WASHINGTON — Nickeil Alexander-Walker speaks with an air of casual confidence and complete control, as if he knows which questions he’ll be asked before he hears them. He is laidback only because he’s so prepared. It’s how he plays, but also how he lives his life.
Ask Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams about the sophomore guard from Toronto and Williams will describe him as “very pure” and wise beyond his years, regimented in his lifestyle and impressively attentive to detail.
Teammate Kerry Blackshear Jr. calls him “the most dedicated person.”
Alexander-Walker just shrugs and says he’s happy to be here.
“There were times I didn’t feel like it was possible,” he says.
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When top-seeded Duke and No. 4 seed Virginia Tech meet in the Sweet 16 on Friday night, the spotlight will be on Duke’s trio of star freshmen, all of them future lottery picks in the NBA draft. It’s easy to forget that, come this summer, Alexander-Walker will likely be right there with them, too.
Though he might lack the name recognition of Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett, Alexander-Walker has been every bit as important to his team this season, averaging 16.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. He’s taken a massive step forward in his sophomore season, becoming the latest Canadian to put himself on an NBA trajectory.
“Kids (in Canada) are getting a chance to show that they can play,” Alexander-Walker said Thursday. “Being home, dreaming of that moment — and (now) being in the moment. It gives me that feeling of, ‘If I did it, you can too.'”
Alexander-Walker said he grew up watching Vince Carter, then a star with the Toronto Raptors, and trying to mimic Allen Iverson, his uncle’s favorite player. He remembers practicing up-and-unders on a plastic Fisher Price hoop, working on crossovers for hours without hardly moving from the same spot — trying to mirror Iverson’s game.
In high school, he got to play alongside his cousin, Los Angeles Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and suit up for Canada in FIBA’s under-18 championship in Chile in 2016. A link with Hokies assistant Jamie McNeilly, who was an assistant coach on that under-18 team, helped bring Alexander-Walker to Blacksburg.
“I think that he really respected what we were trying to do at Virginia Tech and he had admiration for how hard it was going to be,” Williams explained. “And that was the attraction to him for him. He was willing to step in to a situation that was building instead of maybe going somewhere where it had already been built.”
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At Virginia Tech, Alexander-Walker has impressed his coach and teammates alike with what he does off the court, to put himself in the best possible position when he’s on it. He often beats Williams to the basketball office in the morning and spends hours before practice in the training room to prepare his body. He’s careful about his diet, and strategic about his weightlifting.
Williams said he’s “the most diligent, conscientious person that I’ve ever coached.”
“I think who he is on the floor is a reflection of who he is off the floor,” Blackshear added. “You want to be around guys like him, because you understand how dedicated he is.”
An injury to senior point guard Justin Robinson midway through the season forced Alexander-Walker to serve as the team’s primary ball-handler, a responsibility that he said has made him more comfortable, overall, on the court.
His general dedication to basketball prompted a question from a reporter Thursday about Alexander-Walker possibly becoming a coach at some point down the road. He smiled and said he doesn’t have enough patience. Plus, he always hears coaches talking about what they would give to be back out there playing.
“I’m just trying to take as much as I can to kind of prolong that day,” Alexander-Walker said. “It’s going to come. But when it does, I want it to come as late as possible.”
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.