One of the big questions the Spurs need to answer this offseason is whether they will offer Lonnie Walker IV a contract extension. The three-year veteran is eligible for one, and San Antonio has recently been locking down its perimeter players before they hit free agency, with both Dejounte Murray and Derrick White signing extensions before their fourth season.
There have been no reports of talks yet, but since extensions can’t officially be signed before August 3, that’s not surprising. There will surely be discussions within the franchise and maybe even an offer extended to Walker. It would certainly be great if both parties came to an agreement that is mutually beneficial, but it’s hard to see that happening, for two main reasons.
No one knows how good Walker is yet
The first obstacle to a Walker extension is that it’s extremely hard to gauge his value. Lonnie spent most of his rookie year in Austin and was then part of two of the strangest seasons in league history. The Spurs went through some big changes as well during that time, essentially transitioning from a traditional style to a small-ball identity while parting ways with a veteran star. Those special circumstances make it impossible to just look at Walker’s yearly production and figure out how he generally performed. Instead, his numbers need to be split into different segments to really be reflective of his play, and even then it’s hard to make definitive conclusions.
Up until the bubble, Walker started out as a bit player before getting more consistent minutes. The only thing that truly stood out during that time was his three-point shooting, as he sank 40 percent of his long balls in a decent number of attempts. During the bubble, Walker’s role grew and he showed more versatility by continuing to hit shots at a high level but also moving the ball well for a spread out, perimeter-oriented offense, logging three assists a game.
During the start of last season, he was forced into a starting role because of Derrick White’s injury and had to adjust to it while the team tried to incorporate Aldridge into the fold, which would prove impossible. Walker did well once again as a floor spacer while upping his volume but was used as a 3-and-D wing, which made it extremely hard to gauge his growth as a shot creator. He then had a chance to claim a bigger role when he returned to the bench, but he seemed tentative and was derailed by a COVID-related stoppage in play. In the end, he probably looked his best as a third perimeter option with the starters once Derrick White went down again.
So Walker was bit player and heavy minutes starter, a bench scorer and 3-and-D wing. It’s hard to be consistent amid so many shifts in roles. He’s done better in some situations than others, but we can find some constants. First, Walker is a good outside shooter. Not great, necessarily, but at least he’s someone who can hit at about league average from beyond the arc in catch-and-shoot situations, even at a high volume. Walker is also a fantastic athlete, boasting elite speed and jumping ability. Even if he hasn’t always used his gifts to great avail, athletic shooters have value, and he clearly is one.
The problem is his undeniable positive traits end there. Walker has the tools to be a plus defender, but his mistakes off the ball are glaring. He’s flashed potential as a shot creator that could make him a great sixth man, but in reality only about 30 percent of his buckets have been unassisted in the past two years. For comparison, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson created over 60 percent of his makes this past season. Walker can fairly point out to the fact that he’s played with ball dominant wings all his career, but that doesn’t change the fact that he hasn’t been a reliable go-to option.
The profile of Walker at this point is that of a decent 3-and-D wing (at least when it comes to man defense) with some off-the-bounce juice and the tools and potential to be much more, but not a lot of consistent production to go by.
It makes sense for both parties to wait
Because of the uncertainty about how good Walker really is and which role he suits best, signing an extension makes no sense for either Walker and the Spurs. San Antonio should not in any way offer him the type of money Derrick White and Dejounte Murray got, because he hasn’t produced like them and might not fit alongside them. But Walker shouldn’t sign a team-friendly deal now, either, because next season he could finally get a consistent role, turn upside into production and secure a bigger contract.
Now, if Walker were to become an unrestricted free agent in a year, the Spurs would probably be wise to bite the bullet, sign him to a sizable multi-year deal now and gamble on his potential. Since they could just extend him a qualifying offer in the summer of 2022 and match any offer sheet he gets, however, there is no real urgency. If a year from now Walker has solidified his place on the young core, the Spurs can extend him then, likely for a good deal, since restricted free agency might scare away suitors. If he remains solid but unspectacular and someone offers him too much money, they could just let him go, like they did with Cory Joseph, Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons, among others.
The only way the Spurs could truly regret not signing Walker to an extension would be if he turns into a legitimate star. Even then they would be able to retain him in restricted free agency, but he could harbor some resentment towards the franchise, like Gordon Hayward and Kawhi Leonard reportedly did, and eventually force his way out or leave at the first opportunity. Since nothing indicates at this point that such a huge leap is imminent, waiting seems like the smart thing to do. If the worst that can happen involves Walker becoming the star San Antonio desperately needs, the scenario can’t truly be too worrisome.
It’s possible Walker gets an extension. Sometimes players choose financial security over betting on themselves, even if it means potentially leaving some money on the table. Sometimes teams believe in a player’s potential to such a degree that previous production doesn’t matter as much as perceived upside. There will certainly be talks.
At this point, though, it would be a little surprising if an agreement is made. The Spurs could certainly use more time before deciding how much they think Walker is worth, and Walker could probably increase his future payoff by playing one more season and showing that he’s worthy of a serious investment.
Hopefully a year from now Walker will have proved he can be a reliable piece of the core and will ink a contract that keeps him in San Antonio for a long time, but for now waiting until his rookie deal ends before making any big decisions feels like the smartest option for everyone involved.