For four straight years, the Los Angeles Lakers selected a rookie in the lottery of the NBA Draft. The first two were met with many questions about their futures and a reluctance to believe that they were worthy of their high profile. Now, both are on different teams.
Julius Randle, forgotten by the franchise that drafted him as they set their sights on bigger targets, is continuing to evolve and improve in New Orleans and could see a big payday in his future.
D’Angelo Russell is thriving in Brooklyn as a first-time All-Star taking his team to the NBA Playoffs after being traded as part of a salary dump.
The next two lottery selections have also been the subject of questions about their fit in the modern NBA and their star potential. While not completely shunned or cast away – at least, not yet – they have been trade bait during their entire, short tenures in Los Angeles.
One of those young players is Brandon Ingram, the 2016 second overall pick. The lanky forward has always been tantalizing due to his absurd length, paving the way for a limitless ceiling. But from the onset of his career, it was clear that it would take time for the Duke product to turn into a high-value player in the league.
Fast forward to his third year in the league and Ingram is turning into the living embodiment of patience being a virtue.
Ingram’s third year was, in a sense, a metaphor for his entire career. It started out slow with questions of the versatile wing’s fit next to LeBron James. It involved endless trade rumors and comparisons to other trade-bait young players around the league. And it built towards Ingram overcoming all of that to come into his own in the second half of the season, only able to be stopped by an unfortunate health scare that ended his season early once again.
Every season has, to an extent, featured the same themes for Ingram. Even his disastrous rookie year finished on a high note as the forward showed his aggressiveness and what he could do around the rim with his length.
Now, Ingram will enter his pivotal fourth year in the NBA hoping to build off of his All-Star level play to finish the year and show that consistency from the start. If Ingram is still on the Lakers after an offseason that promises to bring big changes, then the team will need that effort on a nightly basis. And regardless of where he starts and finishes the year, Ingram will have to prove himself worthy of his next contract that will likely be signed next summer.
The narrative outlook of Ingram’s season and future is plenty to discuss, but the forward’s play on the court was even more exciting. The second half of the season, despite featuring some of the Lakers’ worst basketball and the climax of a disastrous inaugural season with LeBron James, was a godsend from Ingram who continued his mostly menacing defense on the perimeter but became a consistent offensive weapon to boot.
Whether it was cutting off the ball and being the secondary playmaker next to James or being the hub of the offense when James rested and Lonzo Ball sat out with injury, Ingram did not disappoint. After the trade deadline that saw morale around the team crater, Ingram was the player whose confidence grew exponentially.
Ingram’s season-long numbers – 18.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and three assists per game on a true shooting percentage of 55.5% – are nothing to sneeze at but he was increasingly effective after the start of the new year. In that period, in which the forward played 26 of his 52 total games, Ingram averaged 20.5 points, six rebounds and 3.6 assists per game on a true shooting percentage of 57.9%. Ingram even hit 34.9 percent of his 3-point attempts during that time, a potential stepping stone into being an average shooter.
Suddenly, Ingram was able to marry volume scoring with high efficiency, not to mention the defensive intensity on the other end even as the rest of the team bled points to an unprecedented degree.
Ingram’s patience as he became a central figure for the Lakers amid numerous injuries was the key to his success and the coaches’ understanding of what positions to place their 21-year-old star in only amplified the level of his play.
Rather than running endless pick-and-rolls with a suspect handle and still-improving court vision, Ingram was placed in more secondary creation roles. A drive and kick-out by LeBron would unbalance a defense, giving way for one of Ingram’s signature drives to the rim and finishing over length with that of his own. To that end, Ingram’s improved efficiency around the rim (68.1 percent this year vs 67.3 percent last year and only 60.7 percent in his rookie year) paved the way to even more confidence. More importantly, an increasing free throw rate (0.396 free throws per field goal attempt this year compared to 0.371 last year) contributed to Ingram’s burgeoning efficiency even without the consistent 3-point shooting.
When Ingram was asked to run the offense, mostly as James sat, he performed admirably in his point forward role. An improved first step allowed him to explode to the rim after a screen on many occasions. That was paired with the patience to put his defender in jail and get to his spots in the midrange where he could either rise over anyone and drain a jumper or find a cutting teammate in the paint for an easy bucket. Ingram’s playmaking still needs work as his assists to teammates are often canceled out by turnovers handed to the other team on a silver platter but the willingness to attempt those passes has been a critical part of his development nonetheless.
That patience reared its head again defensively, where Ingram traded lunges for steals and blocks for consistently solid contests, moving feet and the ability to close the space on the offensive player even when initially taken out of the play by a screen. On many occasions, Ingram was asked to guard the opponent’s best perimeter player and in most instances, he did not disappoint, holding his own against some of the top stars in the league.
Patience has been the buzz word around Brandon Ingram since he was first drafted. The patience to draft a raw but talented player. The patience to let him play through his early mistakes even during an excruciating rookie year. The patience to hold firm when given the opportunity to trade him for DeMarcus Cousins or Paul George.
Now, that patience has found its way into Ingram’s play on the court, vindicating many of the previous decisions in the trajectory of his career. And it has forced the Lakers to continue processing that level of patience as they aim to build a playoff contender in the twilight of LeBron James’ career.