How Lonnie Walker’s Boundless Energy Ignites The Spurs

TORONTO — The story of Lonnie Walker, much like the universe itself, starts with energy. Not the knock-down, drag-out kind, the fighting kind, but natural, productive, elemental energy, doing what it always has. Watching him play — gliding down a lane seemingly parting for him so he can dunk, making tricky shots look elementary — watching him wait, watching him watch, his awareness on the court close to crackling. There is the sense that if you laid out solar panels around Walker, they could catch enough of the shine coming off him to power a city the size of, say, San Antonio, Texas.

The Spurs would be wise to invest in this kind of renewable energy. While the leaders on their roster remain relevant, competitive, they are all five of them — DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marco Belinelli, Rudy Gay — closer to the dovetail of their careers than to the plucky starts.

San Antonio is a team that has survived on a system of repetition. Exacting and precise as it is, that kind of pattern will eventually wear down a franchise, not to mention the players within it. The echoes of Kawhi Leonard’s abdication can still be heard, far removed enough now they skew reverential over accusatory, when tracing the superstar’s last season within the franchise. Whether it was misuse or misdiagnosis, whatever happened internally gave the impression that while the Spurs were likely never being malicious, they were intent on doing things their way. For Leonard, whether the status quo felt harmful or he simply wanted a voice and pair of eyes not bound to the organization to offer a second opinion on his lingering injury, it was routine that forced his ultimate departure from the franchise.

When a star of that magnitude withdraws from its galaxy it can signal collapse. The Spurs first season without Leonard was shaky; DeRozan wasn’t yet comfortable enough to step into the larger role for which he was intended, a historically impenetrable defensive rating went from top three to bottom ten, and fissures in the guardedly private front office began to show. Gregg Popovich, who has built an off-court media persona around playful to outright barbed provocation, appeared withdrawn. Energy, even rationed in the same way the Spurs treat all their resources, was dwindling.

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None of that was evident in the Spurs locker room after the team beat Toronto in their first meeting of the season, Popovich playfully reaching over my shoulder to touch the fabric of Lonnie Walker’s cardinal red wool coat mid-interview.

“Oh, you like what you see?” Walker quipped without missing a beat, tilting his head and putting his arms out to showoff the letterman jacket cut military style.

“You gotta take me shopping,” Popovich nodded approvingly, “I think I’d look good in that.”

Popovich, dressed down in sneakers, tech-looking track pants, and a supple butterscotch leather bomber is given a once-over by Walker, “I think you would,” he agreed, then, adding a sly smile, “I’ll show you a thing or two, coach.”

The suggestion that a sophomore player would show the longest tenured coach in the NBA, in any professional league in the United States, a thing or two might seem hyperbolic if Popovich himself hadn’t recently admitted as much.

“He’s a heck of an athlete, and he adds something to the group that we don’t really have,” Popovich said of Walker at the beginning of January, following the Spurs falling in their first of two against the Bucks.

Compared to what Popovich had said of the young guard at the start of the season — “non-competitive,” played “horribly” — the comments signaled a change of heart. Applied to the Spurs overall, they signal a sea-change.

Walker doesn’t fit the bill of an archetypal Spurs player. He’s doesn’t have the meditatively crushing abilities of Tim Duncan, or the relentlessly linear Terminator drive of Kawhi Leonard. Compared to newer additions like DeRozan, whose hard-edged determination has leant the Spurs some needed grit, or Gay, who brought his assertive air of confidence to the team, Walker is something of an anomaly. Unlike DeRozan or Gay, whose games have adjusted symbiotically to fit the traditional Spurs system, Walker has not yet conformed his primary contribution — his energy — to the team.

Everything about the Spurs is measured, almost calculated. Traditionally equating things like flashiness, explosive dunks, or overzealous attempts from deep with the team would have been like staging a pyrotechnic-heavy concert on top of a mountain: entertaining, impressive, but ultimately a waste of time and resources. Even three pointers, which have become the dominant mode of scoring in the league (“You have to shoot threes or you have a good chance to lose every game,” Popovich said, somewhat begrudgingly, pre-game in Toronto), are attempted far less by Spurs players. When they are, efficiency is valued over volume — despite being fifth in the league in three-point field goal percentage, San Antonio is 29th in the league in attempts.

Walker shirks all of that with the same ease and snappy brightness he did when lightly teasing his coach on his style limitations. On the floor, he is finesse on skates, igniting the offense with dunks, rushing steals, floating jumpers, and mid-air adjustments that don’t seem possible when you consider, well, gravity. Walker is fast, but his speed is fluid. There are few wasted steps because the way he moves is in long, sure strides. He’s rangy, he eats up the floor, and he uses the space he creates moving that way for his confident handles. In Toronto, those handles appeared to only get flashier the more the Raptors defense bore down on him.

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When asked by Dime about what he thought he brought to the team, the missing quality Popovich was referring to, Walker didn’t hesitate, “Just energy, athleticism. When I’m on the floor I’m running on transition, doing a lot of things, not just offensively but being a great defender. Staying in front of my man.”

“Being a lock-down defender but also being an,” he paused and cocked his head, let slip a small smirk, “energizing bunny.”

It’s Walker’s confidence that gives him an edge when going against bigger or more experienced players, a confidence that shows even when he’s talking about who he’s going up against.

“Most of the time [Popovich] wants me to guard one of the best,” he catches himself, adjusts his scope, “better players on the team.”

While incredibly athletic and long, Walker possesses a slight frame, something that currently gives him more room to maneuver. After his quiet first three minutes on the floor in Toronto, Walker split a cyclonic bundle of Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, and a reaching Patrick McCaw at the top of the key with just enough runway left to get airborne for an elevated, crowd-silencing dunk.

“It’s just who I am. That’s just natural instincts, just being fearless, not being scared,” Walker says, when asked about having no hesitation to getting close when it counts. “That’s what got me here, so you know, I’m going to keep on playing like that.”

Thriving in the NBA takes a mix of patience, confidence, and perseverance and the balance is different for every player. Thriving in a system like San Antonio’s requires all that along with trust that the way a player might be asked to adjust their game will serve them as much as the team. For Walker and the rest of the younger guys on the roster — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Trey Lyles, Jakob Poeltl — it is evident that DeRozan has brought a refreshing approach to leadership. His self-made ethos and grinding mentality have added a needed nuance to the mandate of efficiency. Even as he grows to be less of an outsider, DeRozan maintains fresh eyes and sees the young guys trying things.

“We have players like DeMar who find us, [players] who always find the open man and are looking out for everyone,” Walker said. “It’s great to have someone like Coach Pop, and teammates who believe in me and trust me in doing what I do.”

The question is how will Walker’s energy and the flashy style of play he brings persevere within the established Spurs system, while being afforded the room to naturally evolve. If it does indeed represent a shift in approach for the team — in gameplay, in attitude, in an altogether different caliber of player — then it will come down to trust. Trust that a player like Walker can benefit from the San Antonio regime, while the culture could also benefit from the regenerative vitality of such an athletic, confident player with the bearing of a bonafide star.

Even if it means occasionally having to squint, it’s worth keeping the shine.