The secret to Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s recent success? Getting out of his own head

After being largely out of the rotation early, the wing has earned a spot and played a big role of late by committing to defense, taking better shots, and learning to let mistakes go.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6) tries to get past New Orleans Pelicans guard Devonte' Graham (4), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans, at Vivint Arena, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

Spend enough time talking with Utah Jazz guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker and you could come away convinced that he’s been hanging out with the ghost of Alex Trebek on the set of a spiritual-plane episode of “Jeopardy” catering to ancient Greek philosophers and/or Zen Buddhists.

“Remember, all answers must be in the form of a metaphysical aphorism.”

The fourth-year player acquired at this past February’s trade deadline in exchange for the beloved-but-injured Joe Ingles has had an up-and-down tenure with the Jazz thus far. On the one hand, he’s played in just 19 of the team’s 30 games this season, and nine of those appearances saw him on the court for less than 10 minutes a pop. On the other, he entered Thursday night on a four-game heater which has seen him average 17.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists, while shooting 61.5% from the field and 58.3% on 3-pointers.

As a result, he’s a strict adherent to the unofficial-yet-omnipresent organizational mantra of “Never too high, never too low.” He just adheres to it with a bit more panache than most.

Asked how he’s undertaken the process of accomplishing more by trying to do less, he not only cites prayer, but rattles off the names of roughly a dozen people — trainer, agent, coaches, teammates, confidants — he has consulted, then concludes with the disclosure that he has been watching documentaries on Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to glean insights into the source of their mental fortitude.

“You almost see a common denominator, which is they have peace with whatever happens in the outcome,” Alexander-Walker explained. “… When guys have fun, guys enjoy it, guys are in the flow state, there’s less tension and force; like the laws of attraction — the harder you try, the more it sometimes presses away from you. So I’ve just learned to let things take their course and be patient.”

Queried as to how he is so effectively cleaning up his formerly woeful shot selection, he replies not with shot-distribution analytics, but rather serene esoterica on the power of personal growth and finding symbiotic harmony with the sport of basketball itself.

“Truthfully, just maturing; changing why I play; shifting my purpose a little bit. I’m very goal-driven, and I always have a ‘chip on my shoulder’ feeling, trying to prove something. It almost became my worst enemy,” Alexander-Walker said. “… [Now instead I’m] realizing and understanding that I don’t need to press the issue on what I can do — just allowing the game to take its course, allowing my talent to show with whatever it is.”

Buried among all that verbosity is a simple premise that several of his Jazz teammates actually agree with.

“The issue with him has been him,” said Rudy Gay. “He was in his own head.”

No less than Lauri Markkanen and Mike Conley explained after Tuesday night’s blowout of the Western Conference-leading Pelicans — a game in which Alexander-Walker totaled 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting, six assists, three rebounds, and two blocked shots — that they saw this level of skill and acumen from him way back in training camp.

The Finn and fellow frontcourt member Jarred Vanderbilt noted that the Virginia Tech product’s recent bump in production is a byproduct of additional opportunity, with Conley and fellow point guard Collin Sexton missing some games, and Talen Horton-Tucker struggling with both his shot and defense. Vanderbilt recalled his admonition to Alexander-Walker to, “‘Just stay ready.’ One thing about this league [is] you’re always going to get your opportunity.”

He certainly took advantage of it Saturday in Denver, helping an injury-riddled Jazz team nearly pull off an upset of the Nuggets by racking up 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting in his first start of the season.

Conley, however, delved a bit deeper into why that opportunity is more warranted now than it perhaps was before, beyond the mere availability of certain teammates.

“He’s really been working his butt off every day just to be prepared for a situation like this. His poise is starting to show a little bit more,” he said. “I think early on he was getting a little bit too antsy and trying to do a little bit too much at times. But now he’s letting the game slow down a little bit and he’s comfortable with where his offense is coming from, he’s comfortable in the defensive player that he is — which we need; we need that kind of activity.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6) guards New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (3), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans, at Vivint Arena, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

Gay said that he and Conley have made it a point to talk Alexander-Walker through his low moments, and praised rookie head coach Will Hardy for the work he’s done with him — not only in terms of skill development and scheme fidelity, but instilling confidence.

The coach, for his part, pointed out that Alexander-Walker is a talented, multi-dimensional player capable of making an impact when deployed in the right circumstances. He has improved as a shooter, as a playmaker, and as a defender. … Maybe most importantly, though, concurrent with getting more adept at hanging onto the ball is a newfound capacity for letting go when things don’t go his way.

“Nickeil has done a tremendous job of [not letting mistakes get compounded],” Hardy said. “We’ve had plenty of conversations about, ‘The game is not going to be perfect’. I think Nickeil is in the NBA because he’s a perfectionist and he’s worked really, really hard to get here, and he’s very detailed about his work on the court, in the weight room, watching film. That’s his personality and that’s his biggest strength, and at times that can be his biggest weakness, because he has a hard time letting go of the imperfections that have just happened. He’s conscious of it and he’s working on it.

“… Eighty-two games is a lot of games and the next one is coming quickly,” he added, “and so it’s about how you re-center yourself and get ready for the next game.”

Alexander-Walker has been doing that in a variety of unique ways.

First off, he found himself “accepting a challenge” to become a better defender. A challenge from whom? Hardy? Conley? No — from himself.

“It’s understanding that I’ve got to make myself stand out, and I’ve got to do the best I can to help the team win,” he said. “And one of those things is playing defense and being active.”

Further, he frequently can be found on the bench offering a running commentary of the action — not in some down-the-line preparation for a career as a television analyst, but because he’s found that verbalizing what he sees taking place keeps him mentally engaged, aids him in more adroitly processing and analyzing tendencies he observes.

“It’s just what I see during the game. … Now I’m able to go out and translate it if my name is called,” Alexander-Walker explained. “Sometimes I’m talking to myself, just saying things out loud, thinking out loud.”

He apparently is sufficiently observant that rookie wing Ochai Agbaji has taken to sitting next to him on the bench, keen to have facets of the game he isn’t yet entirely familiar with pointed out and explained to him.

Vanderbilt, like Conley and Hardy, praised Alexander-Walker for his level of preparation, and then for going out and stepping up, for setting the tone with “contagious” energy.

The thing is, it’s never been NAW’s energy or preparation in question, but his ability to harness them.

Maybe it’s just a four-game stretch — and an imperfect one at that, considering he’s averaging 3.5 turnovers per game — but his teammates feel like he’s finally turned a corner.

And they’re pretty straightforwardly plainspoken about it, too.

“We all know he’s talented — we’re all talented in here. But we knew he could help us, and he’s been great,” said Gay. “When he’s been out there, he’s just been playing free. … He’s here, he’s learning, he’s getting better, and as you can see, he’s starting to get it.”