San Antonio Spurs: Just how high is Lonnie Walker’s ceiling?
An in-depth analysis of San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV’s potential and some predictions about how far he can take his talent.
Although the San Antonio Spurs recently suffered three tough losses to the Pelicans and Lakers, all of a sudden, Spurs fans have a lot to be excited about. Not only were both DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray recently nominated for Western Conference Player of the Week, but Zach Lowe named Keldon Johnson one of his 10 favorite players he’s watched so far this season. Still, among all the noise, Spurs fans shouldn’t forget about Lonnie Walker IV.
Walker’s freakish athletic ability alone has had plenty of people excited ever since he was drafted in 2018. After spending much of his rookie season with the Austin Spurs, he had a lukewarm sophomore season in San Antonio, averaging roughly six points, two rebounds, and an assist per game while shooting 43 percent from three. His most memorable performance came in the Spurs’ first meeting with the Houston Rockets last year when he erupted for 28 points and three steals, with a BPM of +29 in a double-overtime win.
Despite this performance, his inconsistencies from last season are increasingly making fans question the extent of his future role on the Spurs as well as the height of his ceiling.
Here, I’ll aim to put Lonnie’s 2019-20 season in perspective, briefly analyze the current strengths and weaknesses in his game, and make some educated predictions on his potential.
Next: The best is yet to come
San Antonio Spurs: Why We Haven’t Seen Lonnie at His Best
With Walker’s stats from last season in mind, other than perhaps his breakout game, his overall performance was not representative of his potential. It’s worth keeping in mind that even including his first five games from this season, out of every player drafted in the first round of the 2018 draft, Walker has played fewer NBA minutes than all but five players. Those five players include both Zhaire Smith and Michael Porter Jr, who both had severe medical complications that prevented them from playing any significant minutes in their rookie seasons (if any minutes at all).
Walker was additionally only played sporadically before the NBA bubble last season, being forced to compete for minutes with two more experienced guards in Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli, and often playing alongside a myriad of different lineups with no clear role of his own.
During the season, he played in some games for as little as 53 seconds and in other games for much as 31 minutes, seeing many prompt substitutions on the court due to even minor mistakes. It should not go understated how such inconsistency can impact a player’s performance, especially one that was only 21 years old playing alongside several more seasoned scorers.
If the beginning of this season is any indicator, it appears as if Walker’s role will be far more defined. Now that two of the Spurs three more experienced shooting guards are no longer on the roster, Lonnie has been propelled into the starting lineup, starting in each of the Spurs’ first five games of the season. In that span, he’s averaged 13 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. For comparison, Walker only scored 14 or more points in seven of the 61 games he played last season.
While it’s well within the realm of possibility, if not likely, that Lonnie will see his starting role go to Derrick White upon his return from injury, it’s also possible that the coaching staff will see White as a valuable piece of the bench unit and keep Walker in the starting lineup—only time will tell. That said, being given the opportunity to be one of the bench unit’s primary scorers may prove to be very beneficial to his development on offense.
Next: Growing as a scoring option
Lonnie is a Budding Scoring Weapon for the San Antonio Spurs
Coming into the league, Walker’s athleticism was by far his biggest draw, and to a degree, still is. Out of all draft combine participants in 2018, he placed 9th in lane agility and 3rd in his shuttle run and three-quarter sprint times. He also placed in the top 15 in both maximum and standing vertical jump measurements. Keep in mind that these measurements were recorded only 10 months after Lonnie tore his meniscus in practice.
Walker had also proven himself to be a relatively decent 3-point shooter, shooting at just under 35 percent from behind the arc during his one year with the Miami Hurricanes. Likely the only reasons he fell to 18th in his draft class were due to his relatively low volume of 3-point shots taken and injury concerns.
Now that both Forbes and Belinelli have moved on from the Spurs, both of whom were known for their 3-point shooting, I would expect at the very least that Walker will have far more attempted threes. Forbes and Belinelli shot a combined 9.1 threes per game last season, and given that both LaMarcus Aldridge and Demar DeRozan appear to be shooting from behind the arc more often this season, I expect (and hope) for Walker to attempt between five and seven per game.
If Lonnie can keep up with shooting at or around 42 percent from three as he has thus far on 5-7 attempts per game, his points per game average will surely see a significant increase as well.
Walker’s most significant area for improvement at this point is his ability to finish at the rim. If he can prove himself a threat at the rim through contact, in combination with his speed, athleticism, and seemingly improved shooting ability, he would be an absolute nightmare to guard in iso situations. This will ultimately be the deciding factor in whether or not he can become an elite three-level scoring threat.
Additionally, because Walker’s 3-point shooting ability is especially strong in catch-and-shoot situations, he would greatly benefit from learning how to effectively move off the ball on offense. His IQ in this department should only further improve with watching more film on modern shooting guards that have perfected their off-ball game like J.J. Redick and Klay Thompson.
With all things considered, Lonnie may be very close to tapping his potential on offense, so long as he starts getting more touches and putting up more shots.
Next: Room to improve on defense
San Antonio Spurs Lonnie Walker Mandatory Credit: Mike Wyke/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports
Lonnie Still Leaves a Bit to Be Desired on Defense
While the likes of Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, and Keldon Johnson have more or less stolen the show when it comes to defensive talent, Lonnie has a good amount of potential on the defensive side of the ball as well. His motor and lateral quickness give him the ability to keep up with the best of players on-ball, and his off-ball defense appears to be slowly coming along as well.
Offensively, Lonnie already has many of the necessary tools to become a very dangerous scorer. I think it is only a matter of time, practice, and more touches until that potential is fully realized. His defense, though, is what will determine whether or not he could eventually become All-Star material.
Walker’s speed could help him become a better stealer (potentially leading to more transition points for himself or his teammates), which I believe to be the most realistic defensive skill for him to develop with his 6’10” wingspan. A perfect example of this came in the Spurs’ season opener in Memphis:
On the flip side, his ridiculous hops could prove useful for collecting more rebounds, and the same could even be said for getting an occasional block. Keldon Johnson, who has already shown himself to be a force to be reckoned with on the boards, is the same height and about 16 pounds heavier than Walker according to Basketball-Reference.
It is entirely conceivable that Lonnie could also become a good rebounder if he can learn to become more physical in and around the paint. If he could muster up four or five rebounds a game this season, that would be a great start.
Generally speaking, though, Lonnie’s biggest issue on defense is his tendency to fall asleep when away from the ball-handler, occasionally losing his man and generally looking lost. This is not a terrible problem to have, though, when Gregg Popovich, with his wealth of defensive knowledge, is your head coach.
In the end, Lonnie Walker’s potential is just as high as some of the best shooting guards out there. He has nearly all of the necessary skills and all of the athletic ability in the world to eventually tap that potential. Ultimately, if he reaches his ceiling, it will depend on him finding efficient ways to score and using his athleticism to his advantage on defense.