Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every weekday, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Lonnie Walker IV.
After purging all but two players from their 2020 Championship-winning roster, and returning just five from last season, the Lakers will enter the 2022-23 season with another roster that has more new players than returners. Through free agency and one trade, they restocked their depth in the front and backcourts, but have maintained a relative deficit of veritable contributors at the wing, sharply contrasting with the roster they rolled into 2019-20 with.
In competition for those minutes are a trio of free agent signings looking to transcend their status as low-minute mop-up men. Despite his presence on the reigning champs, Juan Toscano-Anderson’s role on the Warriors was limited to almost exclusively garbage time throughout the playoffs. Troy Brown Jr. spent his season matched up against opposing second units on a just above .500 Bulls team. And finally, Lonnie Walker IV saw his minutes fluctuate throughout his fourth NBA season, all on the Spurs, as he struggled to shine amongst Gregg Popovich’s favored youngsters.
Watching Lonnie Walker IV play for the Spurs was a frustrating experience.
In one moment, he’d do something that would give a viewer reason to believe he was bound for perennial superstardom before virtually disappearing for dozens of minutes at a time. If the Lakers can extract and build upon what makes him look so special every now and then, they might have a better-than-average role player on their hands this season, or even a new baby Laker to build around if he shows some major strides and they decide to re-up with him this offseason.
What is his best-case scenario?
As a solid self-creator and above-average finisher around the rim, the Lakers’ sole free agent signing of this offseason for above the veteran’s minimum would be best served by taking on a playmaking role off the bench, helping drive offense against opposing teams’ lesser defenders. And at just 23 years old, the Lakers and Walker both have to hope that he’s only scratched the surface of where he’s headed as an athlete and basketball player. Some work with skill development guru Phil Handy could go a long way towards utilizing more of Walker’s elite athletic gifts than he has to this point in his career.
Also, LeBron James may be able to weaponize Walker’s verticality through his preternatural court awareness and precision passing in a way Walker’s Spurs teammates never could, creating easy looks for Walker at the rim and beyond the arc. If they can develop a similar chemistry to the one LeBron built with Malik Monk last season, Walker could keep himself relevant by providing a burst of instant offense off the bench.
Last season, Walker shot just 31.4% on threes, but had never shot below 35.5% in his three prior campaigns. The Lakers will need him to be a reliable threat from downtown in order to maintain optimal spacing to make the most out of the league’s most potent interior threat in LeBron and Anthony Davis. A mere return to normal for Walker would be good enough to keep defenses honest and keep him playable, though an improvement towards legitimate marksmanship would certainly be a welcome addition to the roster.
What is his worst-case scenario?
The catch that comes with Walker’s admittedly electric highlight reel of high-flying dunks and smooth step-backs is just about everything that happens in between.
In each of his four full NBA seasons, Walker registered an F-grade in LEBRON (a catchall impact metric that looks at offense, defense, and everything in between from the folks at the BBall Index). His combination of athletic upside and age provide ample reason for upside, but he’s never been a genuinely good player during his NBA career so far.
Aside from his solid finishing and streaky shooting, Walker hasn’t been able to contribute in a meaningful way in any other area of the game. He’s an awful defender, rebounder, and mediocre playmaker, leaving an ocean between what he’s shown as a Spur and being a reliable contributor on a winning basketball team.
The worst-case scenario for Walker is that he shows no signs of substantive improvement early on in the season and spends the rest of the year on the bench.
The worst-case scenario for the Lakers is that he shows no signs of substantive improvement, but the team feels obligated to continue feeding its newest Klutch Klient and midlevel exception signee major minutes despite a mountain of evidence of his overwhelming ineptitude.
What is his most likely role on the team?
With Talen Horton-Tucker gone (but not forgotten), Walker will likely be first in line for any and all on-ball developmental reps the Lakers can hand out in the less meaningful moments of games. Even if the team is as competitive as it hopes to be, there will be chances when games get out of hand for Walker to go to work and show off whatever he’s worked on this summer.
If he shines, he may creep towards the top half of the rotation and contend for a handful of shifts per game. Realistically, Walker will likely slot in as the rotation’s seventh or eighth man, getting more or less run dependent on how he looks on any given night.
But with real upside and the attitude of accountability he’s demonstrated as a Laker, there’s a small chance the club’s found a diamond in the rough in Lonnie Walker IV.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.