Lonnie Walker IV has paid his dues says Popovich

San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (1) drives between Boston Celtics center Tacko Fall (99) and guard Jaylen Brown (7) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

After a rookie season cut short by an injury, second-year guard Lonnie Walker IV is slowly becoming a key contributor for the San Antonio Spurs this season.

Relegated to the bench and occasional minutes early in the season, Walker is now averaging 11.9 minutes per game and making an impact on both ends of the floor.

And head coach Gregg Popovich is noticing the rapid growth from the Spurs guard.

"He’s learning very quickly, pretty good decision maker but he prides himself first on playing defense and running the floor and trying to do all the basic things," said Popovich before the game against Memphis.

Walker's impact defensively has been a boost since seeing an uptick in playing time.

San Antonio is among the worse defensive teams in the league but with Walker, that end of the floor has improved. He boasts a Defensive Rating of 102.8 through 29 games played which is the best on the roster (minimum 20 games played). When he is off the court, the Spurs' Defensive Rating is 111.0.

Walker also ranks fourth on the team in rebound percentage at 51.4% and had a career-best seven rebounds against the Thunder on Jan. 2.

"He’s just figuring out how to play the right way," Popovich said.

Offensively, Walker provides a boost. His athleticism is off the charts as he can drive to the rim, and speed up the Spurs' transition attack.

Walker is second on the team in PACE at 104.5, averages 1.8 fast break points as well as averages 30.2% of his points in transition.

On the season, he's averaging 5.8 points per game and in the last three games, he's increased his scoring to 9.7 points per game. This includes his 19 point effort in a road win at Boston.

Put that together and the Spurs have a young, lethal player on the offensive end.

"He uses his speed wisely to get by guys," said Popovich. "So he’s using his athleticism wisely."

In an overtime win versus Houston this season summed up the potential Walker has at becoming a great two-way player for the Spurs. He became the first player in NBA history to record 28 points, four three-pointers and three steals off the bench before turning 21 years old on Dec. 3 to lead the Spurs to a 135-133 win.

The last time a Spur scored more than 28 points in their first 35 career games was franchise great Tim Duncan with 32 points as a rookie in 1997.

Walker has come a long way in a short time since his rookie season.

He's a product of the Spurs solid drafting, use of the G League as a development stage and it's noticed throughout the league.

"They (Spurs) are best at utilizing the G League, the minor league system," Memphis head coach Tyler Jenkins said. "For the players, the exposure they get. The amount of time they spend there."

Said Jenkins: "Lonnie Walker for example, is getting his opportunities and now he is in the rotation. It is part of the process to get guys ready for when their time comes."

The time is now for Walker.

There's still room for growth on the court but with each game he'll learn, improve and go through growing pains. It's all part of the process in San Antonio.

"He’s paid his dues and, as I’ve said, he’s learned about how important decision-making is and his time to score, what’s a good shot, not a good shot, and how to play with his teammates," Popovich said.

Twitter: @JeffGSpursZone