Brandon Ingram is not going to win NBA Rookie of the Year honors this season. He may not even receive NBA All-Rookie First Team honors. That said, in the past two months, Ingram has suddenly shot forward in his development as a professional basketball player and is looking more and more like a future NBA star, to the relief and delight of Los Angeles Lakers fans everywhere.
After a slow start to his career, Ingram finally resembles the player the Lakers thought they had drafted when they made him the second player selected in last summer’s draft. He was so highly touted that some scouts rated his future prospects above those of No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, and there were frequent comparisons between Ingram and Kevin Durant at the time.
The way the league has evolved, the best college players are one-and-done, meaning they play only one year of college ball before departing for the fame and fortune of the NBA. Not only that, teams covet the youngest players, as evidenced by the fact that nearly all of the top ten picks the past few years were 19-year-olds who left college after their freshman year. The problem is, that is a small sample size when judging young men who are still growing and maturing both physically and emotionally.
In the case of Ingram, not only did he enter the NBA after one year at Duke, he was only 18 when he was drafted and is still only 19 as his rookie season is ending. He is the second youngest player in the entire NBA – only Dragan Bender of the Phoenix Suns is younger (incidentally, teammate Ivica Zubac is the fifth youngest player). Despite his young age, in Ingram’s case, it is not a question of his mental make-up, it is his physical maturity that is the issue.
As anyone can see, Ingram is painfully thin at 6’9” and only 190 pounds, and the NBA is a league where the physicality of the average player is off the charts. Earlier in the year, whenever he tried to drive to the basket, opponents would bump him in the lane just so slightly and easily knock him off course.
While Ingram has plenty of room for improvement, on a team that is woefully poor on defense, he has been one of the squad’s better defenders all season. He holds his own against much heavier players who try to test him, and he has never looked intimidated. He uses his length and 7’4” wingspan to their best advantage. He has also shown potential as a passer, shot blocker and rebounder, and at times he excels in making steals. In short, his skill set is diverse.
The issue with Ingram has been his scoring. For much of the season, he was averaging a mere eight points a game even though he was playing more minutes than any other rookie in the league. He was also shooting only 37 percent from the floor and below 27 percent from three-point range, statistics which are unacceptable for any NBA player, even a rookie, and especially for a No. 2 pick.
In comparison, as a rookie last season, D’Angelo Russell averaged 13.2 points per game on 41 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent from three-point range. These are significantly better statistics than Ingram has achieved this year, yet Russell was labeled a disappointment while Ingram has avoided that label.
In part, it is because Russell comes across as aloof and Ingram does not. Russell is perceived as immature and disconnected much of the time, while Ingram comes across as serious and focused. No one ever questions his effort, and by all appearances, he is as hard a worker as anyone on the team. For whatever reason, when you watch Ingram, and even when he was struggling, there was something about Ingram that engenders more confidence in the future than does Russell.
Ingram may have a well-rounded skill set and the correct mental attitude, but what has Lakers fans excited recently is his sudden surge as an offensive force. His shooting improved month to month during the season but exploded in March, when he shot better than 50 percent from the floor and averaged 13.5 points per game. He looks like a different player, driving hard to the rim and finishing, and knocking down shots from outside –- even difficult shots — with confidence.
In the Lakers shocking win over the San Antonio Spurs recently, Ingram came out on fire and set the tone in the first quarter. He scored eight points in 10 minutes on 3-of-4 shooting, plus he had three assists, two rebounds, and a block. He looked like the best player on the court, which, considering the opponent, is really saying something.
Ingram felt a twinge in his knee recently and was placed on a minutes restriction. He only played 10 minutes against the Spurs, and this interruption in his momentum has been unfortunate because Ingram was getting better with each game. In the 10 contests prior to the San Antonio game, Ingram was shooting 51.9 percent from the floor and averaging 14.3 points per game. He was connecting on 55.2 percent of his shots in April. Ingram’s surge has him now shooting a more respectable 40.5 percent from the field for the year.
The Lakers’ season is just about over, and the team faces an uncertain summer. After another disappointing year, the new front office has its work cut out for it. They do not know if the team will keep its top draft choice, if free agents will be more receptive to considering the purple and gold than in recent years, or if any top tier players will really be available in a trade. The roster next year may be similar to what we see right now, or it may look very different.
The one player who is most likely to return in the fall is Ingram. There is every reason to believe he will be a cornerstone of the franchise as time moves along, and if the team has a future superstar in its midst at the moment, it is most likely to be him. The season may have been a disappointment, but with Ingram’s much-improved performance the past two months, there is reason for optimism that things will finally start to improve next season when Ingram will be all of 20.