The Spurs made a lot of roster moves yesterday because, well, they had to. It was the deadline to get the roster trimmed down to 15 guaranteed contracts, so they predictably waived Al-Farouq Aminu. While they were in the act of completing the roster, they picked up former Lakers two-way player and Nets training camp signee Devontae Cook off the waivers and made him their second two-way player. Finally, they exercised the team options of two of their most promising draftees of the last three summers, Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell, to guarantee they are on the roster through at least 2022-23.
None of those moves are at all surprising or stand out on their own, but there is something missing. It’s something that again is not surprising, but it does stand out: fourth-year swingman Lonnie Walker IV did not sign a contract extension, meaning he will become a restricted free agent next summer. It’s not surprising considering Walker seems to have yet to show his best form, give a good indicator of his value, and could easily earn more with a breakout season.
However, it stands out in the sense that the Spurs showed zero hesitancy when extending their prior two first round picks — Dejounte Murray and Derrick White — even when the former was coming off a missed season due to a potential career-altering injury, and neither were perceived to have higher ceilings than Walker when they were drafted. On top of that, it’s easy to assume that the Spurs will extend Johnson as soon as possible (next summer), and if Vassell keeps his rapidly rising trajectory going, he may be in line for a extension offer in 2023, so what’s different with Walker?
Why an extension didn’t happen
The difference with Walker’s situation is unlike Murray and White, who already had established roles and had made their value known by their third seasons, Walker has not established an identity with the club. After patiently biding his time during his first two seasons, he finally got a chance to show what he could do with consistent minutes last season, but he disappointed to a certain degree (depending who you ask).
He got chances both as a starter and off the bench and had his usual explosive moments. His scoring and overall stats took a nice leap to 11.2 points per game in 25.4 minutes, but his shooting percentages took a dip with nearly double the attempts (from .426/.406 FG/3P% in 2020 to .420/.355 in 2021). Also, just as often as he’d burst onto the scene and stand out among an otherwise “boring” style of play, he’d disappear for quarters at time. That inconsistency and uncertainty about his role — starting or coming off the bench didn’t make much of difference in his level of play — is more than likely the main culprit in his lack of an extension, and it doesn’t help that he’s battling it out in the Spurs’ deepest position with equally promising talent lurking all around him.
On top of Walker’s inconsistent play and lack of a defined role, the Spurs are also likely interested in maintaining cap flexibility next summer, when they should have upwards of $38 million in cap space available if they don’t take on any contracts that expand past this season in a trade. Some of that could be used on Walker, but it will also be the Spurs’ best chance to snag a big name from a deep free agency class since they lured LaMarcus Aldridge away from Portland in 2016.
This doesn’t mean Walker is gone
It’s all speculative, but odds are the Spurs gave Walker an offer below Murray’s $64 million, and he declined. (A decent player current comparison when considering what type of offer the Spurs may have extended would be the Sun’s Landry Shamet, who just accepted a 4-year, $43 million extension.) Walker — and his agency: the notorious Klutch Sports — likely knows what everyone knows: he can be better, and he can make more money if he shows it in his fourth season. He’s shown what he can be in spurts, and with this being his second season knowing he will get steady minutes while also playing in an offense more suited to his get-out-and-run style, now is the time prove what he can do on a consistent basis.
If he does, his value will go up. If he impresses the Spurs enough, they could give him a qualifying next summer offer based on what they see his value as, not just minimum required. If he’s happy with it and wants to stay, he could accept it and avoid restricted free agency, similar to what Jakob Poeltl did in 2020 after the Spurs did not extend him in 2019. If the Spurs still aren’t sure what Walker’s value is, they could let the market decide, like they did with Kyle Anderson and Cory Joseph. Although both of those players ended up leaving under offers the Spurs weren’t willing to match, Walker is better, and the Spurs will have more cap space to work with if they really want to keep him and are willing to match any reasonable offer.
It’s a win-win for both sides
In the end, both sides benefit from this situation. For the Spurs, they aren’t bound to a player who hasn’t completely proven himself yet, and they should get the best out of a motivated player who has been working extra hard all offseason and is on a mission to prove his worth. If he does just that, they will have the cap space to keep him. If he doesn’t, or if the Spurs believe they can get more from Vassell or Josh Primo down the road, they can let Walker walk either by not extending a qualifying offer (therefore making him an unrestricted free agent) or by not matching any offers in restricted free agency. If that ends up being the case, it would mean the Spurs believe they have the talent to make up for his loss, and it wouldn’t be a huge hit to the roster.
For Walker, he has all the motivation he needs to earn himself a bigger payday, as well as a chance to move on if he decides the current situation isn’t right for him. He’s the type of high-upside player someone will take a gamble on, even if it ends up not being the Spurs. (Assuming Klutch doesn’t blow if for him like they did with Nerlens Noel, at least.)
So far, Walker has been a professional and is saying all the right things. He doesn’t appear begrudged, likely knows the Spurs aren’t done with him, and he isn’t done with them. He said as much yesterday, even acknowledging the comparison to Poeltl’s situation at the same point in his career (beginning at the 2:24 mark.)
It has certainly been an interesting several days, with the Spurs waiving one former first-round pick before his third season and not extending another beyond his fourth, but that’s hardly the stain on their recent drafting reputation as some would like to think given that at least part of Walker’s situation is centered around other players they have drafted simply outshining him. (And it’s not like Walker has been a pushover.)
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the Spurs this season, even if they may not end up being a playoff team, and one will be seeing what a motivated Lonnie Walker does in a contract year. With his athleticism and exciting brand of basketball, it should be fun.