A common theme that quickly emerges when trying to discuss individual performances by all but the most important players on last season’s Spurs roster is that everyone had ups and downs. Health-related absences, mid-season trades, and role changes combined to create an uncharacteristically volatile environment in San Antonio.
It was hard for even normally steady guys to find consistency, so it’s no surprise that the mercurial Lonnie Walker IV wasn’t always reliable in 2021/22. Yet, once things settled for a while after the trade deadline, everything seemed to click for the young wing who had never found the right role before. The question is whether that stretch is a true representation of his value or just another fleeting flash of greatness.
Traits, expected role and stats
Lonnie Walker IV entered the final year of his rookie contract at age 23, looking to raise his value heading into free agency.
The 6’5” wing was expected to provide scoring and secondary playmaking off the bench.
In 70 appearances, He averaged 12.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists while playing 23 minutes per game.
It wasn’t looking good for Walker early in the season, after an auspicious few games. While his playmaking seemed improved, showing a good ability to find then-fellow second unit member Devin Vassell after drives, his scoring was down. Lonnie’s outside shot abandoned him for long stretches just as he was trying to up his volume, and he couldn’t get to the line enough to make up for it. Defensively, Walker was just passable on the ball and not disruptive off it, so his value was tied to the other end, and he was simply not delivering at a crucial time in his career. There were some good scoring games sprinkled in among the no-shows and the mediocre performances, but before the trade deadline, Walker was averaging a pedestrian 11.2 points on sub-40 percent shooting from the floor and sub-30 percent from beyond the arc. He simply didn’t look like a keeper at all.
However, as was the case for other perimeter players in the roster, the Derrick White trade changed everything for Lonnie, and not a moment too soon considering his impending free agency. Before the deadline, the top 10 most used units featuring Walker also included Dejounte Murray or White, and some also had Vassell in them as well. After the deadline, only five included Murray and just one had both Murray and Vassell in it. Playing more with the likes of Tre Jones and Josh Primo put Walker in a position to be the first or second option on the floor and to get more touches. He thrived with the opportunities and responsibility that came with being a true sixth man, averaging 17.5 points in 46 percent shooting from the floor and 38 percent from beyond the arc while also seeing his free throw attempts rise during a 14-game run.
Unfortunately a back injury sidelined him right in the middle of the best stretch of his career and limited his play the rest of the way, but at least for a while, the fourth-year wing lived up to his potential.
Season grade: C+
Just like it happened to Jones and Primo, the mid-season trades affected Walker’s season, but in his case the effect was gigantic. Walker seemed headed for another disappointing season, but once he was switched into the role that suited him the best, he became one of the best bench scorers in the league. Going by that late season stretch alone, Walker would earn an A since he shined in a big role, but it’s impossible to ignore the first 55 games, where he was decidedly below average the majority of the time. Ultimately, his peak was high enough to make the early struggles stand out less, but also it didn’t last long enough to turn Walker into one of the best performers of the season and erase all doubts.
One of the biggest questions of the Spurs’ offseason is whether Walker, who will enter restricted free agency, will re-sign with the team. San Antonio would have to extend him a qualifying offer and carry his cap hold in order to retain the rights to match any offer. They likely will, unless they have something big planned and need cap space.
Walker is just 23 years old, an elite athlete and someone who, despite a down year as a shooter, has connected on 34 percent of his three-pointers on a significant volume for his career. There’s a chance the version of Walker we saw after the trade deadline is the real one, and if it is, he could be a fantastic sixth man and a good option to be slotted in the closing lineup when the team goes small. He might never be a plus defender, but he has the wingspan to at least be decent, and traditionally bench scorers have been able to contribute despite not being stoppers. The point of drafting and developing players is to hold on to them once they start to blossom, so letting Lonnie go now that he’s shown progress doesn’t seem to make much sense.
The decision may very well come down to money. If the best offer Walker gets is roughly equivalent to the mid-level exception, it should be a no-brainer for him and the Spurs to continue their relationship. Someone might go a little higher, but his history of inconsistency and the threat of San Antonio simply matching their offer might scare teams away from throwing big money Walker’s way. There is a realistic scenario in which he returns on a good value deal and either enters his prime with the Spurs or is moved later on.
If someone decides to gamble heavily on Lonnie’s potential and offers him Dejounte Murray money, the front office might decide to let him go. With Josh Primo likely ready for a permanent rotation spot next year and Josh Richardson providing a veteran presence off the bench at the wing, San Antonio can afford to lose Walker without suffering in the short term. But could the franchise regret it later? If Walker puts it all together elsewhere, it could be painful to watch.
There were no easy answers as to whether Walker should be a priority for the Spurs in the offseason before that fantastic 15-game stretch, and the decision is even tougher now. Brian Wright will likely have to make a tough call either way, and the fan base can only hope he gets it right.
Keita Bates Diop