San Antonio Spurs: Putting Lonnie Walker IV and the 2018 NBA Draft Class into Tiers
The 2018 NBA Draft class is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory and San Antonio Spurs may have one of the brightest stars of the bunch.
Though his minutes wouldn’t indicate it, sophomore wing Lonnie Walker IV is one of the best and brightest of his class. Picked at No. 18 as the team’s highest selection in two decades, Walker was locked in by many draft experts as a lottery pick prior to a knee injury suffered early in his freshman campaign at Miami.
For the national audience, Walker has largely been forgotten about because of his limited action as a rookie. Of the 60 players selected in 2018, Walker ranks No. 41 in total minutes played behind many players selected way after him.
However, San Antonio Spurs fans know that Walker is an exemplary talent whose lack of playing time has nothing to do with his talent, but rather is an indictment on the Spurs’ depth and tradition. In San Antonio, minutes aren’t a right but are a privilege, so you need to work your way up the ladder by performing in the G League and smoothing out issues that are pointed out bythe team’s staff.
There’s a lot to be excited about in Walker’s future, but he’s up against some all-world talent in his class. The obvious go-to’s are European superstar Luka Doncic of the rival Mavericks and sharpshooting-extraordinaire Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks. Both young players put up uncanny rookie seasons and have taken individual jumps from year one to two.
Still, there’s plenty of talented players to categorize from last year’s tremendous draft and Walker is one of the most exciting of the bunch. But first, we’ll look at some not-so-exciting sophomores.
Next: Potential Busts
Potential Busts: Jerome Robinson, Kevin Knox, Zhaire Smith
These three players have suffered due to their circumstances more so than anything. It’s easy to label someone as a bust earlier in their career because they haven’t performed up to par, but that can change rapidly in the landscape of the NBA. A change of scenery, a coaching change or even just experience can help a player turn it around. However, this triad of players has a lot of work to do in order to change their narratives.
Pick No. 9 – Kevin Knox:
Being drafted by the New York Knicks is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you get the opportunity to showcase your talents on the grandest stage in the sport in Madison Square Garden in front of a major market that loves basketball. On the other hand, the organization is plagued by incompetent ownership, poor decision-making and unruly fans that are tired of being a laughing stock.
For Kentucky forward Kevin Knox, getting selected by the Knicks has not been helpful to his development. His career effective field goal percentage is in the gutter at 44.1% and his role has been reduced greatly in his second season. Knox has had flashes of excellence, including standout moments in the Summer League for two years in a row, but his decision-making needs work and the situation around him isn’t improving.
If not for the poor relations between the Spurs and Knicks, I’d suggest him as a buy-low trade candidate because the 20-year-old is still a powerhouse of potential.
Pick No. 13 – Jerome Robinson:
The LA Clippers took a huge risk by selecting Boston College guard Jerome Robinson way ahead of his projected late-first/early-second round draft range and quite frankly, it hasn’t paid off. After making 40% of his shots as a rookie, Robinson is down to 33.3% as a sophomore with more minutes and opportunity.
He appeared in 33 games last year and is already up to 22 on the season, but he simply hasn’t played well and should probably spend more time in the G League to get himself prepared for top-level competition; especially considering the fact that the Clippers are a true contender now.
Pick No. 16 – Zhaire Smith:
Coming from Texas Tech, wing Zhaire Smith paired defensive intensity with unruly athleticism that enticed draft analysts around the world through pre-draft workouts. However, the Philadelphia 76ers’ unavoidable injury bug bit Smith early in his rookie year, forcing him to play in only six relatively unproductive games last year and none so far this year.
He’ll work within their G League system to develop necessary skills and flesh out his game, but the addition of defensive-phenom Matisse Thybulle proved that the Sixers are willing to play young players who prove they’re worthy of minutes and it likely won’t be easy to carve out a role any time soon.
Next: Surefire Role Players
Surefire Role Players: Mikal Bridges, Mitchell Robinson, Miles Bridges
Pick No. 10 – Mikal Bridges:
When traded from his hometown Philadelphia 76ers to the Phoenix Suns on draft night, many thought that Vilanova forward Mikal Bridges was doomed. He went from an ideal starting place to a struggling young team with very little sense of direction, and yet somehow provided the fanbase in Phoenix with a glimmer of hope for the future. He set records with his uncanny knack for forcing steals and deflecting passes – a byproduct of his far-reaching arms and defensive instincts.
Now as a sophomore, Bridges is starting to find his rhythm for a Suns team with a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. His averages aren’t quite what they were from last year, but he’s playing with a competent surrounding cast and as a result, is taking on a reduced role.
His field goal percentage is much improved and he’s showing off a loaded arsenal as a small forward with small-ball four potential. The sky’s the limit for Bridges, but right now, he’s at least a savvy role player.
Pick No. 12 – Miles Bridges:
There’s no two ways about it – former Michigan State Spartan Miles Bridges is one of the most exciting young players in the NBA. His playstyle isn’t limited to one set of skills in particular, but he’s always viable to go off for a ferocious dunk and is proving to the world that he deserves a starting spot in the NBA.
Bridges had a decent rookie campaign in which he shot averages percentages and found his way, but near the end of the season, it was evident that he had become comfortable and began to show off a more complete arsenal.
This year, he’s putting up 12.8 points per game on roughly 11 shots and has upped his three-point percentage to 37.1% on 2.1 more attempts per game than last year. All the while, he’s putting his hops to good use by playing hard defense and elevating for rebounds. It’s difficult to say where Bridges will end up in terms of his ranking amongst his peers from this class as his potential is largely unfulfilled, but he’s on his way to a great career thus far.
Pick No. 36 – Mitchell Robinson:
Another player hindered by the Knicks’ incompetence, center Mitchell Robinson slipped in the draft due to bizarre circumstances surrounding his entrance to the pool. He skipped college and instead spent a year preparing for the draft, but stood out with amazing measurements and athletic ability during the predraft workouts.
Robinson is second in the draft class in Win Shares and Box Plus/Minus while placing first in field goal percentage. His role is reduced because his team signed four veteran big men in the offseason, but Robinson is already one of the game’s best shot blockers and has a bright future ahead of him.
Next: Potential All-Stars
Potential All-Stars: Jaren Jackson Jr., Devonte’ Graham, Wendell Carter Jr.
Pick No. 4 – Jaren Jackson Jr. :
It was easy to see that Memphis Grizzlies power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. was the essential prototype of a modern four coming out of Michigan State. With a smooth jumper that boasts a high and quick release, Jackson is one of the best floor-spacing big men in the game today.
Unlike many other players who fit that mold, Jackson doesn’t allow his shooting to restrict his game as his post play and unassuming handles are way stronger than many suspect.
On the opposite end of the floor, Jackson is a ferocious rim defender with a massive reach that allows him to make any opponent uncomfortable attacking the rim. His rebounding needs work, as a player of his stature should be corralling more than 4.8 rebounds per game (just a tenth of a rebound more than his rookie average), but Jackson is up to 40% shooting on six triples per night and has benefitted greatly from his team’s selection of Ja Morant with the No. 2 pick in the subsequent draft. The sky’s the limit for the son of a Spurs legend.
Pick No. 7 – Wendell Carter Jr. :
At this point, surefire role player is the floor for Chicago center Wendell Carter Jr., who entered the league with a knack for rebounding and scoring near the basket. He only appeared in 44 games as a rookie but showed an old-school style of play that greatly compliments his frontcourt mate, forward Lauri Markkanen.
He has 13 double-doubles and seven games with at least two blocked shots so far this season, so his skill set is coming along nicely. What’s held him back is his lack of growth outside of the paint, which was something that was huge for him in college and earned him a selection high in the lottery. There’s plenty of time left for him to grow, as he’s only 20-years-old, but Carter is only a small portion of who he could actually become.
Pick No. 34 – Devonte’ Graham:
Without a doubt, Charlotte Hornets point guard Devonte’ Graham is the steal of the 2018 NBA Draft up to this point in the class’ progression. Though there wasn’t much hope left in North Carolina after the team’s franchise point guard Kemba Walker left for the Boston Celtics, the gap at his position opened up a world of opportunity for the Kansas point guard.
Next to former-MVP James Harden, Graham is second in the league in three-pointers made this year and is making an insane 41.1% of 9.1 triples per game to contribute to a 19.6-point, 7.4-assist, 3.8 rebound average on 52.1% effective field goal percentage. He’s comfortable, confident and unassuming, but Graham is an excellent leader for this young team and has a legitimate chance to be an Eastern Conference All-Star as a sophomore.
When it’s all said and done, Graham could be a top-five player to come from this draft class, but he still has to work on his all-around game and get back to some of the defensive aggression that he displayed as a Jayhawk. Even if he’s not an All-Star this year, Graham could very well be a perennial All-Star moving forward.
Next: Potential Stars
Potential Stars: Lonnie Walker IV, Marvin Bagley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Pick No. 2 – Marvin Bagley III:
Though he’ll be scrutinized for being selected before both Doncic and Young, Marvin Bagley III has been a highly productive player in his early-career. He was an instant contributor for the Sacramento Kings as a rookie, providing a scoring burst as a faceup scorer, low-post menace and superb rim-runner.
Bagley has only played in four games this season after suffering a fractured right hand right at the start of the year, but is working his way back and has shown improvement through each of his first three games. There’s definitely a sprinkle of bust potential for Bagley considering how high he was picked, but he was an absolutely dominant college player whose skill set is translating nicely to the NBA thus far.
Playing in Sacramento used to be a downfall for many young players, but the young forward is part of what’s expected to be a riveting young core brewing in Northern California. With another potential star, point guard De’Aaron Fox, taking the reins as floor general, Bagley is going to have a ton of opportunity for this rising team. What he does with it is to be determined but there’s no denying that there’s no cap on how good he can be if he keeps working hard and working through the kinks of his game.
Pick No. 11 – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander:
Opportunity can make or break the progression of a young player and even-keeled point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has benefitted hugely from his situations early in his basketball career. He was handed the keys last year for the Clippers and contended for ROTY honors along the way, playing in all 82 games for the gritty eighth seed.
He showed off his skills in the first round of the playoffs against Golden State and boosted his trade value, which translated when he was sent to Oklahoma City in exchange for superstar Paul George. Now he has the chance to start alongside Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul, who is embracing his role as a mentor to SGA.
With even more opportunity, Gilgeous-Alexander is thriving with a stat line of 18.5 points, five boards, three assists and a steal per game starting alongside one of the best to ever do it. His impact comes on both sides of the floor, as Gilgeous-Alexander is an unquestioned two-way menace with long arms and deceptive quickness that allow him to pester opposing ball handlers.
I’m already aware people may think I’m getting ahead of myself by saying SGA could be a legitimate star in this league, but his work ethic, demeanor and enthusiasm to learn from Paul lead me to believe he’s heading there.
Pick No. 18 – Lonnie Walker IV:
Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Let’s get to it.
The San Antonio Spurs saw something special in Lonnie Walker IV when they drafted him with 18th pick in 2018. Nevermind his dazzling athleticism or keen scoring instincts, Walker is one of the most humble yet determined individuals to join this team in quite some time. Coming from desolate beginnings in Reading, Pennslyvania, Walker worked his tail off to make use of his unmatched ability to play above the rim and become a helpful all-around contributor.
In only 9.6 minutes per game across 18 games this season, Walker leads Spurs rotation players in defensive rating at 104.3. He’s a firestarter on both ends of the floor, making plays on one end and ensuring that they translate to positive outcomes on the other. He’s shooting 48% from the floor and 41.2% from three-point range thus far in the season with his averages improving as he earns more consistent minutes under Gregg Popovich.
He changes the game with his pacing by pushing the tempo and forcing everyone on the floor to catch up with him, averaging 7.1 fastbreak points per 36 minutes. His passing vision is much-improved and he can keep the ball moving in team sets even though isolation scoring is where he thrives. His jump shot is crisp and he uses his vertical to shoot over whoever is guarding him.
Even though he hasn’t been truly unleashed quite yet, we’ve now seen what he can do when he plays a game with starting-level minutes and the Spurs should never go back to a time before Walker is a key rotation play at the very least.
This is only year two of the Lonnie Walker experience – he only just turned 21 – so buckle up because this is going to be an exciting ride.
Next: Surefire Stars in the making
Surefire Stars in the making: Luka Doncic, Trae Young, DeAndre Ayton
Pick No. 1 – DeAndre Ayton:
Suspended 25 games for a dieretic, Suns center DeAndre Ayton still has to prove himself to the NBA community after letting his team down by getting suspended. Though no one holds it against him personally, and the team has excelled without him, Ayton is an instant-impact player whose presence is invaluable for a rising Suns unit.
Ayton finished third in ROTY voting despite posting more win shares than the two players ranked higher than him in voting (we’ll get to them real soon, I promise). He entered the league with an NBA-ready body and a skill set to match. The best way to describe Ayton’s presence is dominating since he’s physically defying the standards of a young rookie, bypassing the weight training that a young player usually needs. His rebounding, shot-blocking and defense all reflect that.
Barring injury or more issues with suspensions, which is unlikely due to his good moral character up to this point, Ayton will be a star for years to come.
Pick No. 3 – Luka Doncic:
There’s not much that can be said about Luka Doncic that hasn’t already been said. He already has a firm argument to be made as a top-10 NBA player at only 20-years-old. Every day it seems like he sets records that have only been touched by the upper echelon of NBA talent – LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and others.
Doncic is averaging 29.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 8.9 assists per game this season while essentially carrying the Mavericks into the playoffs. We’ll get a better sense of just how good the team is around him as he nurses an ankle sprain, but the European sensation is easily one of the most exciting young players in NBA History and continues to show the world that he wasn’t just dominant in European basketball – he’s simply dominant.
The Spurs will face him four times per season for as long as he builds his legacy in Dallas… yikes.
Pick. No. 5 – Trae Young:
With a chip on his shoulder and no doubts about his abilities, Trae Young is without question one of the shiftiest young players the league has ever seen. He entered the league as a high-usage three-point shooter and playmaker, effectively garnering Stephen Curry comparisons from the masses. Pretty much anyone with great handles and range get compared to the former-MVP, but Young is probably the only player who deserves them.
Young’s stats are up across the board as a sophomore. He’s averaging 8.7 more points (27.8 PPG) while shooting 2.5% better from the field (44.3%), 4.4% better from three-point land (36.8%) on a whopping nine attempts per game while dishing out 8.5 dimes per night.
More so than anything, Young is playing above his age (21-years-old) by showcasing selfless leadership qualities as the team’s star and lead ball handler. Atlanta is always going to be questioned for their draft-night trade of Doncic for Young and picks, but they found their guy. The city of Atlanta is better suited for someone like Ice Trae, as he was lovingly nicknamed by the city’s finest – the Migos.
I have no doubt in my mind that the 2018 NBA Draft Class will go down as one of the best in recent history.