Lonnie Walker IV wasn’t always this good. There’s a reason the Brooklyn Nets were able to sign Walker to a one-year minimum contract of $2.3 million this summer, a contract that’s damn near paid for itself just eight games into the season.
Last year, Lonnie Walker IV was averaging 15 ppg when he got hurt and lost starters job to Austin Reaves. Reaves played well, got $54M deal, Walker the vets minimum. This year, Walker averaging 16/3/2, shooting 51%. Reaves 13/5/4 and 41% in 10 more minutes. Walker’s younger.— NetsDaily (@NetsDaily) November 10, 2023
That doesn’t mean we should be shocked at how well the Nets-leading bench scorer has opened the season, though. Walker likely won’t keep shooting this well — 69% at the rim, 54% from the midrange, 43% from three, per Basketball Reference — en route to an eye-popping 26 points per 36 minutes. But it’s just as likely the guard has taken a significant, permanent step forward in this, his sixth NBA season. Walker is just 24 years old; even if one possesses the athletic tools and scoring skills he so clearly has, putting them all together takes time.
This is particularly true for a player who has walked the path Walker did to Brooklyn, his third NBA team. After flipping in and out of the starting lineup as a San Antonio Spur over his four-year rookie contract, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers looking for a more consistent role. And he got it, starting L.A.’s first 32 games of the season while playing the best ball of his career, averaging 14.7 points in nearly 30 minutes a night, primed to cash in during the off-season.
Those would be his only starts of the season. Following a knee injury which forcibly removed him from action, Walker’s playing time was inconsistent at best, DNP’ing nearly as often as seeing 20 minutes of burn.
We all remember his 15-point fourth-quarter explosion in Game 4 of the L.A.’s Western Conference Semi-Finals series against the Golden State Warriors...
...BUT that followed a series of garbage-time-only minutes against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round.
Following his season-high 21 points on Wednesday night, Walker credited his performance to being “Very composed. Just a lot of growth, and truthfully, a lot of confidence from last year, considering all the ups and downs, and the roller coaster, and then being able to play in the playoffs and play how I did, it carried over to this season.”
“Composed” is certainly the operative word there. Walker’s early improvements aren’t solely thanks to some nebulous mindset-shift, but also a newfound poise on the court, particularly when attacking the basket. His drives as a Net have followed a consistent pattern: patient, then explosive. It’s not that the appropriately-nicknamed SkyWalker is sacrificing any vertical pop, but rather than flying through the air at all times, the bench guard has been more diligent about plotting his takeoff points.
In other words, living by a classic coach’s mantra: slow to the paint, fast once you get there.
According to Lonnie Walker, his play is a result of “...genuinely understanding the game, kind of slowing it down. I used to always play 100%, going too fast without really analyzing the game. I watch a lot of film. Every time we play a new team, I’m watching their film, watching how they're playing defense, what’s available, what are key points to attack? There was a point in time [Ivica] Zubac had five fouls, so just being aggressive and knowing that he’s not really gonna try to foul you. Just growing that IQ aspect of the game.”
Here’s the play Walker was likely referencing, and it’s as indicative as any of his growth on offense:
The sixth-year guard ‘snakes’ the pick-and-roll (changing directions after using the ball-screen) to create space from Paul George, creating a one-on-one opportunity with Zubac. Walker then initiates the contact with the reluctant, back-pedaling big man before using his signature leaping ability off one foot to hang in the air and finish.
While Walker is largely out there to get buckets, he’s also displayed flashes of advanced playmaking, something “that I didn’t know he had,” said Jacque Vaughn. The ex-Laker is certainly out there to get buckets, but is also posting the highest assist-rate of his career.
Here, Walker uses a nice hesitation move to break past the first defender, setting up a runway to explode off one foot. And that he does. Only, instead of throwing up a floater or a contested layup, he dumps it off to Day’Ron Sharpe (making a great cut) once Nick Richards leave his feet:
“It’s a feel thing, rhythm thing, timing thing.” said Cam Johnson of his new teammate. “It’s gained with experience. Some guys have it a little more naturally, some guys got to watch a little more film to pick it up. Some guys got to play a little more to pick it up but that’s the name of the game Just having that feel. One thing that he’s been doing is just getting to his spots....everything he’s doing is right where it needs to be.”
That improved feel has resulted in Walker embracing an essential role for Brooklyn, and just in the nick of time. With Cam Thomas set to miss at least two weeks with an ankle sprain, the Nets are fortunate to be able to slot another dynamic, scoring guard in his place.
Though, no matter how healthy the Nets hopefully get, whether it’s the eventual return of Thomas or the immediate return of Cam Johnson against the Boston Celtics, it’s hard to imagine that Walker’s role diminishing too much. Not with the way he's started the season, and not with the way Coach Vaughn already feels about him.
After Wednesday’s victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, Vaughn called Walker “A great acquisition for us this offseason, and I’m just growing to trust him more and more...We drew up after-timeout plays for him, we also ran pick-and-roll for him specifically at the end of the game. Just because a lot of times, he’s going to have a favorable matchup, and he’s making the right decisions whether it’s the reads of getting to the rim, getting fouled scoring, off the bounce, he has the ability to to do all that.”
And Walker doesn’t take that trust for granted: “I’ve really been trying to work and build that trust within the coaching staff and the players as well. So the fact that I got a couple plays out of timeouts and whatnot just shows my level of progress as far as trust within the coaches. With that opportunity comes responsibility and just playing the right way.”
Why would he? At just 24, Lonnie Walker has seen it all through five-plus years in the NBA, from being a first-round pick to tearing a meniscus during his first training camp, to being yanked in and out of the starting lineup in San Antonio, only to head to Los Angeles and experience the same fate. Hell, he even began this season with a DNP on Opening Night.
Just two weeks later, it’s hard to believe that ever happened. Walker is now on pace for the best season of his career, only improving with each passing game. No, he wasn’t always this productive, but he always had it in him. It just takes time.
“What you put in is what you’re gonna get out of it, and I think my work ethic is starting to show, just how hard I’ve been working on the court.”