This offseason, Lonnie Walker IV will be a restricted free agent. While Walker is able to sign a contract with any team in the league, the Spurs will have the opportunity to match the contract and retain his services.
In his fourth season in San Antonio, the 23-year-old averaged a career-high 12.1 points along with 2.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists. Walker shot 40.7% from the field, 31.4% on three-pointers and 78.4% from the free throw line.
Should the Spurs do what they need to do to re-sign Walker and keep him on the roster? Let’s look at both sides of the argument.
The Case For Re-signing Lonnie Walker IV
Walker doesn’t turn 24 until December. If the Spurs re-sign him to a four-year deal, they’d be locking him up during his physical prime. Athletically, Walker is a phenom. He’s a blur with and without the ball. He can sky and his hangtime is elite.
While Walker is still an improving player heading into his fifth season, he’s already a really good scorer. He averaged 19 points per 36 minutes, which was the third highest mark on the team behind Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson.
Of all the players still on the roster, Walker led the way in three-pointers attempted per minute. On a team that ranked 25th in the league in three-pointers attempted, Walker’s willingness to bomb away from deep is valuable.
Walker brings further value to the table by limiting turnovers and fouls. He has shown flashes of potential as a playmaker and already tallies more than two assists for every turnover.
While Walker had his struggles early in the season, he ended his season on a high note. From Feb. 12 to Mar. 16, Walker averaged 18.7 points in 27.2 minutes, while connecting on 47.1% of his field goal attempts and 38.8% of his three-point tries.
If that stretch is a sign of things to come, Walker could be an elite scorer in the making. To put the 24.8 points per 36 minutes he posted during that span of 13 games into perspective, only 13 players in the NBA averaged more points per minute this season.
It’s also notable that Walker came off the bench in all 13 of those games. That type of bench scoring is difficult to find in the NBA. In fact, if Walker could score at that rate for a whole season, he’d be at the top of the conversation for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Walker appears to be willing to be a bench player long-term, which in itself would be an asset to the Spurs. It’s not easy to find productive scorers who are willing to come off the bench — especially among young players.
Off the court, the reports have been nothing but positive on Walker. He’s a great teammate, gets along with everyone, he’s active in the community and he’s not bashful about preaching about what makes the Spurs organization special.
The Case Against Re-signing Lonnie Walker IV
Let’s start with his defense. Although Walker was slightly improved on the defensive end this year, he’s still a really bad defender. In fact, according to ESPN’s real plus-minus, Walker was the 548th best defender in the league out of 557 players. Ouch.
His problems on defense are multifaceted. First of all, he’s a terrible help defender. He’s slow to read situations, loses his man when he’s away from the ball and rarely provides strong help even if he rotates on time. His individual defense is better but he struggles to hold his ground and can lose focus for minutes at a time.
At this point, the book is closed on Walker becoming a plus defender. He just doesn’t have the processing speed or the strength. At the very best, he may become a bad defender instead of a really bad defender.
Going into the draft, the knock on Walker was he didn’t have a good feel for the game offensively. Unfortunately, that’s still the case. His decision-making is more mechanical than natural. He can score in bunches if given the green light to just look to put the ball in the basket but he’s not someone who can consistently read defenses and make the right decision over and over again.
Statistically, there are definitely some shortcomings that stand out. While Walker scored at a strong clip, his true shooting percentage of 51.2% was far below the league average of 56.6%. That makes him an inefficient scoring threat.
Walker hit only 31.4% of his three-pointers and his career three-point percentage is 34.3%. While his stroke is nearly picture-perfect, there’s little proof that he can be a top-tier three-point sniper. Add that to the fact that he’s below average at getting to the free throw line and the hope of him becoming an efficient scorer is fading.
Looking at San Antonio’s roster, Walker’s fit is questionable. He’s not going to start and even a spot off the bench isn’t a lock. Just look at what happened in the play-in game: Josh Richardson played 32 minutes off the bench and Walker played just 17 minutes.
Going forward, Murray is the starting point guard and Tre Jones appears to have the backup point guard job locked up. At shooting guard, Devin Vassell is likely to start and Josh Primo will need minutes to continue to grow. If Richardson isn’t traded, he too will get minutes. Keldon Johnson and Doug McDermott will soak up small forward minutes. Walker would likely be able to carve out a role — but it’s not guaranteed.
Lonnie Walker IV Free Agency Decision: The Conclusion
It’s a close call. Walker’s scoring ability and willingness to shoot three-pointers can be very valuable to the Spurs. I also think Walker has a chance to become a top 20-30 scorer in the league on a per-minute basis. While his defense is going to be bad and he’s never going to gain a natural feel for the game, that type of scoring potential is difficult to let escape.
I think we’ll know a lot more after the draft. If the Spurs draft a shooting guard or small forward in the lottery, I think it’s time to say adios to Walker. In that scenario, the minutes that would go to Walker would be better used on a player with a more complete skillset. On the other hand, if the Spurs don’t add competition at those positions, bringing back Walker for his scoring ability could be the way to go.