There were indications, even before Lonnie Walker IV was selected No. 18 by the San Antonio Spurs in Thursday night’s NBA Draft, that it would be a big night for the University of Miami basketball program.
Hurricanes head coach Jim Larranaga and his staff flew to New York with UM athletic director Blake James and other members of the department and they watched the draft from a suite at the Barclay Center. Walker was one of 20 players invited to be in the green room for the event. He showed up in a white double-breasted suit and wire-rimmed glasses.
Walker, an explosive shooting guard who left the Hurricanes after his freshman season, tied Shane Larkin as the highest UM draft pick since Rick Barry was selected No. 2 by the San Francisco Warriors in 1965. Only four Miami players had previously been taken in the first round – Barry, Larkin (No. 18 in 2013), Tim James (No. 24 in 1999) and John Salmons (No. 26 in 2002).
Walker’s UM teammate Bruce Brown, who left after his sophomore season, was selected in the second round at No. 42 by the Detroit Pistons. It was the first time two Canes were chosen since 1970 (and those were in the 10th and 15th rounds).
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Walker was in tears as he hugged his family after his name was called. "It's extravagant," he said. "I truly can't put this feeling into words right now, but I can only thank my mom, my dad, family and friends for supporting me through the grind. We're finally here."
Reached by phone late Thursday night, Walker tried to explain what draft night was like: "On a scale of 1 to 10, it would be infinity, honestly. It's an impossible feeling. I can't even replay it, can't describe it. It's just one of those feelings where it's like, `Wow! This actually came true.' It's hard to picture a dream and think that you can actually grab it and turn it into a reality and I was given an opportunity to do that."
Sitting alongside Walker for the ESPN post-draft interview was Spurs legend David Robinson, who said: "The great thing is, they will take care of you. Pop (coach Gregg Popovich) is a guy you've just got to trust. He'll put you in a situation where you can be successful. You're going to thrive there."
Walker has never been to San Antonio, and admitted he doesn't know anything about the city. But he is eager to get there and "prove everyone wrong." He said he is hungry to work hard, improve his game, and prove he is "the best player" in the draft. "I will progress as a man on and off the court. Sooner or later (my) name will get bigger and we will shock the world."
Walker added that he is looking forward to playing for Popovich: "I feel like being able to play with the Spurs and being coached by someone like Coach Popovich is going to teach me how to be great. Simple as that. He knows everything about the game, and he's got something special coming toward San Antonio...My character fits perfectly with them. It's always bigger than basketball. He knows things about outside life. I'm ready to talk to him and learn and collect data from a guy like Popovich."
Meanwhile, in Walker’s hometown of Reading, Pa., a crowd gathered for a Lonnie Walker draft watch party at the FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Phillies’ double-A Reading Fightin’ Phils.
"I'm just a kid from Reading," said Walker. "I got to create my message through basketball to motivate the youth."
Walker said he was overcome with emotion realizing, at the moment he was drafted, how far he had come. He used to joke with his friends and family about making the NBA, and said it was hard to believe it actually happened.
"You see your mom. You see that beautiful smile after such great accomplishments. It's amazing," he said. "People don't understand where I come from. I talked to my mom earlier today. We don't have to worry about sharing a cheeseburger for dinner. We don't have to worry about sharing some Doritos for breakfast. Things of that nature. I got her back. Same way she got my back for the past 19 years."
The buzz in recent weeks was that Walker could be selected as high as No. 9 by the New York Knicks or No. 10 by his hometown Philadelphia 76ers. Although his season stats were not spectacular (11.5 ppg., 2.6 rpg.), Walker impressed NBA coaches and league executives on and off the court at the Combine in Chicago, a Pro Day in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and at private team workouts.
Walker finished Top 10 of 56 players at the NBA Combine in all three speed categories and Top 15 in the two jumping drills. An All-Academic ACC player, he also felt he did well in meetings with NBA executives.
“My interviews went great, above average,” he said before the draft. “People are finally getting to see who the real Lonnie Walker is and get my perspective on life. It’s been amazing. I feel like a little kid, like I’m in Disneyland.”
ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz said Walker could be "the steal of the draft" and that he might have slipped to the low teens "because there were some concerns about his medical." Walker injured his knee last summer.
“A lot of teams look at what Lonnie might be able to do going forward that he didn’t really get a chance to do at UM in a short season where he didn’t play a ton of minutes early,” said Walker’s agent, Happy Waters. “Teams draft on potential, and in Lonnie’s case, he showed some signs of greatness and I think teams want to see how great he can be, what the real upside is for a kid who just turned 19 in December.”
Schmitz said of Walker: “His game really pops. Every move he makes in the perimeter is an NBA move. He can really shoot it on the move, he can get shoot it off the dribble, can get out in transition. He has to improve his defensive intensity and his ability to kind of make plays for others and think the game at a high level. He's not quite Donovan Mitchell, but you watch that type of player pop in the NBA, and I think it's easy to get excited about a guy like Lonnie, who's explosive and can really shoot the ball in a variety of ways.”