Lakers’ Lonnie Walker gets a crack at starting role

LOS ANGELES — In a lineup with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, it’s already easy to feel like the odd man out.

Consider Lonnie Walker IV’s situation on Wednesday night against Minnesota, inserted into the starting lineup alongside the Lakers’ “Big Three” and Patrick Beverley, playing small forward despite fitting the traditional mold of a guard.

But Walker quickly showed why Coach Darvin Ham has some faith in his ability to start, draining a floater, stop-and-popping for a jump shot, and speeding ahead in transition for a layup. His night ended on an unfortunate note: He sprained his left ankle in the third quarter. But he finished with 12 points and 3 rebounds in 19 minutes.

At 23, he was the youngest of the small-ball starting lineup by a long shot – but with athleticism to spare, he still has plenty of promise. The biggest question is how he’ll hold up defensively, Ham said pregame.

“Lonnie’s already a really physical, athletic, young, talented – highly talented – player,” he said. “And so for him to be motivated by that end of the floor, we wanted to throw him in there and see what it looks like.”

Walker has been scrutinized since the Lakers brought him in on a midlevel exception, especially given his 31.4% 3-point shooting figure last season. During training camp, he got off to a slow start because of an ankle injury that kept him out of the first two preseason games.

But Walker has shown his potential to grow after four years in San Antonio, and he has found being with a veteran group (after playing on a relatively young team with the Spurs) invigorating. On Wednesday morning, he talked about early advice he’s gotten from Dennis Schrӧder; how he’s admired how James takes care of his body; how Beverley makes him laugh when he talks in the third person.

To fit in, ultimately, Walker knows he’ll have to prove his value on the court.

“For me, I’m just consistently trying to make the right play,” he said. “If I see someone open, pass them the ball. Just playing, what I’ve learned from the Spurs, having that 0.5 decision. I think he’s really starting to trust and believe in my craft and what I can do. So now I’m excited to finally play with the main guys and see how this goes.”

RYAN BATTLING FOR ROSTER SPOT

During the Lakers’ first preseason win of the year at Golden State, an unlikely hero emerged: Matt Ryan, the 25-year-old forward who played a single game last season for Boston on a two-way contract. Though he’s only on a training camp contract, Ryan’s 6-for-9 shooting night from 3-point range got a lot of people talking – including his head coach.

“I think he’s been a diamond in the rough, and he’s a really intelligent basketball player, got a little toughness to him, as well as his ability to knock it down at the perimeter,” Ham said in his pregame press conference. “I think he’ll progress to the end of the preseason, and hopefully he’ll be a Laker long-term.”

That’s a big endorsement from Ham, but Ryan – who once worked as a landscaper at a cemetery before breaking into the NBA – has been keeping it cool. Talking to reporters at Wednesday’s shootaround, the native New Yorker shrugged off the high stakes going into his last two preseason opportunities.

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“That’s part of the NBA, right? It’s playing with uncertain circumstances,” he said. “And for a player like me on a non-guarantee with literally nothing guaranteed at all, it’s just coming in every day and putting in some extra work. That way, when the game comes, I feel extra ready.”

The Lakers still have an open roster spot that they could use on Ryan, though the luxury tax penalty would push the cost of a veteran’s minimum contract into several million dollars. The Lakers could also keep Ryan on a two-way deal, but those spots are currently occupied by Scotty Pippen Jr. and Cole Swider.

Ham subbed in Ryan during the second quarter to get him a few minutes alongside a regular rotation to see how he fit (he missed his first two attempts). But Ryan said no matter what happens – or where he ends up – he’s planning to stay aggressive.

“It gets addicting: You just want more and more,” he said. “So I’m just itching for the next opportunity to continue to prove to everybody that I can shoot it at a high level every night.”