If his first four years in the league were viewed as his college phase, Lonnie Walker IV enters this upcoming season not only done with school, but faced with the same obstacle most post-grads have when they enter the real world: landing a job.
Drafted 18th overall in 2018, Walker has yet to fully live up to the lofty expectations many had for him coming out of Miami. He has though produced enough flashes that suggest there’s still first round-caliber talent that can be tapped into. Especially when it comes to his kinetics.
Walker doesn't only have a walk or run option in his settings when it comes to moving around the basketball floor — he can also glide and soar.
The ease with which he can leap out of the gym is a sight to behold. His ability to carve out space with both his handle and shake is borderline rattlesnake-esque. And his physical tools remain a lump of wet clay that holds the potential of a two-way wing in the eyes and hands of the right sculptor.
Despite the flashes, his studies coming exclusively within the “University of Pop,” and a Spurs’ organization known for churning out productive players at a factory efficient rate, Walker has left their assembly line unfinished.
The parts and cogs are there, but it will be up to his next team to put them together. Fortunately, this is something the Lakers have had recent experience doing.
Malik Monk and Walker have a lot in common. As the 11th pick in the 2017 draft, Monk naturally also entered the league with high expectations. Unfortunately, a combination of on and off the court obstacles hindered Monk’s ability to live up to his potential during his time with the Hornets.
Like Walker, Monk also departed the team who initially drafted him in his fifth season, and decided his best chance in breathing new life into his career was to take a risk and take the trek to Los Angeles. By signing with the Lakers on a one-year minimum deal, Monk took a gamble on not only his skills, but his ability to show immediate improvement.
Monk would ultimately go on to post the best season of his career, and in the process, earned a lucrative two-year $19 million deal with the Kings this offseason.
Although the $6.5 million Walker will make from the Lakers this season is notably more than the minimum, Monk’s gamble paves a similar path for Walker to follow in hopes of taking a similar leap in both production and future earnings. However, significant improvements and sacrifices need to be made in order for him to reap similar rewards.
There is a natural adjustment period that occurs for any player leaving a communal style of basketball for the heliocentric nature of a LeBron James-led team. How well Walker can assimilate and tinker his game within that culture shock will be critical to his short and long term success.
One of Walker’s clearest means in doing so will be in becoming more of an off-ball threat. Specifically, he needs to take strides as a perimeter shooter — an area where he’s unfortunately seen a steady decline over the course of his career.
As the chart above illustrates, after encouraging early results, Walker has since taken a drastic step back when it comes to his ability to convert from downtown — especially when it comes to the easier looks.
According to the league’s tracking data, Walker shot just 32.4% on his wide-open attempts (defender at least six feet away) from behind the arc last season. For context, this ranked 83rd among 86 players who attempted 150 such shots, and was only one spot ahead of Russell Westbrook (31.7%).
Walker has since admitted that this is an area of his game that needs fine-tuning, but also did not seem outwardly concerned with his shooting woes during his introductory press conference.
“I mean, last year, you can look at the percentages,” Walker said, “but I kid you not, leave me open, we’re going to see what’s happening. All right? So, I’m ready to show everyone what I’m about.”
Although Walker’s confidence will go a long way in terms of improving, he will also need to be make tangible gains in order to become playable next to the team’s stars.
Like they did with Monk, the Lakers’ best chance of helping Walker get to this stage of competency is to rewire his approach, and cut out a lot of the fat from his shot profile.
Last season, 19% of his attempts came via long twos (he converted just 36%) according to Cleaning the Glass — a staggeringly high percentage that ranked in the 93rd percentile among wings.
In contrast, only 9% of his looks came from the corners, an area where he arguably had the most success on the floor, converting 39% of his chances. Flipping these feels like a solid first step in setting him up for success.
Beyond tinkering with the mix of where Walker’s 3-point shots come from, there is also value in adjusting how they are manufactured.
For his career, Walker has canned just 27.7% of his pull-up chances from three. Although neither are an elite clip, the 23-year-old has done far better on stationary attempts in comparison, converting 36% of his wide-open and 36.2% of his catch and shoot looks respectively through his first four years.
Less movement and more simplification can go a long way in making him a threat from deep.
Outside of refining his jumper and offensive approach, the biggest area of improvement for Walker will likely have to come on the defensive end.
Although there have been major developments in how we both analyze and quantify defensive impact, it still remains one of the most difficult aspects of basketball to fully grasp when discussing player ability.
For Walker however, he is one the few players where both the eye-test and data agree on his limitations.
Despite his aforementioned athleticism and 6’10” wingspan, Walker has yet to fully engage himself on that end nor utilize his physical tools to their highest capacity. This likely a large reason for his fluctuating minutes under Gregg Popovich.
In the last two seasons, the Spurs have been markedly better on defense with Walker off the floor opposed to on. And when removing criteria like garbage time, San Antonio actually gave up nearly 10 fewer points per 100 possessions when Walker was on the bench during the 2020-21 season.
It is also worth noting what lengths the Spurs took to hide Walker during his tenure with the team.
In an attempt to limit his foibles on that end, Walker was frequently deployed away from the ball, checking the likes of “stationary shooters” and “roll and cut bigs.” In most instances, he was found plopped on the opposition’s weakest link.
According to the BBall-Index, the wing spent 16.5% of the time defending those “low-minute” players, which placed him in the 99th percentile of the league.
Walker’s shoddy efficiency on the offensive end — he has yet to post an eFG% over 51 — and haphazard defense, are key contributors to why his overall impact has continuously nestled near the bottom of the league.
Compared to other mid-level exception signings this summer, Walker is arguably the most disliked when it comes to a slew of catch-all impact metrics (as seen below).
The Lakers are taking as much of a gamble on Walker as he is by signing a one-year deal.
There were other, more established names still on the market when they came to an agreement with the Pennsylvania native, but the team’s bet on the young player is as much a bet on their own ability to both identify talent as well as give them a second chance in restoring their career.
Like with any data that paints an individual in an unfortunate light, context does matter in terms of understanding a player’s past and projecting forward.
A change of scenery and role has done wonders for young players struggling to find their footing early in their careers. So too does the sheer benefit of having more experience.
Walker should also profit from playing alongside better talent this upcoming season as Monk did. Add in any improvements to his 3-and-D abilities along with the looming incentive of a contract year, and the change of environment could go a long way in exorcising past demons to help propel him into being a reliable rotation player.
It remains to be seen what strides Walker takes with the Lakers, but as of now, he continues to say all the right things.
From gaining weight in order to prepare himself for more physical defensive assignments, to embracing a bench role need be, Walker has shown to be at least willing to come into the next chapter of his career with an open mind.
“I’m adaptable,” Walker emphasized to the media. “Like a chameleon, I can change to my environment... I’m just here to play ball, to win, and I’m here to get that chip.”
Although things have yet to fall into place for Walker, this season presents a chance for him and the Lakers to pick up the pieces of his past life and build toward the best version of himself yet.