Before I even get started, I absolutely, 100 percent think we need to give Brandon Ingram at least a few seasons to really start judging him as an NBA player. After all, the kid turned 20 years old just last month.
The only problem is: the Los Angeles Lakers don’t have time to wait around for it.
If President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka elected to play the long game and continue building primarily around the young pieces on the roster, the Lakers would have time to be patient and allow Ingram to develop at a reasonable pace. But this past summer saw the team make it publicly known that this isn’t their plan.
Johnson and Pelinka are pushing all of their chips to the center of the table for the 2018 free agent class, even if it will cost some of their young talent to clear cap space. The Lakers have already traded away D’Angelo Russell to shed the contract of Timofey Mozgov, and if they want to free up enough space to offer two max contracts, they still have plenty of work to do.
The Lakers will need to offload the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson without taking any long-term money back in return. The clock is also ticking on Julius Randle, who is set to become a restricted free agent after this season, assuming he is given a qualifying offer.
Along with Randle’s free agency comes a $12.4 million cap hold that eats into the team’s spending money for next summer. They could renounce his rights, but he would become an unrestricted free agent, likely signaling the end of his time as a Laker. All three of these players could be traded before the NBA trade deadline in February, but it will likely require the Lakers to attach cheap, young talent or draft picks to shed the contracts of Deng and Clarkson.
But what do these free agency plans have to do with Ingram? As Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss learned the hard way before they were let go, you need something to sell free agents in terms of on-court product. Soon-to-be free agents like LeBron James and Paul George can get max contracts from any team that has the necessary spending money. That’s their going rate.
In order to pry them away from bonafide playoff teams, the Lakers need a concrete selling point of some established talent on the roster and probably the ability to bring help with them, especially in the Western Conference, where the Golden State Warriors project to be the league’s strongest force for the foreseeable future.
Granted, the Lakers haven’t entirely ditched the more distant future of the franchise by simply trading Russell. They have publicly endorsed Ingram and rookies Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma with very high praise. In Ingram’s case, Johnson has already set the bar unusually high. In a media day interview with Spectrum SportsNet, Johnson shared his arbitrary expectations for the 20-year-old, stating he would be “disappointed” if Ingram didn’t lead the Lakers in scoring this season and average at least 20 points per game (he quickly changed it to “15 to 20 points per game”).
Never mind the fact that just 33 out of 487 qualified players averaged over 20 points per game last season (6.7 percent of the league), if Ingram was actually able to increase his scoring average by 10.6 points from his rookie season, he would be just the 12th player in NBA history to average over 20 points per game in an age-20 season (per basketball-reference.com). It would also be the biggest leap in scoring from year one to year two of this short list.
The Lakers have gushed over the work that Ingram put into improving his game this summer, spending countless hours in the team’s outstanding new facility. Unfortunately, his hard work hasn’t translated into his game performances, at least not yet. That will need to change fairly soon if Ingram is to fulfill the expectations many have placed upon him to have a breakout sophomore campaign.
Through just four preseason games, however, we have seen much of the same player that Ingram was as a rookie. Ingram’s preseason campaign has seen him average 9.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 26.2 minutes per game while shooting a dreadful 31 percent from the field, including 11.1 percent from three.
Of course, his performance comes with a number of caveats. Ingram has played a large portion of preseason play without Ball and Brook Lopez, the team’s best playmaker and best player overall, respectively. Plus, it’s preseason. The games are typically an unorganized mess that rarely offer any substantial takeaways. Additionally, he is a ridiculously young professional athlete. It’s going to take Ingram some time to find his way in the NBA ranks. But because of the front office’s plan, time is of the essence.
In a perfect world for the Lakers, they would land both James and George in free agency, elevating the team back to contention status in the Western Conference while Ball and Ingram would have both time to develop and less focused pressure on their ability to do so. The two superstars in the tail end of their respective primes would help the team win plenty of games, and the hope would be that Ingram and Ball would be ready to take the torch back in a few years.
But the Lakers need stars like James and George to want to be there. For that to happen, the Lakers need their two prized youngsters to show tremendous promise. The team is doing their best to hype them up, publicly displaying their belief in Ball and Ingram, among others. Ball projects to have at least one elite NBA skill within reasonable reach, despite missing most of the team’s preseason campaign with an ankle injury. Ingram, on the other hand, simply hasn’t yet.
In order for the Lakers to make a major splash in free agency next summer and land two marquee players on the market, they need to be able to offer an opportunity to win before they even use the glamour of Los Angeles or the franchise’s storied tradition in their recruiting pitch. That requires production from their young players. Players should be attracted to Ball’s passing ability and unselfishness, but the Lakers need Ingram to be a noticeably different player than we saw last season.
If that doesn’t happen, could Ingram be used as a sweetener in a trade package to clear the books from one of the Lakers’ large contracts? Johnson has made it well known that Ingram is “untouchable” in trade negotiations, but if he continues to struggle like this, anything is possible. There wasn’t a ton of indication that Russell was about to be traded before he was; things can change quickly in the NBA.
The current outlook would suggest that Ingram probably isn’t going anywhere in the near future. The front office has raved about him and seem to genuinely believe that he will become a high quality NBA player. But Johnson and Pelinka have seemingly employed stricter expectations and less patience than the front office leadership duo before them. They have their sights locked on the 2018 free agency period. For his own sake and the team’s plan, the Lakers need more from Ingram, and they need it soon.