Lonnie Walker IV shakes buildings with his dunks, but he opted for finesse to pay homage to the first great Spur, who was watching from the stands.
On Throwback Thursday night in Austin, George Gervin graced the HEB Center with his presence. The Hall of Famer and two-time NBA scoring champion was once a 19-year-old rookie himself, and when Walker paid tribute with the finger roll finish Gervin invented, it must have brought a smile to the Iceman’s face.
“You’ve got to respect the legend here tonight,” Walker said after the game. “I had to show him that I got what he got a little bit.”
Walker also paid tribute to Gervin by scoring a bunch of points, 24 in just 23 minutes to lead Austin to a 91-81 victory over the Northern Arizona Suns. He got into a rhythm on offense and put his full repertoire on display, shooting 10/19 from the floor, 2/5 from three, and doing a little bit of everything to get there.
Lonnie got his first two jumpers of the game to go, first pulling up on a baseline drive, and then cutting off the ball to the three-point line for an open look. At 6’4” with a 6’10” wingspan, Walker has the size and diverse skill set to truly be considered a combo guard, capable of excelling on and off the ball.
Lonnie’s first buckets came on jumpers, stopping and popping on a baseline drive, then coming off a screen to catch and shoot a three in rhythm. pic.twitter.com/b2ZEzKLAKq
— Tom Petrini (@RealTomPetrini) December 7, 2018
He came out hot, but then missed his next three jumpers. Walker is a confident and capable shooter, but sometimes streaky.
“When I was growing up, I miss three shots, I’d almost break down and cry sometimes,” said Walker IV. “You’ve got to just let that go, time doesn’t wait on anyone.”
Even on nights when his shot is hit or miss, Walker always seems prepared to make a play whether the ball is in his hands or not. Most basketball players do not want to catch a live grenade with a second left on the shot clock, but Lonnie might be the rare exception. He basically put on oven mitts to catch this hot potato, and calmly drilled the three.
The Reading, Pennsylvania native grew up watching Allen Iverson, and you can see bits of AI’s influence in Lonnie’s attacking mindset, his emotions playing the game, his undeniable swagger, and the way he rises into contested jumpers too early in the shot clock on occasion. Walker knows he needs to work on his shot selection, and much like the Answer, he’s at his best when he gets to the basket.
“First half I was taking a lot of shots, coach was just saying attack the rim,” Walker said, analyzing his performance. “You attack the rim, after a while the paint gets a little bit smaller, there’s an open man here and there, so once I started doing that the game just got a thousand times easier.”
Lonnie beat three defenders on this play:
1. Perfect hesitation and read on the screen
2. Drives to his right past a center
3. Tough layup banging bodies against the help defender pic.twitter.com/ON49gSanYX
— Tom Petrini (@RealTomPetrini) December 7, 2018
Lonnie is more than capable of driving to the rim, but he might be even better at slashing as a uniquely athletic off guard. If he doesn’t have the ball, he isn’t standing still. He’s constantly churning his legs, cutting to dirty areas and keeping the defense off balance. When he gets near the rim he’s finishing effectively, even through tough contact.
Walker continued to collapse the Suns with pick and roll sets, and his ability to shoot from everywhere kept the defense off balance and opened opportunities for his teammates. On both of his assists he drove, jumped, moved the defense with his eyes like a veteran quarterback while floating, and delivered a perfect pass to a player with a high percentage look.
The youngster dished a few saucy passes that didn’t end in assists. One went behind the back to an open shooter on the wing, and the other a mid-air adjustment under the basket for an open corner 3. Lonnie Walker III is pretty old school, so his son grew up on Youtube mixes of Oscar Robertson and Dr. J.
Lonnie’s only turnover of the night came after he forced one himself in early transition. He put too much sauce on a pass to Dejuan Blair, and an easy layup thwacked against the top of the basket stanchion. The rookie looked on in disbelief, clearly disappointed in himself, but he was laughing about it before the sound finished echoing throughout the arena.
“You’ve got to have amnesia when you’re playing,” Walker said. He seems to already understand the balance between understanding his mistakes and not letting them shake his confidence. “I gotta work on my free throws right now, I’m shooting like Shaq,” Walker said with a laugh after the game.
“There’s peaks and valleys, and you forget he’s 19 years old,” Austin Head Coach Blake Ahearn said after the game. “He’s got a lot to learn, and the best part is he wants to learn. He wants to be coached, and we’re coaching him.”
While the Suns were shooting free throws, Ahearn signaled a play called ‘elbow split.’ Walker came over to get some clarification, and talked it over with his coach through the break. Ahearn loves the kid’s approach to actively learning as much as he can.
“He’s asking to watch film, he’s asking, ‘What do I need to do?’ Sometimes, we’re trying to tell him to take it easy,” Ahearn said. “It doesn’t have to happen overnight.”
As talented as Walker is, he won’t be expected to carry the scoring load for San Antonio any time soon. If he does get called up and cracks the rotation, it will be because he proves he can use his length and athleticism to improve the second-worst defense in the league.
4) According to PDR, the Spurs had several excellent perimeter defenders last season in Murray, Anderson and Green. So far this season, those minutes have gone to players that rated very poorly as perimeter defenders last season. pic.twitter.com/dNBBwB2qiT
— Steve Shea (@SteveShea33) December 6, 2018
“Everybody knows if you want to play for Pop, you’ve got to defend,” Ahearn said. “Guys always want to gravitate toward the offensive part, and that’ll all come on its own. Right now, we’re just gonna worry about what he does defensively, and keep coaching him there.”
Lonnie certainly has the length to defend both guard positions, and he’s learning the Spurs’ system in Austin. It will take some time for the teenager to get used to playing with new teammates against NBA opponents, but that’s something that only comes with practice.
“I think the more reps he can get in meaningful game minutes, the better it is for him,” Ahearn said. “He’s gradually gotten a little bit better with the extended time, and coming back from his injury.”
Walker will get his reps, the question is how long until he starts getting them at the highest level. People who cover the team will point to the recent history of Bryn Forbes, Derrick White and Dejounte Murray as evidence that the team won’t rush Lonnie along. On the other side, you have the fans who see his warmup dunks and question Coach Pop for not bringing him up already.
The reality lies somewhere in between. Walker is recovering from an injury, so the Spurs should make certain that he’s healthy before putting him out there. He’s a solid and exciting player who probably should have been selected in the lottery, but he still has room to grow.
At the same time, this year’s San Antonio team is struggling to penetrate to the rim, playing the worst defense in the Popovich era by far, and is below .500 for the season in December. This is not the perennial 50-win team that could afford to bring prospects along slowly. This is a squad that is rebuilding and desperately in need of a spark, and Lonnie Walker IV fits the bill.
Walker won’t fix everything wrong with the Spurs, but in a season like this, he can certainly help in many ways. It’s a perfect storm for the kid to come in and make an impact on a struggling team that can live with his growing pains, which will inevitably come whenever the former Hurricane makes landfall in the NBA. Nobody knows when that will be, but it’s visible on the horizon, and it will happen in the blink of an eye when it does.
“There’s a lot of times we find out day of, hour before, whenever,” said Ahearn, who calls this the blessing and curse of his job. All he can do is prepare Walker for his eventual trip down I-35, try his best to win basketball games, and have a laugh about it. “I’ll fight tooth and nail when they want him back, I’ll tell them that he needs to stay, but they don’t listen to me so it doesn’t matter.”
View the original article on Project Spurs: Inside Lonnie Walker IV’s Ice Cold 24 Point Game