What's fueling Lonnie Walker IV's surge with the Los Angeles Lakers

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Sunday, November 27, 2022

EVERY MORNING, BEFORE Lonnie Walker IV reports to one of the biggest pressure cookers in all of pro sports -- a Los Angeles Lakers team determined to atone for last season's disaster and salvage the twilight ofLeBron James' career -- he meditates with a mantra.

"Dominate the day."

There's a sanctuary-like appeal to the 23-year-old's home nestled in an elevated neighborhood in Beverly Hills. It is surrounded by lush, green gardens with a breathtaking view from his backyard pool that spans out to practically all of L.A.

But he begins his days by looking inward.

He rises out of bed and finds refuge in a corner of his second-floor bedroom, where he dedicates 20 minutes resetting his operating system. Breathing in through his nose for four seconds and out of his mouth for four seconds.

In and out.

Dominate the day.

In and out.

Dominate the day.

The message, Walker says, imbues confidence and urgency. "It's just a time to unplug and really talk to your subconscious mind," the reserved shooting guard says. "Just trying to get my body and my mind reconnected."

It's working. Walker is putting up career-best numbers in scoring (16.9 points per game), field goal percentage (47.1), free throw percentage (83.7) and defensive marks (0.9 steals; 0.5 blocks per game).

Back in the corner of his bedroom, he sits with his back against the wall, legs stretched out in front of him with a window behind him trickling light into the room. He takes a whiteboard from the armchair it rests on and places it in front of him. The board is filled with dry-erase scribbles in blue, red and green ink that document his short- and long-term goals. He's five years into his NBA career, the first four of which were spent under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs after being selected No. 18 in the first round of the 2018 NBA draft.

He scans a long-term goal. Most Improved Player.

A short-term goal, he says, is something he wants to accomplish in a matter of months. Conference player of the week. Starter.

An even shorter-term goal? Wanting to have a strong showing in his first game back in San Antonio (Friday, 8 p.m. ET) since signing a one-year, $6.5 million deal with L.A. in the offseason.

"There's a book I was reading," Walker says. "It said every day you have the chance to get one percent better. So let's get one percent better. So that means I always have a fascination with what I can become. What man can I truly reach as an individual in this lifetime?"

HE DOUBLE-DIPS with his meditation on game days.

He picked up the practice years ago in high school working with Dr. Rick Neff, a sports psychologist who now guides Villanova University's athletic programs. Walker was a basketball phenom in Reading, Pennsylvania -- a small city an hour's drive northwest from Philadelphia -- and Dr. Neff helped him navigate the attention.

"He was one of the greatest people to come into my life," Walker says. "As far as really understanding the power of the subconscious mind and understanding how strong it is and the capabilities that you can do with it."

Walker adds an additional 15-minute in-arena session to refocus before tipoff that he completes in whatever private space he can find. It's a window of time after his on-court skills work and before coach Darvin Ham addresses the team.

At Crypto.com Arena, his refuge is an auxiliary locker room down the hall from the Lakers' luxury digs. The gray-walled room is unadorned and the music blasting from the public address system above the court is muffled. It's normally used by visiting NHL coaches, but left empty on NBA nights, so Walker parks himself on one of the wooden cubicles near the right side of the entrance and closes his eyes.

"I really feel like that's one of the main reasons I'm playing so well," he says. "It has genuinely transformed my mental state and my maturity level going onto that court. Once I'm done and I leave and I walk into the locker room, I feel like a different person. This ain't Lonnie no more, this is, 'It's time to play.' I ain't got no friends on this other team."

It's a mental discipline made more potent thanks to tremendous physical ability.

"From Day 1, he was a great athlete. He's got gifts that a lot of players don't have in that regard," said Popovich before the Spurs played the Lakers on Sunday, the first of three games the teams will play each other in a span of seven days. "He always depended just on that athletic ability, it was so ridiculous compared to other people. But now he understands more the mental side of the game with each year that passes, and you can see that in his play."

His play has been consistent as his routines, scoring in double digits in 11 of the 14 games in which he's started -- including three of them with 25 points or more. In 208 games with the Spurs, he reached the 25-point plateau just five times.

"I think his confidence is through the roof. The kid is phenomenal," Ham said. "I just have a huge amount of trust and belief in him."

THAT BELIEF, AND the same brand of perimeter defense and three-level scoring on offense, means his name could be stitched on the back of a Laker jersey next season -- and beyond.

L.A. only has roughly $92 million in contracts committed for next season, when the salary cap is projected to be $134 million, plenty of space to keep Walker if he continues to help the Lakers win -- he averaged 18.7 points on 52.5% shooting (46.7% from 3) during L.A.'s recent three-game winning streak.

"I'm here for one year," Walker says. "I would love to be here for as long as I can. So what do I have to do to get to that point? Being disciplined, being engaged and just stacking the days and being the best I can be is something that's going to get me there."

Last season, Malik Monk played a similar role for the Lakers on a similar contract, but he left to sign a two-year, $19.4 million deal with the Sacramento Kings with L.A. unable to offer more than the midlevel exception, which eventually went to Walker.

"He's kind of filled that void of being another guy that we can lean on to score the basketball," Anthony Davis told ESPN. "Score in bunches and just constantly try to learn and read the game as the season goes on."

Before the Lakers boarded their private charter for their three-game road trip bookending Thanksgiving with a game in Phoenix and then the back-to-back in San Antonio, Walker sat at home, preparing in his own unique way for the six-day journey. He grabs his phone and walks to the whiteboard in his bedroom. He snaps a photo of the goals he's written for himself, a reminder of where he is and where he wants to be.

As the team bounced from its temporary home in Arizona to its hotel in Texas, Walker finds a pad of paper and pen at the desks in his rooms, opens up the photo of his whiteboard back in Beverly Hills and recreates the list.

Long-term goal.

Short-term goal.

Then, it's back to the wall, legs stretched out, eyes closed.

"Once I'm done writing everything that I have from that whiteboard onto the paper, I put it in my pocket," Walker says. "It touches me, the words, everything is going through my body, and then I meditate."

Another chance to be 1% better.

Breathe in through his nose for four seconds. Breathe out of his mouth for four seconds. In and out. In and out. In and out.

Dominate the day.