After Devin Vassell took over the starting position left vacant by Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV became the Spurs’ main shot creator in the second unit, a true sixth man that is expected to carry a heavy scoring load.
The switch in roles has been a boon for the four-year wing, who is averaging 17 points per game while shooting 46 percent from the floor and 38 percent from beyond the arc in the 14 games he’s suited up for since since the trade deadline.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Walker, as this was the last chance he could make a case for a big contract in the offseason, but has also benefited a Spurs team that might have found another core piece.
In typical Lonnie fashion, there have been some highs and some lows to his recent surge, but fortunately the highs have been more common and really encouraging. In two of the 14 games, Walker scored under five points, and on another one, it took him 10 shots to get 11. But he also had seven games scoring 20 points or more, along with a 33-point game and a game-winner in that same span. He can go cold, and when he does, he doesn’t normally contribute enough in the other aspects of the game to make a positive impact, but when he’s cooking, he can carry a bench unit that has lacked firepower since the trade. In short, he’s a sixth man in the vein of young J.R. Smith or Lou Williams, not Manu Ginobili. He needs to take a lot of shots but if they go in, he helps tremendously.
Volume scorers often get a bad rap, but their skill set is valuable and Lonnie seems to have the goods to be a great one. Even before the deadline, Walker had the second highest usage on the roster behind only Dejounte Murray, but the percentage of possessions he finishes when he’s on the court has increased. He’s essentially on par with Murray on field goal attempts per 36 minutes and ranks third in points per game and fourth in field goal attempts per game off the bench in the league since the All-Star break. Having more scoring responsibility has helped Walker become more efficient, which seems to suggest he’s a rhythm player. His three-point percentage has perked up substantially, he’s finishing better at the rim, and he’s getting to the free throw line more often. As far as bench gunners go, he seems to be the real deal.
There are still concerns, of course. The simple fact that Walker needs such a prominent offensive role raises some questions. It’s not a surprise that he’s having a better season since the second unit became reliant on him, as he used to have some of his best games with DeMar DeRozan out, after all. But can he get the amount of shots he seems to need if the Spurs actually put together a more competent bench? Beyond the scoring, the gaps in his game remain. His defense is mediocre at best. He’s showed some progress as a drive-and-kick threat, but he has only passed to the roll man in the pick and roll 44 times out of 333 total possessions as the ball handler, per Synergy Sports. The court vision might not be there for him to become someone a team confidently runs its offense through. Lonnie’s just not exactly versatile at this point.
These questions were always there and the answers to them will impact Walker’s future, but the recent surge in production makes them less concerning. Volume scoring is simply that valuable. Having someone who can drop 20 with relative ease allows the coaching staff to use specialists that make up for what players like Lonnie can’t do. A great example is how the Spurs can get away with using Tre Jones despite him not having an outside shot, and Josh Primo, despite him not being a good self creator, because Walker is there to pick up the scoring slack and bail out possessions. He might not be all that versatile himself, but Walker does one thing well that is not easy to find, which will allow the coaching staff some options on how to build bench lineups. Eventually the second unit will need more scorers, but for now, having a great one will do.
Is Lonnie actually as good as he’s seemed lately, though? Nothing that’s ever written about him can ignore the elephant in the room: his penchant for inconsistency. It’s tempting to find a reason why Walker is now a more prolific and efficient scorer, but there’s none beyond “he’s just making more shots.” The leap seems to be almost entirely confidence-based, and perhaps aided by a league-wide trend towards worse defense after the All-Star break. His basic shot distribution remains nearly the same, and if anything, has gotten worse, as he’s taking more mid-range jumpers and fewer corner threes. He’s simply pulling the trigger without hesitation, even on some questionable pull-ups, and he’s driving to the rim with more conviction. The contrast with the more timid player he was earlier in the year is stark, and it’s fair to wonder how he will respond if the misses pile up or he’s eventually asked to be a little more judicious with his shot selection.
Fortunately for Lonnie, he has 12 more games to show that his progress is real. There’s a strong sense that he has turned a corner this time, as he’s already put together the best stretch of his career. If he can finish the season strong with the Spurs still in the play-in race, it will be easier to forget the ups and downs of the past and focus on the very valuable player Walker appears to be now, and more importantly, could be in the future.