Ever since Lonnie Walker IV was picked by San Antonio in the 2018 NBA draft, Spurs fans have been mesmerized by his athletic gifts and sky-high potential. After playing limited minutes for most of his first two seasons in the league, Walker was finally unleashed in Orlando, where he averaged more than 27 minutes per game over the final eight matches of the Spurs’ season. He showed off a smooth looking jump shot and had multiple highlight-reel dunks, but there were times when Walker looked lost on the floor and his questionable decision-making begged the question of how high his ultimate ceiling is.
One element of Walker’s game that stands out the most is his shooting since he possesses a textbook release and lets the ball fly without hesitation. Over his brief NBA career, he has shot over 40% from beyond the arc, though on only 1.5 attempts per game. However, Walker significantly increased his volume of shots in Orlando, shooting close to 4 threes per game while still converting at a 40% clip.
These are extremely small sample sizes, but his confidence in his shot along with the high percentage indicates that he can develop into a very good long-range shooter, if he isn’t one already. Moreover, the fact that he’s doing it at a young age is an encouraging sign, since many players take years to become reliable shooters from distance. With Chip Engelland by his side, I have no doubt that Walker will continue to convert threes at an elite rate and help space the floor for the Spurs.
With his jaw-dropping athletic gifts, on-ball defence is another strong component of Walker’s game. Standing at 6”5 with a 6”10 wingspan, he’s able to wreak havoc on opposing ballhandlers with active hands and has shown the willingness to bring focus on the defensive end. Walker’s length makes it tough for players to blow past him and his explosiveness allows him to recover quickly if he’s caught flat-footed. With experience, his defensive versatility can improve even more and there’s no reason why Walker won’t become a switchable defender who can guard multiple positions at a high level.
Due to his speed, Walker is a menace when he decides to attack the rim, but his ball-handling and finishing often prevent him from converting layups. His handle is loose, which can cause his dribble to be disrupted by opposing defenders. Moreover, Walker often pulls up for floaters instead of driving straight to the basket. His left hand is a liability around the rim, which makes Walker hesitant to drive when he doesn’t see his preferred path to the basket. Given his size, it’s odd that he seems to shy away from contact, but that’s the kind of thing that will disappear once he’s developed a better layup package.
Walker isn’t a great playmaker, as he has never averaged more than two assists per game even back in college. He often gets tunnel vision when he decides to drive. That shouldn’t be too concerning because the Spurs don’t need him to become their primary ballhandler/playmaker with their plethora of guards. Walker’s passing game showed improvement in Orlando, as he averaged over four assists in the final three games in the bubble.
Unlike his skills as an all-ball defender, Walker’s team defense leaves much to be desired. He often looks disengaged when his man doesn’t have the ball and can be caught off guard when the opposition makes cuts to the basket. There are also times when Walker only seems to lock down when playing on-ball defence. With some more experience, he will become a much better team defender, as Walker has already stated that he wants to be a reliable player in his own end.
Lonnie is a true boom or bust player; he has the highest ceiling of all the young Spurs due to his athletic gifts but is just as likely to end up as a mere rotation player who provides some pop off the bench. If he does reach his full potential, he can become a Victor Oladipo type, a perennial all-star who might even make a few all-NBA teams and could be considered a top 25-30 player who can serve as the second option on a championship-level team.
On the other hand, if Walker never improves his decision making, he could end up as a bench player who could provide some scoring with the second unit. The biggest hurdle preventing him from reaching his potential is his basketball IQ since he looks lost on the court more often than not. Even though this happens to almost every young player, it’s even more noticeable with Walker; there are times when he seems unstoppable when driving to the rim but then disappears on the very next possession. For the most part, he doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do and sometimes comes off as being passive on both ends of the court.
The concerning part about this is the fact that decision making is arguably the hardest aspect of basketball to improve in. It’s very difficult to process the game at the highest level if a player doesn’t inherently have an elite basketball IQ. Fortunately, with the right coaching, it’s still feasible for a player like Walker to become a good but not great decision-maker, and I have no doubt that he will be able to do that in San Antonio.
Taking everything into consideration, Walker will likely end up becoming a good but sub-Allstar level guard who can average just under 20 points on decent efficiency while spacing the floor and being a very reliable defender. With his work ethic and maturity, he’ll be able to vastly improve his ballhandling and finishing ability, which would make him one of the hardest players to stop when attacking the basket.
However, I don’t see Walker becoming more than a passable playmaker and I think his lack of an elite basketball IQ will land him just shy of hitting his full potential. He could serve as the third-best player on a championship level team but San Antonio probably won’t make it far if he’s their first or second option. Ultimately, he seems destined to become one of the better guards in the league whose versatility makes him an integral piece to any team. Walker’s tantalizing physical gifts might forever leave Spurs fans wanting more, but he will still become a very good player in the near future.