This weekend in Austin, Lonnie Walker IV did something he had never done before.

“The beginning, your stomach was turning, you’re not ready for it, but once you get up to that height, it’s amazing,” Walker said, grinning from ear to ear.

He just as easily could have been talking about his regular season pro basketball debut for the Spurs’ G-League affiliate on Friday night, but he wasn’t. He had just gotten off his first ever helicopter ride, celebrating an anniversary with his girlfriend Emily Miller.

“Seeing the views, seeing the sunset, and it’s a lot better when you spend it with someone that you love,” Walker said. “I’m happy.”

Walker described the helicopter ride as optimistic, a word he uses often. He’s a 19-year-old kid about to start the journey of a lifetime in the NBA, and fans in San Antonio love him already. It’s a period of exciting and tremendous change in the young man’s life, and he has every reason to be optimistic.

“What hasn’t changed? You know?” Walker said. “There’s not one thing that hasn’t had a significant difference since [draft] night, my entire life has changed amongst some of my friends and family that are still with me.”

Back in July, the Spurs selected Walker with the 18th overall pick in the draft. Kawhi Leonard was technically traded from the Pacers, so Lonnie is the highest Spurs draft pick since Tim Duncan. Injury concerns kept Walker out of the lottery, but he called it a blessing in disguise now that he’s happy and healthy in San Antonio.

“Before the draft, I didn’t expect to go to 18th or anything like that,” Walker said. “As a rookie, you can’t be any more happy having Coach Pop, Manu, Tim, the Hall of Famers all there coaching you, egging you on.”

Walker tore the meniscus in his right knee during the preseason, and legends of the game twice his age helped him build strength and conditioning through his recovery.

“My first time on the court I threw up, and that was because of Tim,” Walker said. “After I threw up he was like, ‘Let’s go, we got two more games to play,’ and that was that.”

Lonnie says that he’s running faster and jumping higher than ever before, and his layup line dunks certainly seem to support that assertion.

During the second half of his debut against the Agua Caliente Clippers on Friday night, he dove into the first row of seats to try to save a ball. A few possessions later, he jumped so high while contesting a corner three that he wound up on the Spurs bench. Fans at home might be holding their breath when he leaves his feet like that, but he’s just feeling good and playing the game he loves.

“Once you say that I’m cleared, I’m doing whatever I do because I’ve worked my tail off,” Walker said. “If I work my tail off, I can do whatever I want, and I know I’m gonna be good.”

It’s been a grind for Walker to get back to this point where he can play competitively again, but a familiar one. Walker tore the same meniscus before his freshman year at the University of Miami, and then he played well enough to get drafted in the first round.

“I’m happy for him to be back out on the court,” said Austin coach Blake Ahearn after the loss against Agua Caliente. “I know he’s worked really hard on the rehab part of it.”

Walker has also put a lot of work into fixing one of the only knocks on his game coming into the draft: shot selection. Watching his Miami tape, you could see that some of his tough jumpers early in the shot clock would draw the ire of Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, and he’s already taking steps to improve that decision making before he ever suits up in San Antonio.

“My mentality has always been the same, but one of the most significant things that I’m beginning to learn is just patience,” Walker said. “I’m like a horse, you gotta stay in your own lane.”

That newfound patience was extremely evident when Walker ran pick and roll on Friday night. He started the game using screens to dribble into open jumpers and get into a rhythm, and didn’t force anything.

“I’m very comfortable with pick and roll, always been comfortable,” Walker said. “I’m a confident shooter so if you put me in pick and roll, nine times out of ten I’m gonna make a good decision, whether it’s scoring or passing.”

After Walker got hot with his own shot, he started to attack the rim and set up guys around him for open shots.

“He did it for both himself and teammates,” Ahearn said about the young star’s pick and roll prowess. “He did a really good job when he got to the paint finding others.”

Walker’s quickness and long first step coupled with his accurate jump shooting make him a nightmare to defend in the triple threat. He creates a ton of space with shot fakes and jab steps, and adding a screener just makes it that much more difficult to defend. He shot 34 percent from beyond the arc in college, and his ability to shoot off the dribble anywhere opens up so much for the offense.

At 6’4” with a 6’10” wingspan, Walker has the physical tools to wreak havoc on defense. It will obviously take some time for him to integrate with the team defense in San Antonio, but a smaller offensive role with the big boys means he’ll be able to focus more of his energy on shoring up an uncharacteristically bad Spurs defense.

Walker played just about the first five minutes of each quarter, finishing with 14 points on 7/13 shooting, two assists, two rebounds, a block and a turnover in 19 minutes.

“I know it’s difficult for him to only play a certain amount of minutes and then get taken out and have to sit for a long time, but that’ll keep progressing, and then he’ll get back into a rhythm,” said Ahearn. “I’ll request that he stays with me the whole year, I don’t think that’ll work, but it’s good to have him.”

Coach Ahearn probably won’t get his wish considering Lonnie’s talent level and the current struggles of the 11-12 San Antonio team. Walker is bound for the NBA sooner rather than later, but he didn’t seem to care much that he played less than 20 minutes, or that it was in the G-League.

“Just to touch the floor man. It wasn’t even about scoring, defense, being able to just touch that floor and know that I’m playing at least ten seconds, shoot, that’s all I wish for,” Walker said.

“We’re gonna coach him hard, and we’ll have a lot of film to watch even though he played a short amount of time,” Ahearn said. “The biggest thing is he’s here to learn, he wants to get better, and we’re gonna do everything we can in order to help him progress.”

It’s hard to believe just how young Walker is. Calling him a millennial would be inaccurate, he’s Generation Z through and through. When the Cupid Shuffle came on during a timeout during a rest game on Saturday, he listened intently to the discussion in the huddle while subtly and instinctively bobbing to the right, to the right, to the right, to the right, to the left, to the left, to the left, to the left. For his entire young life, Gregg Popovich has been the Spurs head coach.

“I’m probably the biggest baby in the world, when it comes to go-karting, roller coasters, haunted houses, Spongebob, Disney, cartoons, that’s all I watch,” Walker said with a big smile. “I’m still the same kid, it’s just I know when to turn it on, and when to turn it off.”

Lonnie is still at that magical, fleeting age where an active young man can eat just about whatever he wants, and he seems to be taking advantage by trying out all of the restaurant recommendations fans tweeted him. You can find the self-professed burger dude at Hopdoddy, or Taquito’s on West Ave. If he’s in the mood for a slice, Fralo’s is the spot.

“Fralo’s is the best pizza, oh my gosh I love Fralo’s,” Walker said, practically drooling. “It’s called Lorfa’s Five, it’s like five different cheeses, oh my God, heaven sent.”

Not many things could get the San Antonio fanbase to turn on the kid, but a confession about a local breakfast favorite might get him in some hot water.

“You know what’s crazy? I still haven’t gotten a breakfast taco, I’ve been slacking,” Walker admitted.

Despite his youthful excitement, interests, and eating habits, there is something undeniably grown up about Walker. He says he matured at an early age, and that came from all the Lonnie Walkers before him.

“Lonnie Walker the first, he’s the OG, simple as that. Every time I talk about him and ask about him, he’s the guy, the wise man,” Walker said. “He was kinda like the godfather to all of us when it comes to wisdom, and the charming sense and the swagger, it all started with him.”

Lonnie Walker II tried out for the Buffalo Bills a long time ago, and Lonnie Walker III played college hoops at Alvernia University in Reading, Pennsylvania. He put down roots there, and raised a son who would go on to lead Reading High School to its first ever state title in 2017, ending a drought that dated back over a century.

A lot has happened for Lonnie Walker in the year and a half since he scored a game-high 22 in that championship, but he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He signed with Adidas thanks to fellow Reading Red Knight Eric Wise, and the two teamed up to donate 300 pairs of shoes to a youth basketball league in Reading, one of America’s poorest cities.

Much like her father, Zola Walker is a rare breed. Specifically, she’s a Presa Canario, a huge canine mastiff originally bred to protect farms and herd cattle. She already weighs 60 pounds at just five months, and she could grow to be nearly twice that size. Lonnie first got Zola as a gift for Emily, but becoming the parent of a puppy has changed his life substantially.

“At first I didn’t care about the dog, I was like, ‘this is your dog, so you take care of it,’ and she left for a week!” he said with a laugh. “I’m here with the dog for a week and I had to take care of it, and that entire week we became best friends. Now it’s like she’s my daughter.”

One and the same

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The puppy is softening him up and forcing him to be tough at the same time. As the father of a large, energetic, teething ball of muscle, the 19-year old Walker sometimes needs to play the role of disciplinarian.

“She has the cutest eyes, and she knows when it’s coming,” Walker said. “She’s so smart, so I’ll come home, and if she lays down in front of me, then I know she did something. Then I have to look around the apartment and figure out what she did, but I know for a fact she’s done something.”

“Wasn’t me”

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Zola is an elite athlete just like her dad, and Lonnie agreed that with proper coaching and in the right system, his not-so-little girl could be a meaningful contributor on the basketball court.

How can she jump like this

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“Fetching, defense, stealing, that’s all we need,” he said with a smile, although he does worry she might get in foul trouble. “My dog just loves to tackle.”

Zola has a beautiful coat, but her dad still has her beat for most unique hair in the family. The first time most NBA fans saw Lonnie, he was attempting to put his Spurs draft cap on over his completely one of a kind vertical updo. The meme harvest was plentiful that night, but Lonnie’s hair is more than just his calling card. It provides him with a tactical advantage.

“It’s kind of a cheat code,” Walker said. “I’ve been told a few times when I’m contesting someone’s jump shot that my hair kinda blinded them real quick.”

Lonnie seems about seven feet tall with hair, and unlike Elfrid Payton’s old do, it only interferes with his opponents’ vision. It also adds so much more motion to his head fake.

“It moves with everything, it catches you off guard,” Walker said with a laugh. “I might just start swooping down and hitting them in the face real quick while I’m going by them, shoot.”

If any player could get the first hair foul in the NBA, it would be Walker. He sported a red mohawk in middle school, a flat top in high school, and in his senior year he let it grow. His grandma hooked him up with some secret juice to keep it all in place. The humidity of Miami took a toll, but Lonnie loves the way it looks.

“I like it, it’s unique,” Walker said. “It defines me, I always like to be different and separate myself from anyone else.”

Lonnie Walker IV is a paradox in many ways. He’s completely unique, but incredibly relatable. He’s an adult watching Nickelodeon and a teen wise man at the same time. He’s a star who is down to earth, even though he’s willing to entertain the possibility that it’s flat.

In telling the story of how that conversation went in the Spurs locker room, Walker busted out an already perfect imitation of Popovich crossing his arms and scowling. Even if they disagree on basic science, Walker seems right at home with Pop in the Spurs organization.

“The love and the care that they have for one another is not like any other NBA team in my opinion,” Walker said. “This team is like a family, and I love it here.”

There is no timetable for when Lonnie will make his big league debut, but the wait for him and Spurs fans alike probably won’t be much longer. He’s a supremely talented athlete, and he might be the wildcard to provide the jolt this team needs to turn around a tough year.

Spurs fans shouldn’t expect the kid to save the season by himself, but there is much cause for optimism. The process will always be one step at a time, but Lonnie Walker IV is poised to take flight in the NBA.

“By the grace of God I’ll stay healthy and continue to develop as a man on and off the court,” Walker said. “I see that light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m ready for whenever my opportunity is. I’m finally ready.”

1 COMMENT

  1. God bless you Lonnie with much respect you will always be in our hearts and remembering the fun times we had with you growing up love Mama DeFazio

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