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Determining if Lonnie Walker IV can become the second-unit playmaker the Spurs desperately need

How the third-year guard is making strides as a passer and why his immediate development could play an important role in San Antonio's longterm plans

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Several Spurs pundits had Lonnie Walker IV pegged for a breakout sophomore campaign a season ago after the second-year swingman put together a stellar Summer League stint and a handful of promising preseason appearances.

As you probably know by now, head coach Gregg Popovich swiftly made a fool out of overzealous blog boys as Lonnie almost immediately found himself in the doghouse and failed to establish himself in the regular rotation two months into the season.

Of course, Walker would go on to have a tour de force performance against the Rockets in December, carrying the Silver and Black to a massive come from behind victory, racking up a career-high 28 points, and ostensibly cementing his status as an everyday player.

I eagerly clacked away at my keyboard to proclaim this offensive outburst as a sign of things to come from the springy shooting guard yet once again missed the mark when his subsequent outing resulted in an inconsequential two points in a team-low 11 minutes of action.

Although Lonnie recaptured a bit of the magic from his earlier masterpiece in brief moments throughout the rest of the season, he never came close to replicating the production that had fans clamoring for more of the former first-rounder, and it wasn’t necessarily all his fault.

Shot selection, defensive miscues, and struggles finishing at the rim rest squarely on his shoulders. However, the curious call to keep Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes ahead of Walker on the depth chart for most of the year undoubtedly made it tough to build any rhythm, consistency, or confidence.

This point became abundantly clear when Lonnie flourished during the NBA Restart. And while the previously mentioned flaws lingered, the six-five two-guard posted 11.3 points per game across eight contests in the bubble, doubling his season average from before the hiatus.

Walker’s breakthrough of sorts wasn’t an accident. Without Bryn or Marco occupying nearly 40 minutes of court-time each night, the Miami alum was awarded extended minutes and allowed to play freely and learn from his mistakes as they happened.

Not only did he respond to his newfound responsibilities with some of his best basketball of the season, but he revealed an aptitude for playmaking as a passer. Lonnie dished an array of difficult dimes in transition and recorded the fourth-most assists of any Spur to suit up in Orlando.

As impressive as he was at spotting teammates on fastbreaks during the seeding games, Lonnie logged a healthy assist-to-turnover ratio that hovered around 2:1. And despite rarely operating as the hub of the offense, the gifted 21-year-old flashed potential as an initiator.

But how much does this recent discovery matter when San Antonio has Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and DeMar DeRozan acting as primary creators? And with finite touches to go around, where can the Spurs squeeze in Lonnie as a facilitator?

Factor in the return of LaMarcus Aldridge to the starting lineup, and suddenly Lonnie figures to be less involved in the offense than ever before. Well, it might not be his preferred option, but the Spurs could find Lonnie a high-usage role if he buys into coming off the bench.

And considering Patty Mills has talked about transitioning into an off-ball scorer more reminiscent of his FIBA playstyle, someone will have to pick up his floor general duties. Second-round rookie Tre Jones could fit the bill, but how likely is San Antonio to ask that much of him this soon?

Lonnie is far from perfect. His ball-handling needs drastic improvement, he’s unproven as a half-court option, and one eight-game sample size isn’t enough to say he can be the engine that makes the second-unit run. Honestly, we don’t even know if he can execute a routine pick-and-roll with regularity. Nonetheless, he’s given us enough glimpses to be given a chance.

Aside from the high-speed hoops that came with San Antonio’s complete stylistic overhaul, the Walt Disney World experience taught us a valuable lesson. While the G-League can unquestionably play a substantial part in prospect development, the most important and noticeable strides come from competing against NBA competition and learning on the job.

Lonnie completed his mandatory rookie rite of passage through the Austin Spurs system years ago, and you could argue riding the pine while limited veterans floundered only hindered his growth. Pop already loosened the proverbial leash, and there’s no sense in tightening it up again.

That’s not to say he shouldn’t be held answerable by the coaching staff. No one should have the liberty to make errors without consequence. Still, one only has to look back two decades to find a perfect example of Pop practicing patience and accountability with a teenage Tony Parker.

The three-time NBA Coach of the Year also followed similar values when handling the famously flashy wildcard that was Manu Ginobili. And though promising that Lonnie will approach the stratosphere of those two future Hall of Famers would be irresponsible, I firmly believe he can become a special player in his own right if granted the opportunity to shine.

San Antonio should strongly consider employing Walker as a substitute if they’re seriously committed to replicating their small-ball formula with as few hiccups as possible heading into a new season. Freeing up touches could be the key to making a slightly ball-dominant starting-five coexist, and it could benefit Lonnie’s progress in the long run.

DeRozan and Aldridge are still the focal points of the franchise, yet that almost definitely won’t be the case a year from now. Both are aging stars of a by-gone era, and both are on expiring contracts. Don’t be surprised if either former All-Star is traded or walks away for nothing to join a contender in free agency next summer.

Whether we want to admit it or not, the Spurs are in the middle of a genuine rebuild for the first time since the organization won the lottery and drafted Tim Duncan first overall in 1997. And that might seem like a bummer at first glance, but salary cap experts project the Silver and Black to have upwards of $50M to spend in the 2021 offseason.

San Antonio isn’t a traditional free-agent destination, so what good is all that money? While it may be wishful thinking, convincing a marquee name to join your cause begins with building an attractive roster. And if Lonnie, as well as Derrick, Dejounte, Keldon Johnson, Luka Samanic, and Devin Vassell, mature into valuable two-way pieces, the Spurs could make for a convincing location for a superstar in search of a lengthy title window.