FanPost

Should the Spurs extend Lonnie this summer? Part 1: Defense.


Starting this season, lot of fans, this one included, were worried about the logjam at the guards spot. Too many talented young wings would be competing for too few minutes. The condensed schedule and health and safety protocol put that concern to rest. However that might not be the case next season, which would also be the last of Lonnie contract. The Spurs will also be able to extend him, just like they did with Derick White and DeJounte Murray at the end of their third year. The question then, is has Lonnie showed enough -production or remaining upside- to warrant an extension? Should they keep their power dry as save the money to keep other player (Rudy Gay, Demar Derozan, Patty Mills)? Should they spend money on Lonnie Walker IV if Devin or Keldon take most of the minutes at the wing?
It is obviously too early, there is 40 games left for Lonnie to gain experience, a full normal offseason to work on his game and earn a contract, before actually extending him or not. However, before a crazy schedule hit the Spurs, I decided to dive a little into that question.

A few notes on the stats: All stats in the tabs from nba.com/stats unless specified otherwise. For Derrick I have sometimes chosen last season stats since he missed so many games so far. I prefer per36min stats to correct disparity in playing time, knowing that except for Vassel they all play around 30mpg. All stats before March 10th.


To begin, let's look at the depth chart.

Spurs guard depth

Height with shoes

Wingspan

Age

Dejounte Murray

6-5

6-10

25

Derrick White

6-4.5

6-7.5

27

Devin Vassel

6-5

6’10

20

Keldon Johnson

6-6

6-9

21

Lonnie Walker iV

6-4.5

6’10

22

Patty Mills

6’0.5

6’2

32

Tre Jones

6-2.5

6’4

21

Quinndary

6-4.25

6-9

24

Measurement from https://stats.nba.com/draft/combine-anthro/?SeasonYear=2006-07

That's 8 guards, almost half of the 17 NBA roster spot (including the two-way). The Spurs are making the most of it by playing Keldon Jonhson at the 4 and have Derrick White defend the best wing, even if that wing is Lebron James or Kawhi Leonard. I know lots of people see Keldon and Devin as SF. But I think they would be best suited at the 2. After all, during the Big 3 era, Manu (6'6) and DannyGreen (6'6 with a 6'10 wingspan) got most of their minutes in their prime at the 2, not the 3. Keldon would be even more efficient attacking SG rather than driving at Anthony Davis). Vassel is right at the average height and wingspan for NBA SF but he would have such an advantage playing the 2: he could just shot over most guards. For instance most people would say Klay Thomson is a SG. Yet he is 6'7 (with a short wingspan but still). Of course right now the Spurs can't do that because they do not have a big wing defender (Derozan have the tools but is a bad defender). Back to Lonnie. Imagine the Spurs acquire that big wing (and it takes Demar minutes) and another PF, either via draft or FA, now you have less minutes available at the 3 and 4 for Keldon and Vassel. With Derrick and Dejounte already playing 30mpg, you don't have that much minutes anymore to go around. Would it make sense to keep Lonnie if you have 4 players (5 if you keep Mills) ahead of him at SG/SF?

Rebounding: lagging behind.

NBA 2020/21 season per 36

Keldon

8,2

Lonnie

3,8

Dejounte

8,2

Derrick

5

Devin

6,6

Since his college day, Lonnie is not a big rebounder despite his size, strength, wingspan and athleticism.He corrals less rebounds than the other guards despite having the best tools. Last time he was in the summer league, the staff and himself stated that he had to step up in that area. But here we are 1 year latter and seemingly very little improvement has been made. Of course he could still improve there, but often when I watch him I feel like he is caught ball watching and forgot to box out. All past data, including G league or College indicates that Lonnie is just not a great rebounder.

Defense: worrying numbers.

I don't really believe in advanced stats regarding defense but I will just quote some for reference.

2020/21

Def Rtg

DBPM

Def RAPTOR

Keldon

112

-0.7

-1,6

Lonnie

117,4

-1.6

-4,8

Dejounte

108.0

1.2

-0,2

Derrick 2019/20

109,2

0.1

+2,2

Devin

102.2

1.9

+1,6

For context when Dejounte was All NBA defense 2nd team he had a +3,2 Def RAPTOR. That season Danny Green was +2,7. Those are really good number for guards.
Regarding Defensive raptor of 538.com they tend to attribute the Spurs defensive success to Jakob Poeltl only basically. Almost all Spurs guards ahave a negative Def RAPTOR except for Vassel.

I think Lonnie poor number can be explain by some context: Pop always challenge him by having to guard the opponent top option, leveraging Lonnie switchability and willingness on ball defense. It might also be to hide Lonnie subpar team defense. That could also be because Derrick miss a lot of time this year and he is usually assuming that role.
Still, at the end of the day, I think Keldon, Derrick, Dejounte and Devin Vassel are overall better defender especially off-ball for the last 3. Looking ahead, it is most likely they will remain better than Lonnie during their career, as the following defensive stats tend to demonstrate.
His hustle stat (deflections, loose ball recovery, charges, stocks, contested shots, per36 in table below) are not amazing. They are not bad but not very good neither, especially compare to other Spurs guards.

Hustle: great tools underwhelming results.

Defense stats, NBA 2020/21 season per36

Steals + block

Deflections

Loose ball recovery

Charges drawn

Total hustle+ stock

Contested shots

Keldon

1,5

1,7

1,2

0

4,4

8,6

Lonnie

1,3

1.9

0,5

0

3,8

6,2

Dejounte

2

3,4

1,1

0

6,5

6,6

Derrick 2019-20

2,2

2,1

1

0,6

5,9

12,3

Devin

3

3,7

1,2

0

7,9

8

There is great variance year to year in hustle stats but it is useful and informative nonetheless. Also while advanced stats can disagree on who is or isn't a great defender, hustle stats does a better job and or less contestable (except for steals or block). I trust them more because each one of them has a positive impact on the team: there is almost no instance were a contested shots leave your teammate at a disadvantage while steals can result from gambling (like Dejounte last year).

For context: Derrick was a NBA leader among guard in contested shots and Dejounte is 11th in the league in total deflections so far. Devin number might be inflated by his low playing time: he knows he going to play 15mpg so he plays harder which inflate his per36 number. If he was really playing 36 he might conserve energy and his number wouldn't be so great. It is something regular for rookie to have higher steal+blocks number than for the rest of their career.
If we focus on Lonnie, it appears that he has the worst number in all categories except (barely) for deflections. It is even more underwhelming since he plays at his best position and has the best physical tools (arguably tied with Dejounte Murray). Despite similar size and wingspan, we don't see Lonnie regularly picking his opponents pockets, sliding to take a charge or rotating to block a shot like Derrick does. He also doesn't read the passing lane like Devin.
Keldon hustle stats are only slightly better than Lonnie but it might be better if he didn't play the 4. Conversely, he might contest less shots if he plays on the perimeter more but that's not certain. Also Keldon can guard PF, something none of the other guards can do.

From what we have seen so far from Lonnie, it appears clearly that defense is not what set him apart from his Spurs' peer. Despite elite tools, he doesn't achieve as highly on that end of the floor. Keldon and Devin even with less experience appear better. Perhaps more importantly, it appears than Lonnie might never reach their level. I am not saying than Lonnie is a bad defender like Bryn Forbes or Marco Bellinelli were, his tools and his willingness to compete makes him passable. He does his job and hold its own. Unfortunately other young guards on the roster are just much better defensively.
Where Lonnie can separate himself is on offense.

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