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June 13, 2018

Sixers prospect preview: Can Lonnie Walker refine his handle enough to be a star?

In advance of this June's 2018 NBA Draft, the Sixers have a lot of preparation to do in order to narrow down the field of candidates who will be available at the No. 10 pick. They haven't asked for our help, but I will provide it for the fans in the form of scouting reports on a mix of players who (realistically) could be available when the Sixers are on the clock at No. 10.

Not every one of these players we will profile at PhillyVoice is someone I would advocate drafting, and in fact, a large part of this exercise will be forming and explaining my personal view on players who exist on either end of the plausibility spectrum. You will (hopefully!) read about guys like Mikal Bridges, viewed as a near-consensus target, and wild-card picks like Zhaire Smith, raw but talented young men who might represent a bigger home-run swing.

By the end of this process, my hope is that you feel a little bit stronger about whatever beliefs you have about these guys, or that I have challenged what you thought you knew about the various players on the board.

Up next on the hit list: Miami’s Lonnie Walker, a Reading, PA native who started off slow last season but flashed enough to generate some lottery buzz.

The measurables

Age: 19 (turns 20 in December)

Height: 6'4.5"

Wingspan: 6'10.25"

Weight: 196

College averages (1 season): 11.5 PTS, 2.6 REB, 1.9 AST, 41.5/34.6/73.8 shooting splits

The offensive package

Athletic tools and belief in shooting

Relative to some of the other prospects in the range the Sixers will be selecting in, there's a lot of projecting to be done to make the case for Walker. Some of that is outside of his control — he suffered a torn meniscus last July, and though he was able to make his season debut in Miami's November 10 opener against Gardner-Webb, he was not a regular starter for the Hurricanes until early January.

Walker is a scorer through and through, which he didn't necessarily get to show off in a lower usage role early in the season. But once freed up to take a larger share of the offense, Walker began to show off some of the same tools that helped him lead Reading High School to their first state championship in the program's history. In his first collegiate start against Boston University — and the first game in which he had double-digit shot attempts — Walker poured in 26 points and paced Miami to a win.

Armed with a quick first step, good explosion, and the threat of pulling up to shoot in a variety of situations, Walker has a lot of ingredients that teams look for in reliable scoring options. Though his percentages aren't the strongest indicators for success at the next level, his variety in shotmaking (and taking) suggests he has a shooting profile to build from. He's comfortable and confident shooting from extended range — perhaps a little too confident if we're being honest — and shotmaking off the dribble continues to be an in-demand skill for guards/wings in 2018.

The Sixers are in desperate need for guards and wings who can combine the ability to hit shots in catch-and-shoot situations with the ability to put it on the deck and punish defenders for aggressive closeouts. It wouldn't necessarily be fair to question his ability in the former, but he did have a lower volume of catch-and-shoot looks at Miami than some of his peers did elsewhere. Some of that comes down to role, system, and playstyle, as you'd be expecting him to do very different things than either of Mikal or Miles Bridges.

For reference, here's what their volume of assisted threes looks like side by side:

Player % of 3's assisted 
 Lonnie Walker69.6 
 Mikal Bridges95.2
 Miles Bridges 90.1

That's a pretty large discrepancy! 

There are several conclusions you could make here, all of which depend on the eye of the beholder. In the opinion of this writer, I would bank on Walker's mechanics serving him well in the event he was asked to play alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, forced to create his own shot less often than he was at Miami. Add that onto his ability to shoot off the dribble and hurt opposing teams with his athleticism on quick cuts and straight-line drives, and you have a player who would theoretically aid their offense a great deal.

It's important to temper those expectations a bit based on his actual success there at Miami — he was 22/66 in catch-and-shoot plays at the college level, which doesn't exactly scream high-level shotmaker away from the ball. But his mechanics are compact, repeatable, and his release point high enough that he should be able to get his shots off with relative ease at the next level.

The Sixers have a severe lack of offensive diversity throughout their lineup, and a scorer who can get his in several different ways would help tie things together and offset the unique profile of a player like Simmons.

Will his handle develop enough to take advantage of NBA spacing?

For Walker to really be able to fulfill his promise as a scoring option at the NBA level, he is going to need to prove he has the capacity to improve his handle. If you were marking down a potential "swing skill" that will determine which side of the pendulum he drifts toward, it would be his ability to break down defenders one-on-one.

His shooting percentages across the board are the best reflection of this reality. Ask him to get to the rim on a straight-line drive, and Walker is more than capable of using his burst to get by a defender and score. But if his path to the rim is impeded by one-on-one or help defense, he doesn't have a whole lot of tricks in his bag to create separation on a routine basis.

While his off-the-dribble shooting is a definite asset, it is also in part a necessary evil/product of this flaw in his self-creation toolkit. Too often, Walker will pick up his dribble and take contested stepbacks or stall the offense because he lacks the improvisational ability to duck and dive through pressure. Considering his scoring ability is one of his primary selling points, Walker's inefficiency at Miami against lower-level competition should raise some eyebrows.

An optimist would point to a laundry list of players who have improved their handles over time at the next level — Paul George is the go-to name here — or note that better spacing with NBA-caliber teammates and a deeper three-point line could be a difference-maker. Donovan Mitchell is a more recent example of the former, with his rapid improvement on-the-ball helping him become a go-to scorer in year one, against all reasonable expectations.

But if you're evaluating someone like Walker within the context of outlier improvements from other former prospects, you're doing yourself a disservice. A median outcome here would see him make improvements to his separation ability, but not enough that it changes his general style of play or efficiency as a scorer.

In that case, Walker would end up being a more limited offensive player than his prior reputation suggests. He's not an especially willing or advanced passer for someone who has played with the ball in his hands a ton at the amateur level, and that suggests some combination of a lack of feel or skill. In an offense that prioritizes smart ball movement and unselfishness, Walker may not be the right sort of player to complement the pieces already in place.

Walker shows promise in a lot of important areas for a guard scorer. That said, it's fair to be dubious that his improvement during conference play came down to recovery from the meniscus injury and increased comfort at Miami, rather than just being a good run of play from a flawed prospect.

The defense

Upside as an on-ball/point-of-attack defender

Walker may not have top tier explosion, but he has quickness in spades and can use it to great effect on both ends of the floor. Combined with his solid (and lengthy) frame for a guard, there's a lot to like in Walker as a defensive prospect.

There are some prognosticators who believe Walker can eventually be a three-position defender, and I'm not sure I see that. He'd be giving up inches to a lot of the league's threes, who these days are often interchangeable with power forwards in the size department. Wingspan can help him make up for that discrepancy, there's just a logical limit.

However, he does have the lightness on his feet necessary to deal with a large majority of the league's players at the one and two spots. He's at his best as a defensive player when you challenge him to take on-ball assignments, and Miami even used him in that fashion in late-game situations, which he took to quite well.

In theory, these same physical traits should be applicable to other defensive tasks, like chasing opposing players around screens and recovering to shooters on switches. We got to see a little bit of this in one-on-one drills Walker did at his Sixers workout on Monday, in which he was still closing out hard on corner shooters deep into a workout in Camden.

When Walker's engagement level is there, he's absolutely capable of disrupting things for opponents and being part of good defensive play. One problem with that thesis...

Ball-watching and general off-ball awareness is an issue

Staying engaged is probably the biggest issue for Walker as a defender. Part of the reason you want him to be a point-of-attack guy is that when he's put in situations where he's not actively involved with the ballhandler, his mind can drift and lead to glaring defensive errors.

He would not be the first young player to grow out of this habit if he's able to overcome it. A lot of high-level players in high school and college are asked to shoulder heavy responsibility on offense, which naturally leads to letdowns on the other end of the floor. In the one-and-done era, there are also examples of guys who don't feel the need to overexert themselves in college and rely on offensive output/production to put themselves on the draft map. Smile for the camera, Ben Simmons.

However, I think there are some troubling indicators for Walker when it comes to rectifying his defensive woes at the next level. While offense and defense are two separate entities, I think you can get a grip on general basketball awareness between traits players show on either end. If you're seeing passes or opportunities ahead of time on the offensive end of the floor, it stands to reason you might be able to use that thinking ability to serve your team well on defense, even with physical limitations.

I'm not sure Walker has shown a high enough level of game intelligence to warrant that optimism on defense. He's shown some nice things as a cutter and has flashed as a passer from time to time, but not at a volume that would convince you he's thinking the game at an especially high level. If it seems unfair to conflate the two, perhaps it is! After all, he's still a teenager until December and was in a less-than-ideal situation coming off a knee injury in his freshman season.

But I'm of the belief that as a general rule of thumb, it's not all that wise to bet on players to improve both their awareness and compete level on defense at the next level. It's far from a given that he's a net-positive on the defensive end over the long-term, even if he's capable guarding ballhandlers.

Does he make sense for the Sixers at No. 10?

Despite all the concerns that come attached to Walker, he's a name that a lot of draftniks have connected to the Sixers in recent weeks. Some of his biggest proponents are people who have followed his career since high school, where he became a five-star recruit for obvious reasons. Belief in him didn't just emerge out of nowhere.

Your affinity for taking risks will probably inform your opinion on Walker. He has shown enough flashes to warrant some optimism for his development, and assuming you think he has a good head on his shoulders, maybe you believe he'll turn those flashes into consistent, impactful basketball. More than anything else, those underlying traits like work ethic and willingness to learn/improve helps separate the dime-a-dozen, toolsy guard prospects from the guys who put it together and deliver on their promise.

And for what it's worth, it's a lot harder for players to develop that off-the-bounce shooting Walker has shown off repeatedly than it is for someone to become a respectable and reliable player in catch-and-shoot situations. When matched with his tools, Walker's shooting utility alone is enough to lend hope for a long and productive career.

Given his other concerns as a prospect, I'm just not sure I would be bold enough to gamble on him at No. 10 without an especially strong statistical profile to accompany the talent flashes. There are comparable options in that range that feel like less of a risk to flame out, and the decision will ultimately come down to whether you think his high-end upside is worth that risk.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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