The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday night in a close game that allowed rookie Brandon Ingram to show once again his continued growth as an NBA player. Russell Westbrook was unstoppable in the fourth quarter, which meant the Lakers only hope was to keep pace on the offensive end. Ingram made two long-range three-pointers and dished out a couple of key assists, which were instrumental in maintaining the lead as Nick Young won the game with his last-second heroics.
Last year, the Lakers lost one close game after another in the fourth quarter. The biggest turnaround this season has been the ability to close out games that the team has a chance to win in the end. Most coaches bring back their starting unit to play down the stretch, but Luke Walton is not afraid to feature different lineups at the end of games depending on what he sees on the court.
Perhaps the one constant at the end of games, however, has surprisingly been Ingram. Walton obviously has an enormous amount of confidence in him and likes the intangibles he brings in close games because Ingram is almost always on the court with time running out and the outcome in doubt. It doesn’t necessarily make sense on the surface, but it bodes well for the future that in Walton’s opinion, Ingram has what it takes to close out games so early in his career.
Against the Thunder, Ingram played 25 minutes and scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting including 3-for-3 from three-point range. He also contributed three assists and two rebounds. On Nick Young’s game-winning shot, Ingram had the ball in his hands with the clock winding down. He calmly drove towards the basket drawing two defenders with him, before kicking out to Young who had space to get off a good shot because his defender had moved inside to help on Ingram.
Last season, Lakers fans insisted that top draft choice D’Angelo Russell be in the starting line-up, and they were incensed when he was demoted after 20 games and spent most of the rest of the season coming off the bench. What a difference a year makes, as Ingram has not started a single game and fans are fine with it. Instead, Ingram has become an important part of the NBA’s highest scoring, and arguably the best second unit, which also features Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, Larry Nance, Jr., and Tarik Black. Night after night, the Lakers’ second unit builds on the lead, or, more often, brings the team back after the first unit fell behind.
Of course, one reason Ingram started the season on the bench was because the Lakers made free agent Luol Deng their highest-paid player in the offseason. The team believed that Deng, a two-time All-Star, and a member of the NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2012), had plenty of game left in him and could also serve as a mentor to Ingram.
Unfortunately, Deng has been the biggest disappointment on the team so far. He is playing 24 minutes a game and averaging 6.7 points per game while making only 33 percent of his three-point shots and shooting 33 percent overall. He is averaging 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. These statistics are below his career averages, and in some instances well below them. It is also important to note that he has not played well on defense, either, and that is probably the reason that Ingram is on the court at small forward finishing games.
While the team’s other prominent free agent, Timofey Mozgov, has fit in well and is animated whether he is on the court or on the bench, Deng has seemed distant and out of place from the moment training camp started. Maybe it is just his personality, but in contrast to his teammates, he has shown little or no emotion on or off the court and rarely smiles or looks like he is enjoying himself. While most of the players – including the veterans – raced on the court to celebrate after the Lakers held on to defeat the Thunder, Deng turned around and walked to the locker room without showing any emotion. It was an odd scene and one that signals that all is not well with Deng.
At the moment, it is hard to imagine that Deng will still be with the team for the duration of his four-year deal. It does not appear to be a good fit. The Lakers may one day regret giving up so quickly on small forward Anthony Brown, who is reportedly close to signing a deal to play for the suddenly improving New Orleans Pelicans.
Fortunately, Ingram has been quietly solid and getting better. Fans may remember that he began the season very slowly on the offensive end, struggling to score and shooting very poorly from outside. He didn’t lose confidence and took Walton’s words to heart, trying to influence games in other ways. His shooting percentages have steadily increased, and he is now making 40 percent of his shots overall and 30 percent from three-point range. He is also connecting on 75 percent of his free throws, which is better than he did in college. These numbers are going to continue to rise.
Ingram is an intelligent basketball player even at age 19. He doesn’t force shots or play out of control like most rookies. He is quietly confident and always seems calm regardless of the circumstances — the NBA stage does not appear to frighten him at all. When his shot is not falling, he can influence games with steals, blocks, and his long arms that are hard to shoot over.
Ingram has not been flashy, and on a second unit that features the warp speed of Clarkson and Williams and the thunderous dunks of Nance and Black, he can be overlooked at times. While D’Angelo Russell, last year’s second overall pick, continues to be up one game and down the next, Ingram has been steady. A mere 15 games into his young career, he is already a key contributor on a Lakers team that is one of the biggest surprises in the NBA so far. By April, Brandon Ingram is likely to be playing at a very high level.