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An analytical approach to Lonnie Walker’s future with the Spurs

What measuring Lonnie against his 2018 draft class says about whether the Spurs should re-sign him.

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

As a fan, one of the hardest things to do is emotionally remove yourself and objectively look at a player. We spend years cheering for a player’s development and success, and it becomes difficult to assess their on-court contribution without bias. But objectivity is exactly what is required when teams are forced to make free agent decisions, and the NBA draft class of 2018 is deep into that process. In 2018, the San Antonio Spurs selected Lonnie Walker IV as the 18th overall pick. Of the 60 players drafted, he is roughly one of 38 that remain in the league. Furthermore, he is one of 23 that remain of those drafted in the first round.(1)

If the season ended today and PATFO had to decide whether to sign Walker or not, do his numbers (and those of his peers) point to him staying in San Antonio, or going elsewhere?

The Fourth Year

First-round draft picks are given a guaranteed two-year contract with the team options to extend the 3rd and 4th years. During the offseason before the 4th year, the players and teams can agree to a rookie scale extension that would begin after the 4th season. This past summer 11 first-round picks reached extension agreements (these include names like Luka, Trae, Shai, etc...). Thus, there are 12 remaining players whose teams exercised their 4th year option to retain them on the roster but did not reach an extension agreement this previous summer, and Walker is one of them.

Following this season, the Spurs have until June 30th to extended a qualifying offer to Lonnie worth approximately $6.3 million, this would make him a restricted free agent and give the Spurs right to match any competing offer from other teams. But if no offers arise they would still be committed to that one year, $6.3 million deal. After that season Lonnie would be an unrestricted free agent and free to join any team that offers a contract.

2018 Draft Class and Box Plus Minus

The chart above shows each remaining player of the 2018 draft based upon their draft slot and their career Box Plus Minus (BPM). The pink circles are players who have already signed contracts beyond this year, while the grey circles are free agents this summer. The pink circles are some obvious names with 6 of the top 8 in BPM already obtaining extensions. Besides the obvious (Luka, Trae & Shai) others with extensions are Jaren Jackson Jr, Mikal Bridges, Michael Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. (Note: Robert Williams, another that has signed an extension, has played limited minutes, but has played well in those minutes, hence that outer-orbital BPM).

The chart below is the same data but instead of Box Plus Minus, it’s Value of Replacement Player—VORP (-2.0 is considered a replacement player and 2.0 is considered a very good starter). Personally, I think VORP, with 3.5 seasons of data, passes the eye test more than BPM. For example, Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson, and Deandre Ayton are good basketball players and this tracks with VORP. (I’ve also taken some space to show Keita Bates-Diop DARKO DPM progression even though he will likely not be a free agent this summer since the Spurs have the option to guarantee a cheap $1.8M next season, so we’ll focus on KBD later in the year.) For we will focus on the select group of players on bottom left of the chart.

2018 Draft Class and Value over Replacement Player (VORP)

A Quantitative Aside:

DARKO (Daily Adjusted and Regressed Kalman Optimized projections) was created by Kosta Medvedovsky is one of the few publicly available box-score projection systems. Most advanced metrics (BPM, RAPM, LEBRON..etc) attempt to capture what has happened (very valuable and challenging). But DARKO attempts to project forward (valuable and VERY challenging) using information from all the games of the player but applying a “decay” to games further back in time. Therefore, games from several seasons ago contribute to the model less than more recent games. (2)

As stated previously, there are 2 obvious players from the first round that will receive offers— DeAndre Ayton and Miles Bridges. The former wanted a max contract and the Suns wanted one more season of data. The latter is having a breakout season by averaging 20.1 ppg via 56.6% true shooting (league average ~55.6%). Other notable players are Donte DiVincenzo, Colin Sexton, and two outside of the first round—Jalen Brunson and Mitchell Robinson. Moving beyond those we reach a group of very fascinating players that have futures that are less clear: Marvin Bagley III, Mo Bamba, Troy Brown Jr, Anfernee Simons, Aaron Holiday, Josh Okogie, Kevin Knox and Lonnie Walker.

Are you sure that chart is correct?

The third chart examines only the free agents. I’ve plotted LEBRON and DARKO and it shows the previously mentioned names of Ayton, Brunson, Bridges, and DiVincenzo in a very positive light (Mitchell Robinson also shining bright). The bottom left quadrant, being both negative in both metrics, are the primary focus of the chart. Of those, it’s safe to add the injured Colin Sexton and Anfernee Simons the list players getting contracts. In addition, due to size & position, Bagley and Bamba are likely to find homes. Finally, we reach the quintet that have much less certainty surrounding their futures: Brown Jr, Holiday, Okogie, Knox, and Walker IV.

Upcoming Free Agents from the 2018 Draft.

As a Spurs fan it’s probably not easy to see him listed in a group with “uncertain” futures in the NBA, but it’s important to remember that it is very hard to get even this far. Of the 2018 draft, a fourth of those selected in the first round are already gone — two were selected before him (Jerome Robinson and Zhaire Smith). Furthermore, the 2nd round has lost about 17 of its 30. This brings the count to 36 players remaining from the 2018 draft. And, as a reference, this tracks with the 2017 class which has 28 players that have played in all five seasons (3).

Between Holiday, Okogie, Knox, and Walker IV, it is only Brown Jr and Lonnie that play rotation minutes consistently. If fact, Lonnie, specifically, ALWAYS plays rotation minutes when available. He saw a significant uptick when Dejounte Murray and White White hit Health & Safety protocols but has still remained around 20 minutes per game and taking 8-10 shots with the team near full strength. In contrast, Okogie hasn’t taken 10 shots in the last 8 games—total. Nor has Holiday. Knox, recently traded to Atlanta, has flung 8 attempts in the last 4 games total. Therefore, of those 4 players Lonnie Walker appears to be the most likely to obtain a new contract. But will it be with the Spurs?

It’s crowded in here!

This will be covered more later in the season, but my personal take, if I remove fan-based emotions, is that Lonnie WILL play in the NBA next season, but not with the Spurs. Here’s why:

  1. Depth: Almost by default the Spurs have a “type” they have been drafting lately— shoeless 6’4” with a 6’9” wingspan. White, Murray, Josh Primo, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, and Walker are all very close to this range and overlap positions they can play. Toss in Tre Jones and potentially add a larger forward to the rotation via the draft, and somebody will need a new pasture. Lonnie is likely that guy.
  2. Miss or make league: Unfortunately, Lonnie’s shot, specifically from the outside, hasn’t reached the level expected for a wing. He’s currently in the 13th percentile from behind the arc in comparison to his position and his true shooting (five game rolling average) is rarely above league average (4). Despite being an 83% free throw shooter his shots don’t fall like his teammates. Vassell, Johnson, and even Murray are shooting better. Moreover, Primo is likely the most naturally talented shooter of the whole group, and he’ll need more playing time next season.
Lonnie Walker IV 3pt Shooting Zoned Heat Map from NBA.com/Stats

3. Defensive Impact: One player who isn’t shooting much better than Lonnie is White, but Derrick makes up for a lot of that with his defensive impact, to the point that he’s still one of the three best players on the team. Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus has Lonnie in the 53rd percentile in that variable, meaning he’s close to neutral. Defensively, Lonnie will not get a contract because of defensive impact, but he won’t lose one either.

In Closing

I want to close by saying Lonnie Walker IV looks better on the court than in seasons past. He appears more confident, in control and his shot mechanics look strong. I think he has a few more years in the league as a rotation player and will likely peak at being league average from 3-point range and in true shooting. But, considering the log jam on the Spurs roster at his position, he might thrive MORE on a team that needs his player type more. (Maybe the Knicks?)

Rebuilding teams are forced to perform cognitive gymnastics when assessing players by essentially asking this question: Is Player X good enough, given a reasonable duration of development time, to be a rotation player on a GOOD team?(5) I think, for Lonnie, the answer to that question is likely yes, it just likely won’t be with the Spurs.


Notes

  1. The count is 24 if you consider that Chandler Hutchison remains on contract but has been waived.
  2. DARKO is fun to try! Here’s the link: https://apanalytics.shinyapps.io/DARKO//
  3. The 28 players do not include Zach Collins, Jonathan Isaac, and Markelle Fultz since those players have lost entire seasons to injuries.
  4. When I list percentiles regarding individual players in my articles I’m nearly always am citing data from dunksandthreees.com . This is a subscription-based site.
  5. My personal definition is top 6 seeds of both conferences