Lonnie Walker IV said all of the right things during his introductory press conference on Wednesday, telling Lakers fans exactly what they wanted to hear. Asked about how he fits into the Lakers’ — albeit barren — roster, Walker immediately pointed to the defensive side of the court as to where his focus will be.
“I see my skill set fitting perfectly,” Walker said. “I’m here to do whatever I need to do in order for the team to win…I’m coming here to play defense. Play the best I can, play the hardest I can and let the game speak for itself.
“Defensively, I’m here to do what I do. Whoever you want me to guard, whenever it’s time for me to make some stops, that’s what I”m here for.”
That’s exactly what the Lakers should want Walker, the lone player they signed this offseason to a non-minimum deal, to say. The problem is... uhh... he has been rather bad defensively. Like, really bad.
Walker has all the physical tools of a good defender. He’s listed at 6’4”, but has a wingspan of 6’10” that would allow him to guard up a position. He stated on Wednesday that he’s up to about 215 pounds, and has in the past proven capable of incredible feats of athleticism.
Then you start looking at the stats and, well, they’re rough.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) ranked Walker 119th out of 123 shooting guards last season in defensive RPM. Walker had the third-worst individual defensive net rating on the Spurs last year and the team was 1.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him off the floor rather than on it.
It’s not a significantly poor figure, but it’s also one of the more generous numbers attached to his defense last season. His -1.3 defensive box plus-minus was second-worst on the Spurs among rotation players. Most defensive metrics suggest that the Spurs’ average defense was better with him off the floor last year.
Now, it should be noted that even for his struggles defensively last year, Walker probably would have been an improvement for the Lakers. Just from body type alone, Walker represents the type of player — an athletic wing — that the Lakers effectively did not have one of on their roster last season.
There could also be some value in a change of scenery for Walker. Despite being only 23 years old, the Spurs moved on from him as they enter a rebuild, one that he could have theoretically been a part of given his age. Walker’s status as a recent a castoff notwithstanding, the Lakers have had success empowering otherwise unwanted players in Los Angeles, with Malik Monk last year being the most recent example.
And even if Walker struggled defensively last year, Walker’s ebullient confidence on that end brings value in and of itself. He spoke of his ability to guard anywhere from the point guard to small forward position and the extra weight he put on could lead to him guarding some smaller fours.
“I’m ready for the physicality,” Walker said. “I’ve been preparing myself to guard multiple positions and just be mentally for that task.”
It’s encouraging to see someone so eager to play defense since that very attribute was sorely absent from much of the Lakers’ roster last season. Still, enthusiasm alone can’t slow down Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or any other wing the Lakers will match up against in the Western Conference this season. Walker and the Lakers both are going to need to make big strides in that department this offseason if they hope to rebuild a championship defense basically from scratch.