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Improving on fundamentals should bring out the best of Lonnie Walker

Walker has elite physical tools and obvious skill. Now he needs to work on the small things that will help him maximize his immense talent.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Lonnie Walker IV is one of the league’s most confusing players. His talent is evident but so far he’s not been able to find the consistency necessary to emerge as a player to build around. When he’s on, he can be electric, and his upside seems unlimited. When he’s off, he disappears on offense and actively hurts the team on defense.

As he enters a crucial fourth year, Lonnie will need to show that there are things he can do night-in and night-out. They don’t have to be the most glamorous things. In fact, the best way for him to show that he’s worth a long term investment would be to improve on the fundamentals.

With that in mind, let’s look at two very specific areas in which Lonnie could realistically improve to add some steadiness to his already alluring game.

Walker’s lack of fundamentals can’t continue to negate his explosiveness

The most common misconception about Lonnie Walker IV is that he’s a shot creator. It’s understandable that he has that reputation since he came into the league after a year of handling a big share of the offensive burden for the University of Miami and has shown some flashes of potential in that area in a handful of NBA games. But in the aggregate, there’s very little that suggests that Walker could thrive in a big on-ball role, at least at this point.

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. A lack of self creation plus a tendency to cough up the ball is a bad combination.

Part of it why Lonnie didn’t create is explained by the role and the teammates he had. Walker was used mostly as a shooter, so if a three wasn’t there, he would just reset by giving the ball back to DeMar DeRozan or Dejounte Murray. But the worrisome thing is that when he did get a chance to try to get a bucket by attacking closeouts or working the pick and roll, his lack of fundamentals was glaring. Travelling violations, stepping out of bounds, jumping to pass and having nowhere to go — they were all a problem for Walker.

Lonnie simply made too many bad decisions that led to empty possessions, which is exactly what this year’s team can’t afford. The new Spurs could really struggle to score in the half court even if they execute well, so any advantages they get need to result in good shots. They’ll need Walker to be more assertive, but they’ll also need him to be more effective when he does attack. Even if he just triggers the next rotation with his drives, he’d be helping a lot, but to do that he’ll need to avoid making predictable bailout passes and to stop making unforced errors.

Lonnie should get more touches in the half court because there’s likely still plenty of untapped potential in him as a scorer. It will be fine if he’s more Keldon Johnson than DeRozan, at least next season. The biggest leap he needs to make is all about his footwork and his decision-making when he attacks, even if it is off the catch. The rest can be built from there.

Walker’s help defense can’t be a liability anymore

Walker has had to change roles on the fly a lot of times on offense, which partially explains why sometimes he seems lost. He’s also been asked to guard the opponent’s best perimeter threat, and understandably had a hard time getting stops. He has legitimate excuses for struggling on those situations, but there’s no explaining away his often terrible off-ball defense.

Part of it it’s just about a lack of activity. Despite having elite physical traits, Walker is surprisingly non-disruptive. In the last year he barely averaged more than a stock (steals + blocks) per 36 minutes, tied for last on the team among perimeter players with Keldon Johnson, who for long stretches played power forward. He was second to last, barely above Keldon, in deflections per game and comfortably last in loose balls recovered. Walker logged a single charge in the entire season. Some of his numbers were slightly better the year before last, especially steals, but were never great, and it’s a little concerning that the more minutes he plays, the less of a direct impact he seems to have on defense. But the numbers, while helpful, don’t paint the full picture of how much Lonnie struggles as a help defender.

Lonnie is bad when he’s at the nail: the part of the court around the free throw line in which help defenders can make a huge impact. The player at the nail is asked to help disrupt drives (or dig in on post-ups) and recover if the action comes his way. Walker is a liability there. He often overcommits without actually getting a steal or even a deflection, which means leaving a shooter open one pass away. Sometimes he hesitates and doesn’t help until it’s too late, and an opponent gets to the paint unbothered. He also struggles making the right rotation on the weak side, as he often doesn’t know when to stay with his man and when to X-out and rotate to help the helper.

It’s all fixable, fortunately. Walker might not have the instincts to be a ball hawk or the anticipation skills of a defensive savant, but he doesn’t need to be the best defender on the team. Luckily for him, he should also play a lot more with Devin Vassell this season, who even as a rookie proved to be a special off-ball defender. A little more discipline at the nail and a little more understanding of what rotation to make will help him a lot, and both can come with experience. It will be on the coaching staff to stay on him, because the veterans that used to constantly point out his mistakes are gone. But if Lonnie wants to learn — and his high character and reportedly good work ethic suggests he surely does — he should be able to.

It’s often hard for a young player to grasp the intricacies of NBA defenses, which is why sometimes lineups with veterans who are mediocre individual defenders fare better than youthful units filled with athletic guys. With time and effort, normally the young guys catch up. Hopefully in what will be his third season as a rotation player, Walker will figure out how to defend off the ball better.

Walker is one of the hardest Spurs to discuss, because he has the widest gaps in potential vs. production and perception vs. reality out of anyone on the roster. A part of the fanbase focuses solely on what he is while the other prefers to think of what he could be. It’s an understandable divide in which both sides have good points to make.

To be fair to everyone, including Walker, it’s best to be blunt but hopeful: Lonnie has struggled with the fundamentals on both ends so far in his career, but that doesn’t mean he will never improve. With an expanded role and another year of experience, maybe Lonnie can finally blossom into a player who not only can play a complementary role, but is worth building around.