The ever-growing potential of San Antonio Spurs' guard Lonnie Walker
Walker’s third NBA season wasn’t so overwhelmingly impactful he’s a lock to fill DeRozan’s place. It’s going to take considerable growth, plenty of effort, and trust from his coaching staff and teammates alike. Even with the odds stacked against him, Walker’s third year in the league was stuffed with moments that make San Antonio Spurs fans proud to root for him.
Take his two-game stretch on January 10 and 12 against Minnesota and Oklahoma City, for instance. With DeRozan out of the lineup, Walker averaged 24.5 points, three assists, three rebounds, and a block per game on 47.5% from the field and 42.9% from deep. He got to the line persistently with 6.5 free-throw attempts per game in that stretch. He hit 84.6% of his free throws and finished at 81.4% from the line overall.
Beyond the raw counting stats, Walker was poised with the basketball and careful with his shot selection in these games. He limited his mid-range attempts, opting to attack the rack, pull-up from deep, or facilitate for others based on what was given by the defense each time down the floor. When the Spurs found themselves grasping for an offensive spark, Walker rose to the occasion; following a consistent theme since his sophomore season.
Walker is a volume scorer who doesn’t need to handle the ball for entire possessions at a time to get the job done. He proved that with his 23-point outing against Phoenix on May 2, finishing +4 in a loss by hitting 3-of-6 triples in the process. He did something similar on April 22, when he dropped 18 points and three assists on 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range.
I’d be misrepresenting Walker's season if I didn’t mention his duds — Of which there were several without DeRozan in the lineup. He botched plenty of seemingly easy layups and had numerous shooting nights that tanked his season-long field goal percentage. Regardless, Walker can replicate many of the core concepts the Spurs’ former go-to offensive centerpiece provided over the last three seasons in silver and black.
According to Player Lineup Context data from BBall-Index, the San Antonio Spurs had their second-best scoring gravity rating and third-best finishing at the rim rating with Walker on the floor. Much of this can be attributed to his dynamic agility and three-level scoring threat. While the masses haven’t caught on quite yet, NBA defenders are aware of Lonnie's capabilities. They already hone in on him defensively, tracking his movements to prevent one of his signature scoring onslaughts.
Walker’s burst and explosiveness draw defenders in from the perimeter and toward his driving lane, which generates better shots for cutters and bigs like Jakob Poeltl waiting in the dunker spot. This is all happening before Walker has come close to finishing consistently from the mid-range or restricted area, which were his strong suits as a freshman at the University of Miami.
That poses the question: Why are defenders so keyed-in on Lonnie Walker despite him being an average 3-point shooter and below-average finisher on the surface level? It’s because he’s excellent at manipulating his body and using his athleticism to either score through or around defenders. Additionally, Walker’s passing vision is far overlooked as he’s arguably the Spurs’ second-best passer behind Derrick White at this point.
Walker also had the third-highest matchup difficulty on the team behind perennial All-Defense candidate Dejounte Murray and oft-injured combo guard Derrick White. Heading into a contract year, Lonnie has an opportunity to show the basketball world what he’s truly capable of as ball-dominant DeRozan and bench scorer extraordinaire Patty Mills vacate the roster.