Lonnie Walker IV kept it honest when asked how he’s been able to thrive as the Nets’ sixth man.
“Not too many people can guard me, honestly,” he said after scoring a season-high 23 points Thursday night.
Despite not playing in the Nets’ first game and averaging only 21.7 minutes per game, Walker is third on the team in scoring (15.7 points) and has scored at least 20 points three times.
With Cam Thomas moving to the starting lineup before he got hurt, Walker has become the bench scoring threat the Nets expected when they signed him to a one-year contract.
There’s a blue-collar element in Walker’s game.
He went down with a knee injury Sunday against the Wizards and briefly exited before returning in the second half. After the Nets won, he said he’s been battling through left knee soreness since the second game of the season.
Walker, however, wasn’t planning on resting.
“My leg’s not broken. I’m going to keep playing,” he said. “Like my pops always says, just keep drinking water. I don’t know how that equates to this injury, but we’ll see how it goes.”
It’s helped endear him to a team in which nearly everyone has something to prove, whether it’s a new contract next offseason or higher expectations, in the cases of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson.
For Walker, who is in his sixth season, it’s building on his stint with the Lakers last season after an injury took him out of the starting lineup. His toughness fits in with coach Jacque Vaughn’s desire to have a team that plays hard, and it was Walker who noted the Nets have “a lot of dogs” after their gritty win over the Clippers on Nov. 8.
Walker has scored in double figures in every game he’s appeared in except Sunday. It’s a role he’s thrived in since he was drafted by the Spurs in 2018 and it’s helped the Nets weather the loss of Thomas and Johnson because of injuries.
Vaughn called it a luxury having the 6-4 Walker fit with small and big lineups.
“He’s proven that he can play with our starting group. He’s proven that he can come off the bench and be a spark plug for us,” Vaughn said after Thursday’s loss in Miami. “And then in games like this when he’s able to finish games because we need his scoring and we need his ability to get to the rim, he spreads the floor for us.”
With Thomas out at least another week with a sprained ankle, Walker’s scoring has become even more valuable as teams key on Bridges and Johnson finds his rhythm after a calf injury.
Even though Walker is confident about what he’s done, he’s grateful that the Nets are giving him room to score. It’s why he’s fighting through his knee injury to give them what he can and a jolt to the second unit.
“This is really one of the first or second years, I guess, where I can showcase my abilities offensively as far as like a three-level scorer,” he said. “And [Vaughn’s] allowed me to play through that. And I really thank God and Coach JV for the opportunity, you know, and I take it to the heart.”