Sophomore Lonnie Walker IV made a splash during his second year in the NBA and the San Antonio Spurs are going to rely on him more heavily moving forward.
Of the many fantastic players who’ve donned silver and black in the longstanding history of the San Antonio Spurs, two stand out when it comes to flair and theatrics: George Gervin and Manu Ginobili. Each of these players slotted in on the wing, mostly at the shooting guard position, providing a burst of energy for San Antonio through their elaborate and flashy play styles.
For second-year wing Lonnie Walker IV, these players provide the roadmap for becoming a beloved player in the Alamo City. An explosive 6-foot-6 wing with a long reach and high-flying leaping ability, Walker is one of the most unique players San Antonio has been home to in quite some time. A native of Reading, PA, Walker knows what it’s like to work for what you believe in and is going to do everything in his power to fulfill his potential as an NBA star.
Walker’s sophomore season provided Spurs fans with a lot of highs, but he’s far from a complete player. His decision-making needs work, he needs to limit sloppy turnovers and learn to keep in sync with his teammates on defense. For as exciting as his play has been through 885 career-minutes across 70 games, it’s going to be a long time before Lonnie is a polished player.
There’s legitimate star potential in Walker’s future, especially as a volume scorer who can create his own shot at all three scoring levels. However, he needs to earn the respect of head coach Gregg Popovich before he gets there and to do that, Lonnie needs to learn to use his head.
Next: Staying locked-in on defense
Learning to outsmart opponents on defense
Walker is skilled at using his shot-creating ability to make his opponents look silly, now he needs to apply that thoughtful decision-making and showmanship on defense. We’ve seen him jump into a passing lane, protect the weak side for a block and switch well on a pick-and-roll here and there but for the most part, Walker has seemed lost in the rotations of team defense.
While his ability to guard someone one-on-one is pretty solid, the NBA is the quickest basketball league in the world and Walker gets lost in that sometimes. He always seems to have his head on a swivel, ball-hawking with his eyes and staying focused on what’s happening in front of him.
However, Walker will oftentimes find himself straying too far from an opponent when the ball is swinging around, resulting in open shots on the perimeter. Help defense is great, but not at the expense of a bucket from one’s original assignment, so he needs to remember that his job isn’t to guard everyone on the court at once.
Furthermore, Walker gets beat on backdoor cuts more often than a player of his caliber should. His lateral quickness is impressive and he’s quick to react when his matchup forces his hand, but Lonnie needs to mature as a defender and learn how to anticipate what’s coming next instead of simply reacting to every situation that’s thrown at him.
This might be a big ask because no player can fully predict a team’s motion, but teams set up in similar schemes throughout a game and throw a lot of the same looks out there when they’re working. Walker needs to take it upon himself to disrupt that, whether it means getting in the airspace of a ball-handler to force them to pass the rock or learning how to get around screens without sacrificing a score or getting forced into a switch.
More so than anything, Walker’s defensive IQ needs to expand as he adapts to life as a pro.
Next: Making his shots count
Improving shot selection and consistency
While Walker is adept at creating space for his shots, sometimes he gets a little bit too excited and takes unideal attempts. We’ve seen time and time again that Walker has an exceptional jump shot that he can use to singlehandedly carry a team through lulls and cold streaks. However, he only shot 30 percent on shots from 3-to-16 feet from the basket and 37.1 percent on shots from 16 feet to the three-point line.
It’s highly unusual for a player with his shot creation to shoot so poorly in these areas and can probably be chalked up to jitters and transition to the league. However, if that persists then the future as an elite scorer that Spurs fans believe he can attain will be in jeopardy.
The bump in three-point efficiency was a nice boost from a player whose three-point stroke has always been in question. He shot a meager 34.6 percent from deep in college and struggled with it during his extended time in the G-League, but it started coming along nicely in Summer League, giving Spurs fans hope for the future.
I can’t speak on it if it’s a mental issue because the only person who can answer questions about that is Walker himself, but it’s evident that he’s getting too caught up in the moment and falling short on shots that we know for a fact that he can make. Creating separation from defenders has never been an issue for him and the misses are more likely than anything just the result of a young player trying to feel his way through a significant transition into consistent NBA minutes.
Ginobili had a similar issue early in his career. During his sophomore season, he shot only 32.8 percent on shots from 3-to-10 feet and 29.9 percent from 10 feet to 16 feet. He turned out to be a future Hall of Famer and one of the best international players of all-time, so there’s plenty of time for Lonnie to figure this out and unlock new levels to his game.
Next: Adding layers to his offensive repertoire
Balancing his scoring attack with fluid passing
One of the most important ways for a good scorer to turn into a great player is by learning to use their scoring threat to generate offense for their teammates. When a player poses an imminent threat to score the ball, they draw the attention of every player, coach, fan and vendor in the arena. This is the case with elite scoring talents like Trae Young, James Harden and Bradley Beal.
The common thread between the league’s seven players who average at least 27 points per game is that they average out at 7.4 assists per game amongst them. All of the game’s most exceptional scorers have come to learn that the threat they pose is best put to use when they use it to create shots for their teammates.
For someone like Young, who is an elite three-point marksman, he can recognize that defenders are forced to step out to keep up with him. He uses this to draw defenders away from the rim, giving his teammates a better chance at attacking the middle and getting layups in one-on-one situations near the basket. The same can be said for Harden or Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, who extend the floor with their shooting threat.
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On the flip side, players like Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antetokounmpo are more proficient when attacking the rim. When they make their way to the basket, players are drawn in and shooters get better looks around the perimeter. This is known as the drive-and-kick and it’s the main reason why Westbrook was able to average more than 10 assists per game for four consecutive seasons from 2015-19.
This is called a player’s gravity and if he keeps progressing as a scorer the way it seems like he’s intended to, he’s going to have a ton of it. Even operating in the mid-range forces defenders into a specific zone that draws them in and leaves room for teammates to operate both on the inside and around the three-point line.
Being the three-level scoring threat that he is, teams are eventually going to be forced to scheme their defensive gameplan to stop him. If star DeMar DeRozan leaves in the 2020 offseason like his team-option might suggest he will, Lonnie is going to have a boatload of shots to take over with the legitimate chance that he enters the starting five next year.
To be a great player in today’s league, one must be multifaceted and adding that capacity to be a secondary playmaker for this team could put him in another stratosphere of talent.