He’s one of the most exciting young players on the team but will there be a chance for Lonnie Walker to take over a starting role with the San Antonio Spurs next season?
As fans, we can sometimes fall into believing so much in the promise of a young player that we overlook their flaws. We want to believe in upside and potential so much that we gloss over the obvious flaws and areas for improvement because it doesn’t fit what we want at that moment. Throughout the 2019-20 season, it felt like that’s where a lot of San Antonio Spurs fans were with Lonnie Walker.
It wasn’t just fans who were calling for more minutes for Walker, we wanted Lonnie in the starting lineup as bad as the rest. But, as he often is, Gregg Popovich was probably right to hold Lonnie back. We can be frustrated in the play of Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli and also admit that throwing Walker into the staring lineup prematurely wouldn’t have been the best thing for his development or the team’s success at the time.
Lonnie’s potential is as high as anyone’s on the team, if not higher. He”s on his way to becoming a scoring three-level scoring threat, is by far the most athletically gifted guy on the roster right now, and has the potential to become a seriously disruptive defensive presence. At the same time he needs to work on making better, quicker decisions, cut down on his turnovers, and be consistently engaged on the defensive end of the floor.
Putting in the necessary work will eventually earn Walker the opportunity to step into the starting lineup and show us what he can do with a serious role. With DeMar DeRozan’s future with the Spurs up in the air that opportunity could be coming soon. So we have to ask, what are the chances that Walker steps into a starting role for the San Antonio Spurs next season?
Next: Lonnie's sophomore year
Looking back at Walker’s second season with the San Antonio Spurs
Before we look at if Walker can step into a starting role with the San Antonio Spurs we have to review how he did this season. There were the typical ups and downs you expect from a player with his experience, all coming together to give us a picture of a player with tremendous talent who still has a long way to go before reaching his ceiling.
The beginning of his sophomore year was full of DNP’s and brief spurts of play. He’d play in garbage time one night and sit for the full 48 minutes the next. As frustrating as it was for Spurs fans to see, it must have been even more disheartening for a player who was coming off of some impressive Summer League performances.
Walker’s sophomore season didn’t truly take off until his breakout game against the Houston Rockets. Walker scored 28 points, 19 of them in the 4th quarter, and led the Spurs to their most exciting win of the season.
It was a full display of what Walker can do when he’s locked in and playing up to his potential. He was 4 of 7 from deep, 10 of 18 overall, and played some truly impressive defense on James Harden. Guarding The Beard is not an easy task, even for the most experienced NBA defenders, but Walker did an excellent job of staying on him without falling for Harden’s deep bag of foul drawing tricks.
The game against Houston served as a jumping-off point for the rest of the year. After that point, you could tell that Gregg Popovich’s faith in him had dramatically increased. There were still the occasional nights where he’d play closer to 10 minutes but they were few and far between. Walker had finally established himself as a fixture in the rotation.
We know that Walker can fill in as a role player, but to take over a starting role he’s going to have to make serious improvements to his game.
Next: Areas for improvement
What does Lonnie have to improve on to be a starter for the San Antonio Spurs?
For a more detailed look at what Lonnie has to improve on you can check out Dylan Carter’s full piece on what Walker should be working on over the summer. What it comes down to is essentially three things: staying locked in on defense at all times, becoming more consistent around the rim, and becoming a better passer.
Walker’s defensive potential is off the charts, with his speed and leaping ability he has the potential for LeBron James-like chase down and weakside blocks. But to reach that level he’s got be better about keeping his head on a swivel and being aware of where his man is at all times. One on one he’s solid, he manned up against James Harden and that’s probably the toughest task in the league right now. But improving on his off-ball defense is a must.
Another focus area for improvement has to be on his finishing around the rim. Like many other Spurs, Walker can get to the rim at ease. But a ten dollar drive with a ten-cent finish won’t win you games. Far too often we saw Walker blow past his man and bungle an easy layup, that can’t keep happening.
Fear not Spurs fans, the undersized master of scoring in the paint is here to save the day. In his time with the Spurs, Tony Parker was one of the best in the league at getting to the rim and finishing in a variety of ways. He had reverse layups, floaters, bank shots, and an assortment of other creative ways to get buckets over players that towered over him. If Walker can take some of that craftiness and blend it with his natural athleticism he will be a real problem for opposing defenses.
Finally, Walke does need to improve as a passer, but it’s less of a concern than the other two areas. It never hurts to have multiple players who can initiate the offense but looking at the makeup of the Spurs roster today, and projecting how it could shake out down the road, Walker doesn’t seem like he’s ever going to be a second or third option as a ball handler. Pouring his time into rounding out his scoring and defense will be a better use of his energy.
Next: The verdict
Does Lonnie Walker deserve a starting role for the San Antonio Spurs?
He might not deserve a starting role just yet but Walker couldn’t be in a better position to earn his starting spot in the starting lineup. He’s a worker, you never have to worry about him putting in the hours, and there are several roster moves that could take place this summer that could make his path to a starting spot a lot smoother.
The obvious one is DeMar DeRozan’s potential departure. He’s got a player-option to decide on and how decides to handle that will largely shape the Spurs summer. Even if he does opt-in the team could decide to pursue a sign and trade scenario to make way for Walker if they feel like he’s the future.
The unrestricted free agencies of Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes could also come into play. Even if they’re both brought back it’s hard to see them having as strong a hold over their minutes as they did last year. Walker was cutting into Belinelli’s time when the season was suspended and that’s not a trend that should be expected to reverse at this point.
The biggest question mark is around Forbes. If he leaves for another team that would automatically free up 25 minutes a night, which should largely go to Walker. Even if he does decide to re-sign, which looks increasingly likely given the financial constraints that the whole league is going to be under and his familiarity with the organization, his role should be shifted into more of a bench gunner than a starter.
It’s hard to say whether Walker will become a permanent fixture in the San Antonio Spurs starting lineup next season. There’s a lot riding on him reaching his potential, the team could really use another top-tier scorer right now and he looks like he could be that. He’s in a great position to take a leap in his third year in the league but only time will tell if Walker will seize the opportunity that’s before him.