Alfes: Alexander-Walker, Hayes keeping Pelicans in rookie spotlight

Nickeil Alexander-Walker showed some major promise during the Pelicans' summer run.

Even after Zion Williamson’s left knee injury, the NBA rookie spotlight never left New Orleans.

Credit that to Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes, who took center stage and landed First- and Second-Team selections in the Las Vegas Summer League. The duo punctuated a David Griffin-led offseason that maximized the return for Anthony Davis and equipped head coach Alvin Gentry with an intriguing roster facing unknown expectations.

Griffin’s model serves two purposes: winning in 2019-20 and developing young talent for a sustainable future. Teaming J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors with Jrue Holiday helped build the veteran core, while trading for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart helped build the young core. 

Drafting Williamson, Alexander-Walker and Hayes, though, helped build the future of the franchise.

Alexander-Walker, the cousin of Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, is a fit for Gentry’s uptempo offense, which ranked third in both points per game (115.4) and pace (103.3) last season. His Summer League resume featured everything, from stepback three-pointers to turnaround mid-rangers to pinpoint passes off the dribble…

The 6-foot-5, 200-pound combo guard was arguably the best player in Las Vegas, ranking first in points (24.3), fourth in assists (6.0) and third in steals (2.8) for players logging at least three games. The biggest knocks on Alexander-Walker’s scouting report were his inability to operate in traffic and his passiveness, but Gentry’s fast-paced offense and focus on transition play can solve that problem.

“You enjoy it because we have guys with the talent and capability of playing fast,” Alexander-Walker said to NBA.com. “So it makes the game a lot easier when you have guys who can finish above the rim, run the floor, shoot the ball. On this team, there are so many different specialties and guys that embrace their role and do it well. It makes my job easier in trying to find guys and create.”

Hayes is six inches taller, 15 pounds heavier, nearly two years younger and more explosive than Alexander-Walker, according to scouting reports. While his rookie teammate was one of the top players, Hayes undoubtedly had the top two highlights…

The 19-year-old center could be the other half of a formidable frontcourt with Williamson, although Favors will likely be the first to crack the starting five. Hayes filled the stat sheet in 24.3 minutes per game, averaging 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. Developing a jump shot and growing more comfortable behind the perimeter will be the main points of emphasis for the former Longhorn moving forward.

Perhaps the biggest sign of encouragement has been the cohesiveness of the two rookies, who joined together for a double interview less than a month after the Pelicans picked them…

With Holiday being the only returning starter and Ball and Ingram coming off season-ending injuries, New Orleans still has plenty of work to do before entering the playoff conversation. However, when healthy, the depth of the roster is noticeably better, with E’Twaun Moore, Jahlil Okafor, Frank Jackson, Darius Moore and Kenrich Williams also receiving substantial minutes this past season. 

Griffin has stockpiled assets on top of a roster loaded with rookie contracts and untapped potential. Unlocking that talent starts with guys like Alexander-Walker and Hayes, who could very well challenge Williamson for a Rookie of the Year award given their performances in the Summer League. 

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