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Lonnie Walker has made a subtle but important improvement

Walker is starting to look more comfortable as a secondary shot creator, which could help him find a place long term with the Spurs.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

After not signing an extension in the offseason, Lonnie Walker IV entered a crucial year in his career. With a good season in an expanded role in San Antonio, a big new contract with the Spurs or elsewhere will await him. No signs of growth, and he’ll probably have to experience the journeyman life for a while.

It’s still very early, but Walker is showing some subtle but encouraging signs of improvement. He’s not having a breakout season, but in small ways, the 22-year-old wing has started to look the part of a valuable contributor, at least on one end.

As we explored this offseason, the two parts of Walker’s game that needed the most urgent development were his help defense and his ability to create. It’s hard to say if he’s gotten significantly better on the Spurs’ own end, since the team’s new identity relies on creating chaos and flying around, but Lonnie seems to be helping more than he hurts, at least at the team level.

It’s on offense, however, where Walker seems on his way to making a leap that seemed unlikely before the season, considering his recent past:

In the two years he’s been a rotation player, Walker has scored unassisted on only about 30 percent of his buckets: a very low amount. A significant percentage of his points in the paint came in transition, not against a set defense. His free throw numbers are low. Last season, in a relatively small but still decent amount of attempts, Walker ranked in just the 17th percentile scoring as a pick-and-roll ball handler and a less-awful-but-still-bad 34th percentile as an isolation scorer, according to Synergy Sports. Most damning, in both categories he led all Spurs in turnover frequency, and he was also turnover prone on drives.

Those numbers were damming, but so far this season, Walker has scored unassisted on 42 percent of his buckets and has seen a 36.9 percent jump on the percentage of his two-pointers that he’s self-created. Walker’s points per possession in transition have not been great, but he’s made up for it by surprisingly ranking really highly in the half court, according to Synergy Sports. Lonnie has only gotten a handful of isolation opportunities, so it’s too early to tell if he’s improved there, but he has been among the best in the league in the pick and roll, ranking in the 97 percentile. He’s halved his turnover percentage in that setting and has seen a smaller but still significant dip in turnovers on drives.

Not only has Walker become a less mistake-prone, more reliable self-creator, but he’s also improved greatly at creating for others, which was not an area in which he had showed a lot of promise before. Walker went from averaging single digits in assist percentage to getting to 14.2 percent, the fifth best mark on the team, among rotation players. He’s been fantastic at making opponents collapse after a ball screen and passing to the perimeter to teammates that suddenly find themselves with an advantage. He might not be getting flashy assists, but Lonnie is doing something which is typically underrated: he’s making the defense move.

It’s a bonus that Devin Vassell seems to be his favorite target, and not only in the pick-and-roll. He’s assisted his fellow bench wing more than anyone else on the team has. Vassell might prove too valuable to keep out of the starting lineup eventually, but for now the Spurs seem to have a nice pairing between those two in the second unit. The bench, which seemed like a big question mark coming into the season, appears to at least have the makings of a good core with Walker as a secondary creator and Vassell as a finisher.

There have been some downsides and some areas in which the improvement has yet not come. Walker’s efficiency has stalled despite better shot selection. He’s taking more threes but struggling greatly with pull-ups, shooting a dismal 16.7 percent on them. In that area the burden of shot creation is hurting him. Similarly, while Walker is shooting a solid percentage in the paint, he’s not really getting to the line as much as a player of his level of athleticism should. There are still some possessions in which he doesn’t do much, in part because he’s not an intuitive cutter who can benefit from San Antonio’s new sets in which a big man distributes. His fundamentals, in a lot of ways, remain lacking. There’s plenty of room to grow.

Fortunately, he should have the time and opportunity to do so, since he’s playing regular minutes and finally has a role that suits him off the bench. It’s early, but Lonnie seems to be trending in the right direction.

Big leaps are always better than small, subtle improvements, but the Spurs will need both from their players, so it’s always good to salute those who keep getting better, even if they do it slowly.