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Season Review: Lonnie Walker

Lonnie Walker often made the most of his opportunities, but the Lakers must decide if his highlights outweigh his limitations.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

When Lonnie Walker and the Lakers inked a deal with one another this past summer, both parties did so with the understanding that it was a gamble.

For Walker, the decision to leave the cozy confines of the San Antonio Spurs’ organization for glitzy Los Angeles was a strategic one. Not only was the aim to make more money if he put up a strong year, but also, reveal previously untapped parts of his game.

For the Lakers, Walker was the exact type of player the front office has recently coveted. As a former first-round pick and still just 24-years-old, Walker fit the mold of a prospect who could benefit from a change of scenery (see also: Thomas Bryant). The team likely hoped to replicate the similar success in Walker as they did with Malik Monk the season prior.

While Walker didn't have the smoothest arc to his campaign, he still provided his fair share of unforgettable moments. But were the highlights alone enough to warrant another go-around in purple and gold?

How was their season?

Walker’s season was a true tale of two halves.

While there was initial trepidation when he signed for the team’s mid-level exception ($6.5 million) given his shaky play with the Spurs and inconsistent jumper, Walker quickly quieted the naysayers with a terrific start to the year.

He modified his game just enough for Darvin Ham to slot him in next to the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis thanks to the fine-tuning of his 3-ball and a more streamlined approach on offense.

Walker upped his 3-point frequency to it’s highest mark to date (44%) while also trimming the midrange heavy attack he previously relied upon. According to Cleaning the Glass, only 24% of his shot attempts came in the midrange this season, a career low.

More than just altering his shot-diet, the types of shots he attempted were just as important as where they came from.

Per the league’s tracking data, a career high 38.5% of his 3-point attempts came via the catch-and-shoot variety. Of those looks, Walker canned 38.3% of his opportunities and 43.1% on his wide-open attempts this season.

As a result of his more off-ball approach, Walker tallied just 46 pull-up attempts from behind the arc (his lowest since 2019).

Unfortunately for Walker, his hot start just as quickly cooled as his jumper started to miss the mark, and the defensive intensity he showed earlier in the year began to fizzle. Resembling the player who couldn't find his footing in San Antonio, Walker soon found himself out of the rotation entirely with the team’s post-trade deadline arrivals.

He would still end up making the spot appearance here and there throughout the year. And to his credit, he showed professionalism with his “stay ready” approach in each opportunity, and also continued to offer a glimpse of the oozing potential that has just not yet been realized.

The best example came in Game 4 of the Lakers’ second round series against the Golden State Warriors, where Walker scored 15 points in the final frame to boost the team to a commanding 3-1 lead.

“Candle stay lit,” he tweeted post game. A mantra he likely echoed to himself in the dark moments, and one that ultimately helped deliver one of the team’s most important performances of the season.

Should the Lakers bring them back?

Walker is an interesting case. The instances where he shined brightest came as a result of the roster lacking a player with his skillset. His force, athleticism, and ability to get downhill were mostly absent on the roster outside of the stars.

And in contrast, the moments where he fell out favor mirrored the larger issues of the roster itself, including his limited shooting gravity, spotty defense and proving to be too undersized against opposing players.

The task at hand then for the front office is to evaluate whether his strengths were actual or simply a mirage created by the very construction laid by their hands.

He ultimately did just enough to live up to his contract compared to other MLE signings around the league, but the team likely could and should pursue a more steady and reliable hand with their resources this summer.

Will he return?

Walker’s exit interview made it apparent he rightfully still thinks highly of himself and coupled with his previous longing for a bigger role, it remains to be seen if Los Angeles is the place to provide it.

That said, the Lakers would presumably welcome a scenario where Walker was back in the fold, especially given Rob Pelinka’s comments pertaining keeping the ‘young core’ intact. However, there’s likely a salary threshold to consider.

According to recent reporting, a potential next deal for the wing could fall within the $4-6 million dollar range annually.

The Lakers do possess Walker’s non-Bird Rights and could dip into or use their MLE to give him the deal he’s looking for. But given his fall from the rotation and sparse appearances throughout the year, the likelihood of that seems slim.

Here’s hoping wherever he does end up, Walker’s candle continues to stay lit.

You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.

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