Brandon Ingram’s growth is the best reason to be optimistic about the Lakers’ future

Brandon Ingram
Mar 1, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram (14) dribbles the ball as Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe (6) defends during the first quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

There have not been many positives in Laker Land this season.

Sure, LeBron James is the face of the franchise, their first All-Star in three years and their first deserving one in much longer than that, but James has been at the center of a disappointing season, his stardom likely unable to drag the Lakers into the postseason for the first time since 2013.

The playoffs seem out of reach, the head coach’s seat is white hot and the majority of the roster is uncertain of its future.

Through this tumultuous, dark tunnel of a season, there has been one constant glimmering light at the end giving hope that better days are ahead: The play of Brandon Ingram.

Ingram has been awesome, and the third-year forward has only become better as the season has gone on. If James’ playoff mode is activated using a switch, Ingram’s has been a dimmer slowly but surely shining more light deep into the regular season.

Since the All-Star break, Ingram has averaged a highly efficient 27.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Enlarging the sample size to the new year would still give him 20.5 points, six rebounds and 3.6 assists per game while shooting 51.5 percent from the field in those 26 contests.

Ingram has laid to rest all the criticisms and concerns brought about by his third straight season with a slow start. The young forward has shown plenty of production while still flashing potential in the areas where he lacks polish. Despite his lack of a 3-point shot, Ingram’s true shooting is at 55.5 percent, just shy of the league-wide average of 56 percent.

Despite being just 21 years old, Ingram has cemented himself as James’ No. 2 option and a tireless defender with the length and ability to lock down opponents’ best perimeter players who can also create his own shot and get to the rim seemingly at will on the other end.

Ingram’s growth has laid to rest concerns that he and James will not mesh on the court. While the Lakers have struggled, that duo has been working better and better alongside each other. Since James’ return from injury, the Lakers have been 6.7 points per 100 possessions better when both Ingram and James are on the floor relative to when only LeBron is playing.

What has signified Ingram’s jump in the second half of the season has been two-fold. First, the Lakers have taken responsibilities off his shoulders. He is no longer expected to be the lead ball-handler, and can instead attack reeling defenses as the secondary creator. Playing alongside James, Lonzo Ball and even Rajon Rondo at times has allowed Ingram to focus more on attacking defenses that are not set, opportunities he leverages to get to the rim and finish when the help is late.

More importantly, there has been internal growth from Ingram, who has not only improved his finishing at the rim but shot better in the short mid-range area (think floaters and jumpers in the paint) at a rate of 23 percentage points between last year and this incomplete season.

Ingram’s become more and more adept at finding appropriate angles and reacting when they are closed; that has allowed him to be under control when attacking the rim and able to create space to shoot his unblockable jumper when defenses allow it.

Similarly, Ingram has reached the pivotal point in a young player’s career where his focus is less on his defender and more on the help.

Look at these two examples from the game against the Bucks where Ingram uses Kyle Kuzma’s gravity in the corner to get to the rim and finish in traffic:

And when the Bucks played off of him, crowded the paint or put the smaller Eric Bledsoe on Ingram to attack his dribble, he was more than willing to pull up for a jump shot:

Ingram’s consistent improvements have almost wholly changed the narrative around the former Duke Blue Devil. He has gone from a project that has shown no signs of future stardom to a productive player with plenty of room to grow.

There’s no guarantee that Ingram will become a better shooter, better playmaker or more consistent defender. But those are solvable flaws and Ingram has shown nothing in his young career to create doubt that he can improve in multiple areas.

His growth also leaves the Lakers with a good problem to have. Ingram is eligible for an extension this summer that would kick in during the summer of 2020 when a certain unibrowed superstar will become a free agent.

Ingram’s max extension would start with a salary of $29.5 million in the first year, which the Lakers would be locked into if they don’t allow him to hit restricted free agency. Ingram’s cap hold would be 21.8 million dollars if no extension is signed.

A lot of Ingram’s future will be decided this summer. If the Lakers sign (or trade for) their second superstar as promised, they could prioritize Ingram and keep him under team control, potentially at a number below his max to maximize flexibility before he plays his way into a larger contract. Or they could trade Ingram while he is still on his rookie deal and attain a third star for James.

But if they whiff on free agency, things will become more interesting. The Lakers have a history of prioritizing cap space they can try to use to lure free agents and Davis is the biggest fish they could bait. They would almost certainly not be willing to give up any cap space to keep Ingram long-term when Davis is a possibility. But if they do that, they risk losing an unprioritized Ingram in the same way they lost Julius Randle.

It’s a good problem to have and Ingram deserves all the praise for making it a question. A few months ago, no one would have given thought to extend him without waiting another year. Now, it’s a legitimate debate and fans would likely want to see security for the burgeoning star.

There are a lot of issues to mull over for the purple and gold this offseason. Ingram has been added to it, but that can only be seen as a positive outcome for a franchise that has not had many since July 1. Ingram’s development may just be the shot in the arm they needed to save them from disaster.

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