The best thing about rebuilding with young talent is to see those prospects take a step forward in their development as a season goes on. Derrick White honed his three-point shooting, which made the bubble a lot more enjoyable. Dejounte Murray has improved his finishing ability this season, which has made even the losses more palatable.
The next two young guys who are expected to make a leap are Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson. Both players have already showed their worth this season and could actually get more freedom and playing time to develop with White out for a while. Hopefully they’ll take that opportunity to erase the two biggest issues they have right now. Let’s look at what the next step should be for each.
Lonnie Walker IV still can’t finish with his left hand
Walker has taken a huge step forward as a shooter this season, upping his volume while maintaining his efficiency from outside. He’s also traded a lot of the mid-range jumpers he used to take for threes and shots at the rim and is not disappearing as often while playing off the ball. Considering he’s a decent defender already, he has emerged as a viable 3-and-D wing. But he could be so much more.
Walker IV is one of the most explosive athletes in the league. His still-developing handle hinders his shot creation ability, but once he gets a path to the basketball, he’s a terror to defenders. That is, as long as he can finish with his right hand.
This is an old problem that has not gone away. By my count, Walker IV has only finished near the rim with his left hand once this season, on a wide open attempt. His preference is clear and understandable, and if it was not causing him issues, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, his predilections affects his aggressiveness and makes him less effective.
Instead of going all the way to the rim, Walker IV often contorts his body in the air when he’s going left and settles for off-balance floaters with his right hand instead of potential layups. When he does go all the way to the rim going left, he either lacks touch or he switches hands to finish, which prevents him from using his body and off arm to protect his shot.
Walker IV has been finishing at the rim at an acceptable level for now, so this might not seem like a big issue, but considering Lonnie’s style of play and his underwhelming free throw shooting volume, he can’t afford to really have any weaknesses as a finisher at the rim. Hopefully he’ll get more comfortable finishing or at least looking for contact when using his left hand, learn to change directions deceptively to create room for himself on the right side (think Manu’s Eurostep) or develop better balance on floaters or a short jumper going left.
Keldon Johnson can’t pass on drives yet
Just like Walker IV, Johnson has a predilection to go right on drives, but so far it hasn’t mattered, because instead of contorting his body to avoid contact, Johnson often goes right at the defender. By muscling his way to the rim and drawing fouls, Johnson has become one of the best at getting points on drives in the league early this season.
There is one issue, however, that he faces often when he ventures to the rim. The same single-minded desire to get to the bucket by any means necessary that makes Johnson a great finisher also makes him a very bad passer on drives.
Johnson has a bit of a turnover problem on drives so far, but it’s acceptable because of how aggressive he is. He’s also not expected to be a playmaker at this stage of his career, so his low volume of assists is not a big issue yet. But it would be encouraging to see him improve even marginally his vision and decision-making on drives, especially with White out, since he has the potential to generate offense not only for himself but for others by getting to the rim. At this point, he’s completely unable to do that consistently.
Johnson sometimes misses open passes when he tunnel-visions on drives and often passes as a last resort. The former is forgivable as long as he keeps scoring, but the latter makes him too predictable and can cause some issues like live-ball turnovers, as Johnson sometimes panics and telegraphs his passes when his way to the basket is impeded. Smart defenses will start overhelping on his drives to force him to make good decisions, which he’s so far struggled to make.
Repetition and experience will hopefully be enough to get Johnson more comfortable with reading the floor and passing out of some of those drives if help comes. For Walker IV, it could be tougher to solve his issue if it’s not solely a matter of confidence in his off hand, but it’s too soon into his career to truly worry.
Fortunately, despite their current limitations both Walker IV and Johnson are valuable contributors because of everything else they bring to the table. Yet it’s still exciting to project just how much harder to guard they could be if they round up their games. With White out for a while and a whole season ahead of them, their progress will be fun to track.