In a Kawhi-less World, Can Lonnie Walker Help the Spurs Win?

In a Kawhi-less World, Can Lonnie Walker Help the Spurs Win?

Lonnie Walker (No. 18) of the San Antonio Spurs catches a pass against Chris Chiozza (No. 33) of the Washington Wizards during the 2018 NBA summer league at the Thomas & Mack Center on July 8, 2018, in Las Vegas.

SourceSam Wasson/Getty

Why you should care

With Kawhi Leonard gone is Lonnie Walker the piece that San Antonio is missing? 

It’s easy to tell when Lonnie Walker is feeling himself. As the shooting guard jogs up the floor, confidently calling for the ball, the tangled bird’s nest of braids atop his flattop begins to bounce in sync with its sharp-shooting host’s nods. When he finally gets the rock and proceeds to drain a 3-pointer, out come the pearly whites. Walker’s in his element.

Such is the case during the first half of the San Antonio Spurs summer league game against the Portland Trail Blazers in Las Vegas this July. With 12 points, including two silky 3-pointers and a rim-rattling dunk, Walker proved just how much higher his ceiling is than most of his opponents’. It’s easy to see why the Spurs made Walker their first-round draft pick (18th overall) this summer. It’s easier still to see why Walker keeps smiling. For one half of play, his talents are impossible to ignore.

Problem is, the 19-year-old rookie has a nasty habit of disappearing, and he goes scoreless in the second half. Whether that is a career-derailing deficiency or a temporary trait remains to be seen. Clearly, the struggling Spurs are banking on the latter. Walker’s NBA debut has been delayed by a torn meniscus, and his recent return to the court has come with the G League’s Austin Spurs. But as Walker prepares for the main stage, a franchise with 20 years of consistent success looks to him as its next star. Is he San Antonio’s next Kawhi Leonard, or a forgettable draft bust signaling the dynasty’s end?

If I’m playing 100 percent on defense, that’s what makes you a Spur.

Lonnie Walker

“Part of his growth will be learning to stay aggressive and adjusting as defenses change,” says Spurs assistant coach Will Hardy. “When you run off 12 [points] in the first half, the other team is going to take things away from you. That’s part of his maturation as a scorer.”

Lonnie Walker IV was born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania, a former coal-mining hub where, when Walker was coming up, 40 percent of residents lived below the poverty line — the highest figure in America. For much of his young life, Walker was one of them. Raised by a single mother, Walker found basketball was his way to elevate the family. “There was tough times growing up,” says Walker. “Hungry nights with no power, wondering where we’re moving. But we kept each other strong.”

A quick train or bus ride from Philadelphia and the state capital of Harrisburg, Reading tends to be overlooked by outsiders. Aside from a minor league baseball affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, high school sports rule the city. Walker is the latest in a long line of local athletes — most of them baseball players — to reach the big time. Less than two years after he broke former NBA forward Donyell Marshall’s Reading High career scoring record and led the Red Knights to their first Pennsylvania state championship, Walker is a newly inked millionaire starting his rookie season with San Antonio. On NBA draft night, the Reading Phillies held a watch party for Walker’s supporters.

Walker was an instant player of national intrigue in his lone season at the University of Miami, but he’s far from the prototypical one-and-done NCAA star. He started his freshman season slow, coming off the bench for the Hurricanes’ first 14 games while adjusting to the new system and better competition. And although he averaged a modest 11.5 points and 2.6 rebounds per game, flashes of superstar potential — like his 25-point outburst against Louisville on Jan. 24 — were not uncommon. “He’s a guy who can flat-out score, but he has a lot of work to do,” says Fox Sports analyst Steve Lavin. “Consistency is key in the pros.”

The slight shooting guard will need to build strength to withstand a full 82-game NBA season, but Walker’s most important maturation will be mental. “His attention to detail on defense is key,” says Hardy. “Coach [Gregg Popovich] takes defense very seriously. Lonnie needs to continue to communicate well on that end and stick to the details.”

An intimidating taskmaster, “Coach Pop” is also classically loyal to players who commit to his vision. From stars like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to championship-winning role players like Danny Green, Popovich will support and reward players who give their all on defense and trust his plans. In the case of Green, Ginobili and Leonard, Popovich has developed largely overlooked prospects into NBA stars. Following Walker’s 12-point “tale of two halves” summer league game, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford indicated the organization sees Walker the same way. “He’s looked good so far,” Buford said. “We’ve got a plan for him, and we’re excited.”

That plan accelerated in mid-July when after a year of mutual mistrust with their superstar over an injury rehab, the Spurs shipped Leonard — the face of the franchise and the 2014 NBA Finals MVP — and Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan and young center Jakob Poeltl. After Ginobili’s retirement and Parker’s departure in free agency to Charlotte, only reserve guards Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli remain from San Antonio’s fifth NBA title in 2014.

The upheaval is entirely foreign to Popovich’s no-drama dynasty, and Spurs fans are rightly worried. But for Walker, it is an opportunity to play instantly — and become the new standard in San Antonio. “I’m hungry, I’m motivated,” says Walker. “If I’m playing 100 percent on defense, that’s what makes you a Spur.”

The season so far has been a struggle, with point guard Dejounte Murray gone for the year with an ACL tear and four-time All-Star DeRozan unable to lift the Spurs out of a losing record. Walker’s imminent debut offers a ray of hope, and he says he’ll fit in with the culture. “That’s the good thing about the Spurs, most of the players have the same vision in life,” Walker says. “This is much bigger than just basketball.”

This wasn’t how they planned it, but a new age has arrived in San Antonio, with plenty of room to build around Walker’s bouncing braids.

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