Lonnie Walker IV hasn’t had an easy go to start his professional career. He spent the majority of his rookie season on the bench or with the Austin Spurs in the G League, and didn’t suit up in an NBA game until San Antonio’s 39th game of the year. Walker didn’t play double-digit minutes until game 50 and was essentially an afterthought on the Spurs roster for most of the season.
Walker’s sophomore season has followed a similar tenor, even as the Spurs languish near the bottom of the Western Conference. He was chewed out by Popovich, who called him non-competitive, following a loss to the L.A. Clippers on Halloween, and has once again been an inconsistent presence in the San Antonio lineup.
But the silver lining of team’s poor start to the season is that the Spurs coaching staff has to keep searching for answers, and one of those might come in the form of their 2018 first-round pick. In Tuesday’s comeback victory over the Houston Rockets, a game that might be instead remembered for an officiating gaffe, Walker had the defining game of his young career, scoring a career-high 28 points as San Antonio edged Houston in double overtime.
Walker started off the game much like any other, failing to make an impact in his first 8 minutes. But he got back into the game with four minutes to play in the third quarter, and remarkably, Popovich couldn’t find a reason to take him out for the remaining 26 minutes. He changed the game for the Spurs, and showed why he should earn more time for the team moving forward.
The Spurs have a notoriously analytics-averse shot profile. They take 44.3% of their shots from midrange, by far the most in the league, and have the lowest percentage of threes (27.1%) and shots at the rim (28.6%). It’s a dramatic stylistic departure from what the rest of the league does, and it only worked last year because they were shooting lights out. Now, San Antonio’s shooting percentages have regressed, and the Spurs have a league-average offense that can’t prop up their 25th-ranked defense.
Walker injects a little life and variety into the offense. He gets downhill better than just about any guard on the roster, and at 6-foot-5, has the size and strength to finish at the rim. He took 9 of his 18 shots at the basket against Houston, making 6 and earning 4 free throws.
He also pushes the ball in transition, something the Spurs are loath to do. San Antonio finishes 80.7% of its plays in the halfcourt, the 8th-most in the league, but Walker runs, and runs hard. He even earned a rare smile from Popovich on a failed outlet pass because he raced to try to save the ball.
Walker will be much harder to guard when he attacks the basket if his jumper comes around. He had only made two 3-pointers all season entering last night’s game, and was 1-of-8 from the free-throw line to boot, but he knocked down four triples during the Spurs’ rally. That included a ridiculous pull-up three from well beyond the arc to tie the game with 11.5 seconds to play.
He even showed some facility on the defensive end, in spite of the fact that his primary assignment was James Harden. Harden famously isolates more than any player in the league, on 40.3% of his possessions per NBA.com’s tracking data; for context, second place is Russell Westbrook isolating on 24.3% of his plays. But Harden was often unwilling to take Walker one-on-one, repeatedly calling for high screens from P.J. Tucker to get Walker switched off of him. Walker did a nice job of contesting Harden’s step-backs without fouling as well.
Walker’s previous career-high in points was 16 before his offensive explosion against the Rockets, and that occurred in a blowout loss at the end of last season. This performance feels slightly more sustainable, given that he scored double-figures in two of the last three games before this one.
The Spurs have a long way to go to climb back up the Western Conference standings, and Walker can’t hope to replicate this type of output on a regular basis, particularly the jump-shooting. But what he showed against Houston was more than just a wet jumper; he puts pressure on the opposing defense with his driving and his relentlessness in transition, and he can wreak havoc on the defensive end.
Enjoyable moments have been few and far between for Walker in his brief NBA career. If he can continue to build off this record-breaking effort, his off nights should become a rarity.