Jaden McDaniels was tremendous to close out the Minnesota Timberwolves’ second-round series against the reigning NBA champs. The Denver Nuggets disrespected his jump shot by sagging way off of him. McDaniels took advantage late in the series, specifically in the must-win Games 6 and 7. The Wolves’ forward found his groove by hitting open shots and taking advantage of smaller defenders off the bounce. The two-way wing averaged 22 points on 75% shooting the final two games of the series.

McDaniels will have the same shots afforded to him in the Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs this postseason have aggressively closed out onto the perimeter while shrinking the floor off the basketball. Their hope is to limit open threes while shutting down the paint as a team unit. Due to this, expect McDaniels to build off his late series momentum as a reliable contributor. While that may be the case, though, McDaniels is not the Timberwolves’ big X-factor heading into the conference finals.

Instead, Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s production will be key for Minnesota in this series.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker to bounce back after Nuggets’ series

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker (9) goes to the basket against Denver Nuggets
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Wolves’ backup guard serves as a premier perimeter defender as his effort and screen navigation never wavers. His value in this series will be massive when Luka Doncic finds cracks in the defense often resulting in fouls. With the possibility of McDaniels getting in foul trouble early and often, NAW needs to be the reliable role player he was during the regular season and the first round series against the Phoenix Suns.

In the second round, Denver did a great job limiting Alexander-Walker by making him uncomfortable. When NAW had the rock, the Nuggets pressured him relentlessly and tested his handle. Alexander-Walker did not respond well. Off the ball, Denver played in the gaps more and made Minnesota’s role players decide between shooting or swinging the ball one more time after blitzing Anthony Edwards. While the Timberwolves collectively figured out Denver’s defense, Minnesota’s backup guard never found a rhythm.

NAW averaged just 7.1 points in the seven game series including a zero point, 0-6 shooting night in the series finale. Luckily, Minnesota still prevailed. However, going into this series with the Mavs, Alexander-Walker has to be on his A-game.

Alexander-Walker’s side-step triple and playmaking

Referring back to Dallas’ most prominent defensive scheme this postseason, the Mavs aspire to limit easy paint attempts while also trying to run role playing shooters off the 3-point line.

With the Mavs trying to limit wide open catch and shoot threes, Dallas’ closeouts on the perimeter often result as both off balance and not in a spot to contain drives. This is where Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s value really comes. His patented catch and side step three-ball will come back to life against the Mavericks’ aggressive closeouts.

NAW shot an impressive 39.1% from three this regular season. His ability as a standstill catch and shoot threat will also prove to be valuable in situations where Dallas is out of position to get a contest on their closeouts. Outside of Alexander-Walker’s side step three, the Timberwolves' backup guard has ways to hurt the Mavericks by attacking closeouts downhill.

One of the most underrated aspects of the former first round pick’s game is his passing ability. His ambidextrous playmaking stands out as a pathway for Minnesota to create open shots by forcing the Mavs into defensive rotations. Once Alexander-Walker beats a closeout off the bounce, his creativity as a passer with both hands will generate looks for Naz Reid, Jaden McDaniels and even Rudy Gobert at the rim on dump-off dishes.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s two-way play is essential against Dallas. The Timberwolves need him to step up and provide both timely shot-making and secondary offense creation as a passer to effectively hurt the Mavericks’ defense. Given NAW’s skillset, he projects to be the perfect X-factor heading into the Western Conference Finals.