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The Spurs and the Lonnie Walker Situation

Lonnie is in the awkward position of being asked to do too little on the deep Spurs roster.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest reasons for the San Antonio Spurs’ success over the years has been their depth. Somehow they’ve always managed to have a bench capable of maintaining or even extending leads. This year is no exception, as they have a lot of good, or at least serviceable, players in the second unit.

Accumulating talent is not the only thing that makes a team deep, though. There needs to be cohesion and defined roles. Take the league-best Utah Jazz and their Sixth Man of the Year front-runner Jordan Clarkson: he’s strictly there for scoring, which frees up the rest of his bench mates to do other things.

But what happens when too much depth creates an overlap of skill sets that forces a player into a role that might not suit them? With veterans, the situation is often resolved with a trade. With young players who could be a big part of the future but don’t seem to fit in the present, things gets trickier. That’s the position Lonnie Walker IV finds himself in.

After being drafted 18th overall in 2018, Lonnie spent most of his rookie season in Austin, and in his second year, he averaged a mere 16.2 minutes per game. This year, he’s started 26 of the 29 games he’s played in, but that’s due to Derrick White being out with an injured toe, and more recently for health and safety protocols. Since Derrick’s return on January 30, and before the COVID outbreak that temporarily vaulted him into the starting lineup again, Lonnie was averaging just 19.8 minutes, down from playing 30.7 in the games without Derrick. As soon as everyone is back healthy, the team will need to find minutes for these two, as well as their other guards and wings: DeMar DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills and Devin Vassell.

It’s fair to assume Walker IV won’t be getting close to 30 minutes again when that happens. Before their four-game postponement, the Spurs were playing the best they have all season with Lonnie in a minimal role. The days of Walker starting and playing heavy minutes will probably be over soon, at least for this season. It’s not really surprising, since he hasn’t been great individually, but there have been spurts where he’s flashed how great of a passer, shooter, defender, and athlete he is. Unfortunately, despite those encouraging moments, the term that comes to mind when people discuss him is “inconsistent”.

But is it actually Walker’s fault that he can’t really find his footing, either in the starting lineup or the second unit? If you look across the league at the players who are the most inconsistent, you’ll see one thing that is consistent among them: a lack of a suitable role.

At the moment, Lonnie seems to be stuck in no-man’s land. If it was obvious that he was merely a catch-and-shoot 3-and-D wing, we wouldn’t need to have this discussion, but those spurts mentioned earlier show that he has an all-around game, one that could be the most explosive on the entire roster. There’s no doubt that he’s at his best when he’s aggressive, but he’s being asked to take a backseat to Dejounte Murray, Derrick, and DeMar DeRozan. You can tell he’s well-aware of the position he’s in, because when he struggles, you can practically see his mind running alongside him on the court, thinking through every move, whether he should take it to the rim or pass it to the other guards and let the play develop more. This thought-process leads to hesitation, which in turn leads to that inconsistent play, and inconsistent play drives everybody crazy.

Unfortunately for Lonnie, given the roster and the way the Spurs are playing, he can’t escape the uncomfortable situation he’s in. Despite clearly having talent to spare, he’s essentially being asked to become the new Danny Green, just with a higher usage. He’s there to guard the best player on the court for the opposition and spot up for threes, while the more established young players and more reliable veterans play bigger roles. This is something he has the ability to do, but it simply doesn’t feel like it’s what fits his game the best.

Unless the Spurs make a move before the trade deadline to get rid of one of their veteran scorers, which is unlikely considering their history and their place in the West, we’ll have to continue watching a young player desperately try to find his way — shining at times, disappointing at others.

Hopefully he’ll get there eventually, because it would truly be a shame to never see the full potential of Lonnie Walker IV unleashed in a Spurs jersey.