SAN ANTONIO — Lonnie Walker IV is about to start the biggest season of his career.
After the October 18 deadline came and went with no news of an extension, the 22-year-old will enter the fourth and final season of his rookie deal in a prove-yourself contract year.
Belief in Walker is an interesting, polarizing Rorschach test for Spurs fans.
On one side, people see tantalizing displays of his skill, athleticism, and potential as increases in playing time have resulted in growth and statistical improvement. On the other side, they question why he hasn't been able to translate all of that potential into more impressive and consistent production.
Both the optimist and the cynic have a point here, so let's talk about it.
Lonnie is a player who slid to the Spurs at 18 due to injury concerns, and they took him betting that they could help him grow the skills needed to unlock his potential. That potential is about as high as he can jump, which we all know is very.
As a rookie, he played in just 17 NBA games and didn't see the floor much. When he did, he shot under 35% as he lacked the comfort level and strength to finish strong with the big guys. In Austin, however, he worked on control and averaged almost 17 points per game on 44% shooting as the lead guy.
In his second season, he played in 61 NBA games, started 12, and upped his numbers. Hard work over the summer showed, and he managed over 42% from the floor and 40% from three. He averaged 6.4 points in 16 minutes per game, playing with a short leash from Coach Pop and getting pulled for his mistakes.
In one of those games Pop let him run, he led a rousing comeback against the Houston Rockets in an instantly iconic moment. He pestered Russell Westbrook and James Harden defensively and outscored the entire Rockets team in the fourth quarter to bring the Spurs all the way back, tying the game with a deep, cocky three that blew the roof off the stadium. It seemed like a coming-out party, but it didn't change his role much at all.
Last year, Walker averaged 25 minutes per game and started 38 of the 60 due to various injuries to Derrick White and DeMar DeRozan. His three-point percentage dipped to 35.5% as he raised his attempts from almost two to almost five per game, but he improved his interior finishing.
He seemed to show out in games that DeRozan didn't play in. His team needed the creation, the on-court role afforded more opportunities to create, and he drove like the light was green and not yellow. He also looked comfortable as a featured sixth man, initiating for the second unit and mixing in some pull-up threes.
Coach Popovich recently said he was pleased with the way that Walker has learned to use his extraordinary physical gifts the right way on an NBA court.
"In learning how to play the game, he has really progressed significantly year to year and his shot is getting better," Pop said. "Chip Engelland has worked with him really well in trying to improve and get confidence in the 3-point shot."
If you're in the optimist camp, you'd say that this is the year he should have the most solid role and the most opportunity, and expect him to continue improving. If you're not, you're not sold on his passing or his defense, but you're mainly not sold on his ability to lock in consistently.
Take this pass, for example. He draws multiple defenders in pick and roll and makes an unorthodox delivery to Eubanks for a jam. Believers will see it for the fun and good pass that it is, and ask why he can't make more plays like this in a bigger role? Doubters will acknowledge that it's a good pass, but ask why he hasn't averaged more than 2 assists per game yet if he's such a good passer?
Walker has talked openly about his inconsistent focus and intensity, and he knows that he needs to bring it every night in that regard. When asked what he was working on for this year, here's what he had to say:
"Be consistent. Most people know I have the talent, the materials to do it. It 's all about putting that through the entire 48 minutes, not just one quarter or two quarters, every single game, every single quarter, just dominating."
On nights when he's on (see Rockets game), he can stymie MVPs, shoot the lights out, and attack the rim like it insulted his mother's cooking. On other nights, he can get lost in the flow of the offense and beaten on backdoor cuts and dribble moves.
Walker is 6'4" with a 6'10" wingspan, freakish physical abilities and a pretty full toolbelt that he's been adding to for three years in San Antonio. He sharpened those skills, but he's still developing consistent confidence. Coach Popovich's doghouse and an offense centered around DeRozan aren't squarely to blame for that, but both probably contributed to shaky energy and production in the early going of his career.
He's now earned a role as a key rotation piece, and he'll have a bigger role in the absence of DeRozan. If he can play the way he wants to, he can earn a bit more money than he may have been offered this summer.
"It's empowering," Walker said of the increased responsibility. "For most of the young kids on this team, we've been kinda waiting on this moment to have the ball in our hands, to play with the freedom, and do what we know that we can do."
Walker shot just 1-7 from the floor in the preseason opener and faded after a fast start in the second game. He's getting to his spots and making good decisions on offense, but the shots weren't falling to start. He locked in defensively against Donovan Mitchell but didn't look as focused against the Pistons. He played 25 minutes in a loss to the Heat, scoring just two points on 1-6 shooting.
Walker acknowledged that he hadn't been playing to the best of his abilities in those first few preseason games, but didn't seem too worried about coming around.
In a win over the Magic, Walker had his best and most complete game of the preseason with 16 points and 5 assists. He hit 6-11 shots and 2-5 from beyond the arc, and the Spurs outscored the Magic by a team-high 21 points when he was on the floor.
Walker's ability to create open three-point shots will be critical for both him and for the Spurs this year. He creates for himself by moving quickly with and without the ball, and he creates for others with his ability to get downhill and draw multiple defenders in the paint.
"Obviously he's a fine scorer, and we need him to do that, and he enjoys it thankfully, so that will always be part of his game," Popovich said after the Magic game.
Walker got a bit banged up in that one, so he missed the open scrimmage and played just the first half against the Rockets.
The shooting should improve, but the defense and overall reliability will be make-or-break for Walker this season. If you were hoping for a definitive answer about any of that in the preseason, you didn't get it.
As for the failure to reach an agreement on an extension, there's really no reason to interpret it as a failure by anybody involved. All parties get something useful out of the decision to delay a decision.
Walker gets his best chance ever to impress the guys who write the checks, here and elsewhere. Contract year performance is a real thing, and for a guy working on consistently locking in, playing for your next paycheck every night might help. Based on the basketball opportunity ahead of him, this is a perfect time for him to bet on himself.
"Keeping it on the back burner just worrying about the game, I don't get that if I don't play my game so I can't think about it too much. Just let my agency and what I've done, put forth the effort and praise the man above," he said earlier in the week about a possible extension. "I'm not sweating it. I've put a lot of time and effort in this year, so it'll pay its dues."
The Spurs can match any offer sheet that Walker earns as a restricted free agent, and it seems unlikely that the number will break the bank. If he performs at a high level, expect San Antonio to bring him back happily. If he doesn't earn a big raise but does enough that the Spurs want him to stay, they have the right to pay whatever the market decides his value is.
If for some disappointing reason it doesn't work out and the front office decides to move on to other backcourt options, they can create enough cap space next summer for a max contract.
It could backfire for Walker if he gets injured or underperforms. It could backfire for the Spurs if he breaks out and commands a lot more salary than they were prepared to offer him this time around.
All things considered, it seems like the best move for both player and team right now as they keep their options open before a transformational year.
We're still waiting to see how good Lonnie Walker IV will be, and though some are growing impatient as they wait, he's never had a bigger opportunity or more of an incentive to show us. The optimists can't wait to see it, and the cynics are tapping their watches.
As for Walker, he's focused on, well, focusing.
"I meditate," he said when asked about his mental approach. "I find myself, my inner self, and really just dial in. Along with that, I've just gotta have that mental state, can't be too negative, can't be putting too much pressure on myself. More than that just trusting my teammates, I think that's the best thing I can do. I'm not too worried about what Lonnie can do, for the most part, we know what Lonnie can do. It's all about having that team flow, playing within the team and looking good and getting the win."