As San Antonio Spurs rookie Lonnie Walker IV approaches his return to the lineup, he’s got a serious chance to jumpstart the team.
With the franchise’s highest pick since selecting Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, the San Antonio Spurs used the 18th pick in this year’s draft on swingman Lonnie Walker IV from the University of Miami.
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In many pre-draft projections, Walker was considered a surefire lottery pick because of his explosiveness and two-way upside. As it goes with draft day, teams changed course and Walker fell all the way to general manager R.C. Buford and the Spurs.
Walker has yet to make his NBA debut after suffering a meniscus injury in the offseason, but his return to the lineup draws closer. He was seen warming up before San Antonio’s home victory against Golden State and is suspected to work his way back into playing shape with the G League affiliate Austin Spurs.
For many fans, the prospect of adding Walker to the lineup instills hope and excitement. The last time San Antonio added a late lottery pick to their roster, head coach Gregg Popovich helped groom him into a Finals MVP. The possibilities for Pop and Walker heading into the future are endless, especially with coveted shooting coach Chip Engelland in the mix.
It’s hard to expect too much from a recovering rookie but Walker has the potential to make an instant impact with his wide range of skills that made him one of the most intriguing picks his draft class.
Popovich and Buford see the potential impact he can make both on and off the court.
Next: Defensive mobility
After decades with a defensive-minded culture, the Spurs have become a middle of the pack team in that respect. When you add DeMar DeRozan to a lineup, you can expect a major uptick in offensive output with a minor fault defensively. As much as his presence has been crucial to the Spurs’ early season success, San Antonio could use some help defending the perimeter.
Walker has a lengthy frame, standing at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan. He’s extremely mobile and has many physical traits required of an elite perimeter defender.
For example, Walker’s frame is eerily similar to that of Miami Heat swingman Josh Richardson who is in the midst of a breakout year under head coach Erik Spoelstra. Richardson’s wingspan is the same as Walker’s and he’s only an inch taller, so there’s not much of a difference in terms of their size.
This is not to say that Walker will come out of the gates defending as well as Richardson, but he’s got the physical characteristics to develop a bothersome defensive skill set. Defensively, Richardson has been an impactful player for quite some time but has only recently unveiled his scoring prowess.
For the rookie, Richardson’s growth should serve as a template for how to become an effective two-way player in the modern NBA. In his lone season at the University of Miami, Walker averaged approximately one steal per game and posted a noteworthy defensive rating per 100 possessions of 102.9.
Lonnie is an extremely smart individual and it’s reflected in his defensive instincts. He reads the offense of his opponents and has great timing on his steals and blocks. If he’s ready to provide any kind of defensive boost on the perimeter, he may have an immediate impact on San Antonio’s team defense.
Next: Improved Athleticism on the Wing
Improved Athleticism on the Wing
With a rotation comprised of both up-and-comers and seasoned veterans, the pace at which the Spurs play can vary based on who is on the floor. At times, the Spurs can seem heavy footed because of the advanced velocity of the modern game. When some of their less explosive players are on the floor, San Antonio struggles to keep up with run-and-gun lineups.
This is one spot where Walker can help out a lot as the team figures out its identity. Lonnie’s game is suited to any pace and he’ll be able to help in either way because of his athletic upside and high octane play style.
Walker accelerates from zero to one hundred in no time and often leaks out on fastbreaks because of his exceptional foot speed and shifty ball handling. He’s got the length to defend three-point shooters and the smarts to use his body to force opponents into tough shots on the drive.
Adding Walker to the lineup can be helpful for guys like Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli, who are less physically gifted and more deceptive in a half court setting. He can guard multiple positions and switch onto ball handlers as needed. The rookie is lean but surprisingly strong, so he can add a little bit of power to the wing.
The pairing of Walker and Dante Cunningham on the perimeter can cause a lot of headaches for opposing head coaches. As a natural scorer, Lonnie understand the mentality of the league’s shot creators and predicts their output.
Regardless of who he ends up playing alongside, Walker has a chance to be very special.
Next: Offensive Versatility
It’s especially important for players to be flexible and well-rounded as the game is in the midst of an offensive renaissance.
Walker’s wide array of skills will be a major help for the Spurs as Pop continues to tweak and generate his extensive game plan. He is capable of filling in as a shooter from range, ball handler, shot creator or playmaker as needed.
Coming into the draft, one of the most highly regarded assets that Walker brought to the table was his natural ability to elevate his team. Even off the ball, he manages to remain active in an attempt to open up his own shots or space the floor for others.
During the 2018 Summer League, Walker showcased his aptitude for handling the ball in the pick and roll alongside his rookie counterpart Chimezie Metu. If these two and sophomore Derrick White can initiate this kind of dynamic offense in the big leagues, the Spurs’ second unit will take another drastic step forward.
San Antonio ranks last in the league in fastbreak points so far this year. This is one place where the team’s lack of dynamic athletes gets exposed but the addition of Walker to the lineup could help pick up the pace.
Lonnie is a menace in the open court because of the risk he runs for opposing defenders. If they play him too close, he’ll find a teammate. If they sag off, he’ll hit a three-pointer. If they stand near the rim, he can finish through and around contact. There are very few scenarios in which the rookie cannot do damage on the fastbreak.
The 19-year-old is a fantastic dunker and contorts his body to fight through contact with a head of steam. Any lane to the basket proves deadly for the young wing, so throwing him into the lineup next to players like DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay could upgrade up the team’s energy and intensity on the fastbreak.
Lots of Walker’s appeal has to due with his wide array of scoring skills, so his implementation to the lineup will make the Spurs a more well-rounded team.