After an offseason that saw Lonnie Walker IV spark the imagination of Spurs fans with an inspirational Summer League performance and “breakout” preseason game against the Rockets, the start of the 2019-20 season has been anything-but for the second-year swingman. While everyone knew he had a deep pool of veterans to overcome and would have to earn his playing time, this isn’t the start that was envisioned.
So far, Walker has appeared in 5 of 8 games, playing a grand total of 15 minutes, only exceeding 4 minutes twice. In those 15 minutes, he has hit 1-4 shots from the field, grabbed 4 rebounds, and has a 0:2 assist-to-turnover ratio. His first 4+ minute stint came against the Clippers, when he produced two rebounds, two fouls, and missed his only shot. Afterwards, this is what Gregg Popovich had to say about his performance:
“(He played) Horribly . . . I expect better effort, better awareness and a better attempt to take advantage of the minutes that he gets. I thought he was non-competitive.”
The harsh criticism caught some Spurs fans off guard considering Walker has hardly been given a chance to find a rhythm, although a deep dive into his performance showed it wasn’t completely unfounded. Regardless, if Walker was going to struggle for minutes, everyone assumed it would be due to the players ahead of him on the depth chart playing too well to give up their playing time, but that hasn’t been the case.
The player whom he is in perhaps the most direct competition with is Marco Belinelli, who is currently struggling through perhaps the worst stretch of his career. He has started the season averaging 4.3 points on 18.5% three-point shooting — nowhere near enough to offset his shortcomings on defense — and has by far the worst plus/minus per 100 minutes of any main rotation player on the team. (Granted, Walker is worse, but in a much smaller sample size.)
In that sense, it hasn’t been easy to understand why Pop has been so hard on Walker in limited minutes but keeps playing Belinelli (beyond the fact that he has a tendency to trust his veterans, and it’s fair to say Beli has earned that trust). Then, Walker seemed to answer that question for him. In a game against the Hawks six nights later, as Belinelli’s struggles continued, Walker got another chance in the third quarter to prove he belonged but proceeded to blow it with consecutive turnovers (a thrown-away inbounds pass that led to Hawks dunk and a travel), and his night was over after two minutes.
However, despite the chaos, Walker is taking everything — the criticism, the struggle for playing time, etc — in stride and turning it into motivation to do better.
“You don’t take the bad off what he was saying, you take the good out of it. He is just criticizing for me to be better. If he is saying I’ve got to show more effort, than I got to show more effort. There ain’t no excuses around it. I am just going to continue to strive and grow and be the best player I can.
“All you can really do is stay patient, be ready, keep an upbeat mentality and always stay prepared.”
Knowing that Walker is taking this rough start like a veteran and is turning it into a learning opportunity is all anyone can ask for — and it’s exactly the way Pop drew it up. Walker is not the first player he has used this “tough love” tactic on, and most have turned out okay (see: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green). The fact is Pop wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t envision great things for Walker; he’s just working to pry it out of him.
Walker’s time will come; he just needs to be ready when any and every opportunity presents itself. He wasn’t ready on those nights in Los Angeles and Atlanta, but hopefully he will be next time.