The sample size for San Antonio Spurs sophomore Lonnie Walker IV is large enough to tell that he’s going to be a special player in this league.
If I had to describe San Antonio Spurs wing Lonnie Walker IV in one word, I’d choose indisputable. His showmanship, innate drive to compete and awe-inspiring athleticism are truly undeniable, as they draw the attention of those around him every time that he steps on the basketball court.
Walker is only 20 years old as a sophomore in the NBA, and yet head coach Gregg Popovich couldn’t deny him of a role over the course of the 2019-20 season the way he has for many young players before him. It’s become a Spurs custom to work your way up the rotation, only if and when a player is matured, but Walker is the first player to break the trend in quite some time without major injuries forcing his hand.
Now that Walker officially has 885 NBA minutes under his belt, it’s safe to say that he’s here to stay. Walker has become used to lunging over the hurdles thrust in his path on the way to NBA stardom. Injury concerns halted his development as a rookie, and an injury before that pushed him outside of the draft lottery, but he overcame it.
Since the start of 2020, Walker has been fully activated within San Antonio’s rotation with 17.6 minutes on average over the last forty games. He’s at 44.2 percent from the field, 41.8 percent from deep and 80.4 percent from the free-throw line in that span. As he works out the kinks of his game and learns what it takes to play at the highest level in the process, he’s showing us who he can become when it’s his time to take over.
From harnessing his athleticism to coming into his own as a playmaker, Walker’s progression in such a short time has been a joy to watch. This isn’t to say he’s without flaws, because Walker is far from the player he aspires to be, but with time, effort, passion and consistency, he has the potential to be a legitimate top option for this ballclub.
Next: Offensive growth
Walker is coming into his own as a scorer
There’s never been a doubt that Lonnie is a natural scorer. He moves easily with the ball, slicing through defenses with underappreciated handles and swift legs. He’s a threat to score from anywhere on the floor, making him a surefire three-level scorer who’s guaranteed to get better as time goes on.
Many of the baskets that Walker would’ve missed in his rookie season, he’s converting nowadays. Rookie jitters and early-season woes forced Walker into misses on a handful of his signature finger-roll layups. Now that he’s comfortable in the Spurs’ system, Walker is elevating above his opponents and dropping in baskets with ease.
Even more surprisingly, Walker’s three-point jumper has been extraordinary now that he’s secure within his role. He’s shooting 55.6 percent on triples in the right corner this season and made 41.7 percent of his three-pointers from above the break so far.
L O N N I 3 pic.twitter.com/EDSN1L020L
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 4, 2020
Whether he’s dribbling into his shot or catching and shooting, Walker’s high point of release and quick trigger put him in a position to seamlessly shoot over defenders when he has space.
Most of his attempts come from drives to the paint—A place where he can let his creativity flow and manipulate defenders to position himself for shots or draw fouls. Walker connects on an impressive 51.6 percent of his shots from inside eight feet from the basket.
Within his role, Walker is showing flashes of the player we hope he’ll be in a starring role moving forward.
Next: Finding his way on defense
Defense isn’t easy, but he’s getting the hang of it
For as naturally as the offensive adjustment has come for the second-year player out of Miami, the defense has been more of a rollercoaster ride. With that being the case, the Spurs’ defensive rating improves by 3.4 when he’s on the floor.
His long arms, spacial awareness and lateral quickness help him keep up with defenders on the drive. He closes out with intensity, making sure to keep his matchup uncomfortable at every step.
Those closeouts help him hold three-point shooters below league-average at 35.2 percent on the year. Furthermore, players shoot just 36.5 percent beyond 15 feet from the basket when matched up against the sophomore. Jump shooters need to be extra careful when they see Lonnie running back on defense because he’s sure to make their lives uncomfortable.
Slowly, Walker is getting better at playing defense in a team setting. We’ll oftentimes see him get chewed out by Coach Pop on the sidelines for missing a switch or giving up on a play, to which he responds by giving his all on the next drive. This is part of the learning process and for as long as he’ll accept the criticism, he’ll continue gaining respect from the legendary mentor.
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 3, 2020
One thing that can’t be taught is motor and Walker has one of the best that the team has seen in quite some time. He hustles for loose balls at every opportunity and plays an unselfish brand of basketball for his team. These are essential qualities to be a Spur, and those who have them innately are more likely to become leaders for the silver and black.
Weight-training needs to come into play sooner or later, because once Walker is strong enough to go toe-to-toe with NBA small forwards, he’ll be better equipped to match up with them on defense. He’s comparatively strong right now, but he has spent 80 percent of his minutes at the small forward this year and needs to adjust accordingly.
Regardless, he’s finding his way as an NBA-caliber perimeter defender and will assuredly work on those flaws as he continues progressing.
Next: Growing into his role
With increased playing time, Lonnie is growing more mature
Getting more time on the court means Walker has more opportunity to figure out who he needs to be as a player to make it in this league. Plenty of players have the talent to get drafted, but not all of them have the ability and dedication to stay there. Working to be a star NBA player will require the pride of Reading, PA to push himself to his physical and mental limits.
Even so, Lonnie is flashing the maturity that we hoped he would as he progresses in his development. He’s learning to be a better playmaker and to make his teammates better, which is a big reason why the Spurs have their highest assist percentage (61.3%) when he’s on the floor. Having Walker on the team makes it easier for everyone else to play team-based basketball since he spaces the floor, poses a threat on the drive and is a willing passer.
Walker has at least two assists in five of his last games off the bench while remaining in his usual scoring role. He’s keeping his head up and finding teammates since opponents are becoming privy to his dynamic scoring ability.
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 3, 2020
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Speaking of, he’s actually converting on many of the dunks he missed last year. The dunk is supposed to be one of the most efficient shots you could take, but Walker’s athleticism and hopefulness outmatched his ability to finish oftentimes in the early stretches of his career. Now that he’s maturing before our eyes, he’s converting on his high-flying antics.
Overall, Walker is a better player than he was even just a month ago. The 2019 Summer League showed us that he’s in a league of his own compared with the competition at that level and that he deserves the chance to work through his issues on the court.
Popovich has come to this understanding himself, reaching a point in which it’s impermissible to put wing Marco Belinelli on the floor instead of Lonnie. It’s something fans cried for from early in the season, but Pop needed to let himself come to the conclusion first and he won’t regret it.
Regardless of what lays in the immediate future, Walker is going to be an integral part of the Spurs for years to come.