waved the proverbial white flag.

He hit 4 of 8 shots overall, including 3 of 5 from deep, and went 5 of 6 at the free-throw line. Asked afterward what happened in that pivotal fourth-quarter stretch, he naturally answered …

“I think Don happened,” he said, referencing the star guard’s incendiary 25-point third quarter en route to a 37-point night. “The gravity he pulled to himself, the shots he was making, he got hot … so they were so hyper-focused on him.”

True. But NAW still had to convert the looks he got, still had to do his part on the defensive side, trying to make the also-cooking Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan have to work a bit.

His efforts on that end were what impressed everyone.

“He came in the game and defended,” said head coach Quin Snyder. “He’s got some size, where he’s able to guard multiple positions … he was focused on defending. He was playing well even before he started knocking down shots.”

“Man, he really did his thing. I’m really happy for him,” added Mitchell. “… We all know he’s a bucket, but he was really locked in defensively against some talented guys.”

There was a particularly memorable fourth quarter sequence where he was shadowing LaVine, not biting on his fakes and feints, staying well-positioned with each move, getting an effective challenge on the shot while demonstratively avoiding contact, then after the Jazz rebounded the miss, he settled down in a corner in front of the Jazz’s bench, caught a where-did-that-come-from Mitchell pass, and calmly drained a triple.

“Every shot I took tonight, I’ve practiced here … I can’t even count [how many times],” Alexander-Walker said. “… The entire staff, the team, I can’t be any more grateful for how they’ve helped me since I’ve been here.”

At another point in the fourth, he got a steal, raced downcourt, went hard to the hoop, and laid the ball in while drawing a foul from DeRozan.

Meanwhile, Mitchell animatedly exhorted the crowd to let the new guy feel the love.

He felt it.

“It means I fit in — and that’s a good feeling,” said Alexander-Walker.

He is not now suddenly a finished product, destined for a consistent role from Snyder.

But if the 6-foot-6, 205-pound, 23-year-old who melted old-school coaches’ hearts worldwide with a self-aware line about his role (“Really and truly, the only thing for me to have to do [on this team] is defend”) can keep up his upward trajectory … well, at that point, there would be zero reason not to play him.

And his new teammates know he’s gonna get the time in.

“He’s been putting in the work every day — coming in early to practice and waiting for his opportunity,” said Rudy Gobert, who finished with 14 points, 20 rebounds, and four blocks. “It was really great to see him contribute like that tonight. Those guys are working really hard every day. I love that.”