The Los Angeles Lakers are finally growing out their wings. Years of rebuilding have led to light at the end of the tunnel as the team continues a run of strong play. Now 21-14 since January 7th, the Lakers are competing against top-tier teams and holding their own, giving promise that they are a squad on the rise despite missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
There are a lot of reasons behind the Lakers’ newfound success. Lonzo Ball has worked through his rookie struggles to lead the team from the point guard position. Julius Randle has improved exponentially to provide consistency on both sides of the ball. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez provide veteran stability on and off the court. Luke Walton has created a culture that has, in turn, influenced a top-half defense.
But one major factor continually gets overlooked: Brandon Ingram’s steady improvement.
Ingram had a mostly atrocious rookie season with a strong stretch after the all-star break, giving just enough hope that he still had a promising future ahead of him. Turns out, that hope was warranted as the Duke product has produced on both ends of the floor, developing into the biggest bright spot for a team filled with young talent.
Look at all of Ingram’s numbers and you’ll see improvements across the board. More importantly, you’ll see huge leaps in every statistical category the likes of which are incredibly rare. Perhaps the poster child of sudden improvement, Jimmy Butler had a similar leap between his third and fourth seasons.
Butler’s had improvements of 6.9 points, 0.9 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game. His shooting percentage jumped 6.5 percentage points from the field and 9.5 percentage points from three.
Ingram between his rookie and sophomore seasons has, so far, had leaps of 6.8 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. His shooting percentage jumped 6.7 percentage points from the field and 8.6 percentage points from three.
That type of leap is incredibly rare and oftentimes indicative of a player making the jump from a contributor to a superstar as was Butler’s case. Ingram isn’t quite there yet but the massive development from year one to year two should bring plenty of hope for his immediate and long-term future.
But it’s not just Ingram’s counting stats and shooting percentages that bring out this hope in the Lakers organization and its fans. The Duke product is showing tangible improvements in his skills and adding more to his game seemingly every time he steps on the court.
It started with Ingram’s improved ability to take contact and finish at the rim – he’s shooting 66.9 percent in the restricted area this season – and has evolved into other parts of his game. Ingram has become more confident with his long-range jumper, a consequence of noticeable improvements to his form, and has become more adept at using his ridiculous length to play solid defense and disrupt passing lanes. In recent games, before Lonzo Ball returned from injury, Ingram added increased playmaking to his platter of skills highlighting just how special his potential is.
In fact, in the Lakers’ last 10 games without Ball, Ingram averaged 18.9 points, 5.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from both the field and behind the arc showcasing his ability to stuff the stat sheet while contributing to meaningful wins.
Ingram’s leaps forward have translated in his advanced data with Synergy rating him as average or very good on all offensive play types except for off-ball screen actions. His defensive data is similarly impressive with pick-and-roll ball-handler play types as his only below average rating. Ingram rates as an excellent defender in both hand-off and pick-and-roll roll man play types.
Ingram’s individual statistical outputs have paid dividends for the Lakers on the court. The Lakers have three five-man lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together and have outscored opponents in those minutes. Ingram (along with Randle and Caldwell-Pope) is a fixture in all three.
The forward’s growth is not just a short-sighted positive, however. If the Lakers are to ever get out of this playoff drought, Ingram’s improvements will be one of the major keys. As one of the few young players on the roster with true superstar potential, Ingram holds the tools to potentially develop into a leader for a great Lakers team, whether that squad includes certain star free agents or not.
Look across the league and you’ll see every prominent, contending team has at least one (and usually more) elite players on the wing. The Lakers have not had one of those ever since Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in 2013 and have been pursuing one since.
The NBA is currently enamored with the so-called “unicorns,” big men who can block shots and hit threes. But Ingram is his own mystical creature, in a way: a long forward capable of defending at all levels, initiating offense as a playmaker and scoring in catch-and-shoot and isolation sets.
All of this is still just a blur. We’re seeing glimpses of Ingram’s potential with no guarantee that it becomes a consistency. The defense could be a product of a surprisingly strong team on that side of the ball. The playmaking may have been a factor of necessity with no Ball and no strong backup point guards. The shooting, while improved, comes with the small sample size caveat as Ingram is only taking 1.8 threes per game.
But the crux of the matter is this: Brandon Ingram is in his second season. He is not yet old enough to legally order an alcoholic beverage. And he’s already improved by leaps and bounds.
Improvements like this are not linear and fans should not expect Ingram to make a similar leap this offseason. But the thought of him fine-tuning the skills he is already developing, getting stronger, and gaining more confidence in his shot is an enticing glimpse into the future.
If Ingram’s growth this season is any indication of the future, the Lakers are in much better shape than they’ve been letting on.