Did the Spurs make the right call with Lonnie Walker?
By Dylan Carter
What do the masses make of Lonnie Walker IV? Now in his fourth year out of Miami, the pride of Reading, Pennsylvania has been a joy for San Antonio Spurs fans to root for. His inquisitive nature and tireless work ethic make him an ideal fit for the Spurs' culture while his volume shooting and extensive range hide deficiencies in the team’s rotation.
Walker’s true shooting percentage has increased with each year of his NBA career thus far, but he has yet to crack 42.6% from the field. His scoring average improved by nearly five points per game from year two to three and projects to take another leap this season. Despite a bevy of encouraging signs along the way, the extent of his upside has yet to fully translate on the court. This likely played into GM Brian Wright’s decision not to sign Walker to a long-term contract extension.
Allowing Walker to enter restricted free agency will help the team maintain its cap flexibility heading into the 2022 offseason. The 18th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft class remains an afterthought to the masses with the triad of Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all signing max extensions.
The extension market showed intriguing trends when it pertains to Walker’s future salary. Phoenix signed 3-point specialist Landry Shamet to a four-year, $42.5 million contract at an average of $10.6 million per year. Milwaukee extended Grayson Allen on a two-season deal paying him $8.5 million per year while Terrance Mann, a talented second-round talent from the 2019 class, returns to the Clippers for $22 million over two years.
These deals are likely closer to the financial range that Walker would’ve earned this offseason based on his shaky production across his first three seasons. Given the uncertain nature of his impact from night to night, Walker’s flashes haven’t shined bright enough to justify paying him based on possibilities.
Unlocking Lonnie's sky-high potential
When considering his three-level scoring capability, length, and astonishing athletic ability, Walker has tremendous potential. Though it would take a magnificent leap, there is a world in which Lonnie develops into the Spurs’ leading scorer moving forward. That’s currently amplified by his bench role, which head coach Gregg Popovich has suggested is to take initiative for a group that doesn’t have many natural scorers.
“He can score, and we’re not a high-powered team offensively, so what he does for us will be very important throughout the season for sure,” Popovich said before the Spurs’ season-opener.
Severely limited by past constructions of the team, Lonnie finally has the green light to fire away in his contract year. Whether it’s been verbalized or not, San Antonio is giving their swingman a shot to play for his next contract. Whether the team decides to offer him a new deal or match an offer sheet is yet to be determined, but all parties are hopeful that Walker will develop into the player that his highlights suggest he may become.
While the raw percentages have been quite ugly through three games, Walker clearly put in the work he needed to this offseason. Through his social media posts showcasing new skills and late nights in the gym, Lonnie displayed potential improvements to his ball-handling, defense, and shooting off the dribble. As he gets his legs under him and grows comfortable leading the bench unit, the 22-year-old should inflate his shooting percentages while tacking on some boards, assists, and steals in the process.
An exceptional passer who has been hampered by turnover problems in the past, Walker’s skill-set looks to be refined compared with years past. He’s never been afraid to shoot but continues developing as a secondary ball-handler and initiator. There’s been a transparent improvement in his efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler—a talent that he’s been honing and expanding with each year since high school.
Walker is active on and off the ball, relocating for better shot opportunities while serving as a catch-and-shoot outlet for his teammates. In spite of his poor shooting percentages in the early going, Lonnie’s 111.5 offensive rating is the best of the team’s seven players with at least 60 minutes played so far. He’s not afraid to meld into the offense and defer to others when the hot hand arises. Inversely, he’ll never shy away from an opportunity to launch jumpers when the rest of his team falls flat in that department.
During the Spurs’ media availability on October 25, Walker was asked about his mentality going into this contract year. While he did not reach a contract extension with the team, Lonnie remains optimistic about his future in San Antonio.
After three years in the Alamo City, Walker has grown comfortable with his stomping grounds. Fans and community members have embraced him in a way that only San Antonians can. It’s an excellent place to hone his craft and continue building on a career trajectory with no ceilings.
“Absolutely. I think I’m a San Antonio, Texas guy myself,” Walker said. “I was at H-E-B and someone said ‘What’s up Guey?’ and I was like ‘I’m a part of this community now, you know?’”
Lonnie Walker controls his future
Essentially, Lonnie’s future in San Antonio lays in his own hands. In order to get a contract like those recently earned by Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, Lonnie should aim to score between 16 and 20 points per game. So long as he meets that range and finishes with a decent all-around stat line, which includes above-average shooting percentages with a few boards and assists, he’s going to get paid this offseason.
With that being said, Walker can’t afford to fall flat this season if he wants to stay with the Spurs. A fan favorite already, rookie Joshua Primo will presumably command minutes by the start of 2023 if not during the season half of this season. Additionally, sophomore Devin Vassell is blossoming into a better defender and potentially a more consistent jump shooter than Lonnie already.
One way or another, this year is pivotal to Walker’s career trajectory. He’s going to get plenty of scoring opportunities—particularly against other bench players. Generational wealth is at stake, and while Walker is going to get paid one way or another, his performance this year will dictate the way he's viewed in terms of his long-term fit in the NBA.
Though one thing is clear: If Lonnie lives up to his potential, the league better watch out.