The following article was written by Ashwin Ramnath. Enjoy!
There was a time when being a combo guard was viewed as death knell for your chances at being a quality starter in the NBA. You were neither good enough to organize and direct an offense as expected of a point guard, nor were you completely comfortable playing off the ball as expected of a shooting guard.
Combo guard was virtually a euphemism for sixth man scoring guards. OAKAAK Jamal Crawford is the OG of this archetype.
In today’s “modern” NBA — a euphemism for less rigid positional designations and structural adherence — combo guards are very much en vogue. It’s not enough for teams to have just one ball handler on the floor and all perimeter players are expected to be able to run basic pick-and-roll almost as a point of order.
In years past a Donovan Mitchell, neither an elite shooter (yet) nor playmaker (yet) would have been seen as a man without a true position. In today’s NBA his ability to functionally perform both roles without being truly elite at either is, at minimum, acceptable if not ideal.
Versatility is the name of the game and players like Mitchell are to be hoarded, cherished and built around as a point of order. The current Knicks front office, led by Scott Perry and Steve Mills and their newly appointed, hand picked head coach, David Fizdale, seem to buy into this way of thinking.
At his introductory press conference Fizdale was asked about his stable of point guards and he was quick to respond that he sees all of them simply as guards.
What does this mean for the Knicks entering the draft? Per Ian Begley, there are some in the Knicks’ braintrust who believe they shouldn’t target a point guard with the current build of the roster.
However, publicly, the Knicks have stated that as they’re still in the “talent acquisition” phase of their rebuild they will take the best player available, regardless of position. While they may not want to take a point guard, certainly a combo guard who can flex between both guard spots would hold some appeal, particularly next to Frank Ntilikina.
Enter Lonnie Walker IV.
The 19-year-old combo guard out of Miami was mostly projected as a mid-to-late first at the end of the college season. Since the combine he has seemingly been rising up boards. The Knicks, among other teams, have done their homework on the Reading, PA native.
Lonnie Walker has already met with five teams with a Top 10 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, source tells me. The list includes Knicks, Magic, Bulls and Sixers. Clippers have also expressed interest. Draft stock definitely rising.— Bryan Kalbrosky (@BryanKalbrosky) May 18, 2018
More on @hoopshype: https://t.co/zcEFwLTxX9
Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report stated on The Long Twos Podcast that Walker is a prospect of interest to the Knicks and somebody who could be a potential sleeper pick.
Walker’s season averages don’t jump out at you, but it should be noted he was recovering from a meniscus tear which occurred in July. He also suffered an ankle injury prior to his fourth game of the season against La Salle. While this didn’t prevent him from getting on the floor for the Hurricanes to start the year, splitting the season into halves indicates a player who needed some time to knock the rust off.
Even then Walker’s box score stats don’t scream “must have lottery talent!” Judging Walker, or any true freshman for that matter, just on their box score production is an imperfect method, though.
It was often difficult to watch a Miami game without noticing Walker. He does a couple of things every game which pop off the screen for the sheer arrogance of the athleticism on show.
These are the flashes any team who selects him is hoping they can harness, develop and mold into consistent and efficient production. And they are flashes.
Walker, for all his unbridled athleticism and explosiveness, only shot 58.9% at the rim last season. That’s okay, not quite good. Like anything else, finishing around the basket can be improved, but don’t make the mistake of assuming having hops like he possesses makes him a savant at the rim already.
Offensively the man is more than just an athletic finisher, though.
He has consistent and compact form on his jumper and he’s able to catch, square up and shoot off of curls with ease.
Walker also demonstrated the ability to create space to elevate and shoot off the dribble both out of pick-and-roll and in isolation in which he ranked in the 98th percentile.
These are necessary skills for the elite perimeter scoring options in the league. Finding the balance between shooting off the dribble, attacking a switch by getting to the rim or moving the ball to find a better option is what separates high volume chuckers from the true scoring elites. Walker, like many young guards, struggles to find that equilibrium.
There’s really no need to take a contested step-back 16-footer here with 13 seconds left on the shot clock. Those are the type of decisions which can have negative consequences for offensive efficiency on an individual and team level on a large scale.
Walker needs to add more craft to his handle as well. He has down a basic repertoire of crossovers and hesitation dribbles. This allows him to create shots for himself, but to maximize his efficiency as a shot creator he needs to develop more advanced dribble maneuvers to allow himself to get to the rim more often.
As a playmaker Walker isn’t spectacular. He is able to make basic reads where he leverages the attention he commands to find the open man.
Most of his assists are of the “one man away” variety like above.
He doesn’t have tremendous feel in reading shifting defense when he attacks off the dribble, but he also doesn’t turn the ball over much and doesn’t fish for risky highlight reel passes.
To maximize his potential as a combo guard he has to show more playmaking chops, and he has hinted he has that in him. Plays like this, where he gets into the middle of the lane, sucks in the defense and finds the open corner shooter, would elevate him to a different level.
Defense is as just important as offense, though ... despite the last two decades of Knicks history. This is another area where Walker shows real potential to have an impact, but still has much room to improve.
Standing 6’4” with a 6’10”-plus wingspan, Walker is capable of defending both guard positions and at times handling switches onto wings. He’s extremely competitive with quick feet which allow him to stay in front of the ball to cut off drives and force tough jumpers.
Like many young players, however, discipline is an issue for him. On the ball he fails to get into a stance at times which allows easy straight-line drives and blow-bys.
Off the ball he’s prone to ball watching and losing track of his man. He does so here, getting sucked into unnecessarily helping on the drive which leads to an easy kickout for a wide open corner 3.
When he is locked in, though, he shows great willingness to fight over screens and chase around shooters — an invaluable skill to combat the 3 point-friendly offenses around the league.
Walker has shown promise as a help defender, averaging 1.6 steals and 0.8 blocks per 40 minutes, but he doesn’t seem to have the best instincts on how to leverage his tools optimally. Too often he over-commits and leaves his feet on basic pump fakes.
Walker could also do much better to use his athleticism and size to be a factor on the defensive glass. His 9.2 DRB% is poor, even for a guard, and is an area he could easily improve by making more of a concerted effort to crash down on the glass.
So what can we make of Walker? He flashes talent in almost every area of the game — shooting, slashing, scoring, ball handling, passing, defending, etc. — without quite excelling at any single one. He’s a player who looks like a killer in a 7-minute YouTube compilation, but hasn’t shown a high level of consistency. This is somebody who needs structure to hone his skills in a disciplined manner.
More than anything Walker is often his own worst enemy with his decision making, particularly on the offensive end. All too often the sum of his impact on a game is far less than it should be given his talent and physical tools. Walker need a gentle hand and careful eye to iron out the deficiencies in his game holding him back from realizing his potential.
If he was perfect, though, the Knicks wouldn’t have a chance of selecting him with the 9th pick in the draft. Even there Walker would represent a significant reach according to most draftniks, which isn’t to say they’re right.
Every year in every draft somebody falls much farther than he should have. At least in terms of scoring, Walker’s second half compares similarly to the numbers another guy — once deemed to be a reach in the mid-lottery — put up over a full season not so long ago.
Is Walker the next Donovan Mitchell? There’s no way to be sure, and while there are obvious similarities in both players’ build and skill sets, Mitchell, albeit in his sophomore year, was a more advanced playmaker, superior rebounder and and more impactful defensively.
It’s also a dangerous game to look for the “next ________”. The NBA floundered around for a half decade waiting for the next Jordan and it seems lately finding the next Curry is the new fad. The next Mitchell would certainly be a nice get for the Knicks and would fit very nicely alongside Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina — the only two players who should factor into the front office’s long term thinking — but the Knicks can’t pick Walker because he reminds them of Mitchell.
If Walker is the pick it must be because they believe in him and their ability to polish the rough edges of his game into a fully formed basketball diamond. They must also weigh the risk of potentially reaching for him at No. 9 if no trade down opportunity presents itself.
There’s a lot to like about Walker, but much of it is theoretical. The Knicks and many other teams are still figuring just how much value to place in that theory.