After four straight seasons of sitting out the playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to need to get better fast if they hope to turn things around next year. While they will hope to keep their top-three protected first-round draft pick in the lottery and will also explore free agency and trades, much will depend upon the development of the Lakers’ young core. D’Angelo Russell is arguably the team’s best player, but much of the burden of getting the team back on track will depend upon the growth of young forward Brandon Ingram.
When the Lakers drafted Ingram out of Duke last summer, it was clear that he was going to take some time to get accustomed to the NBA. He was barely 19 when he played his first pro game, but his 6’9” frame, spider-like 7’3” wingspan, and versatile skill set gave hope for a breakout performance right out of the gate. With first overall pick Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers sidelined due to injury, it appeared that the Rookie of the Year award would be very much in play for Ingram.
Unfortunately, his rookie season didn’t quite live up to the hype. He showed flashes of brilliance but also struggled to find his way at times and disappeared on the offensive end. There were plenty of moments where he looked in over his head, bullied by bigger and stronger players and unable to finish in the paint, which came to no surprise thanks to his thin frame and age. Furthermore, he struggled in a few areas that he was expected to be better in.
Ingram hit 41 percent of his threes in college which resulted in a number of overly optimistic Kevin Durant comparisons. We ignored his 68 percent collegiate free throw shooting, hoping that it would be like the Boogeyman and would just go away if we didn’t pay attention to it. We tried to will his three-point shooting percentage into being the true indicator of his ability.didn’t quite hold up, either. His long arms helped him get 6.8 boards, 1.1 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game, but those numbers took a dip on the NBA to just 4 rebounds, .5 blocks, and .6 steals. The transition to the NBA was clearly a difficult one.
Of course, all that any of this means is that Ingram wasn’t quite as productive as some hoped in his rookie year, but jumping from college to the Lakers is a big step, and there is a serious learning curve. These things take time, so we can certainly forgive Ingram for not being a clone of Durant from the get-go. In fact, perhaps we should apologize for placing those kinds of expectations on his slim shoulders to begin with.
Fortunately, Ingram finished the season strong, clearly having benefitted from learning over the course of a long season. His finishing in the paint improved, culminating with a murderous dunk over New Orleans Pelicans big man Cheick Diallo in one of the final games of the season. Despite early struggles, he is heading into the summer with momentum.
Ingram will need to spend the offseason fine-tuning his jumper, but if he can continue to shoot 48 percent from the field like he did after the All-Star break, it will open up the game for him quite a bit. Becoming more consistent from three will also be a major endeavor, and if he can get to a more respectable number, it will prevent defenses from sagging off of him, which opens up the paint more for drives. He has plenty to work on, but getting his shot to drop consistently has to be number one on the agenda and will pay major dividends for the Lakers.
Ingram did prove to be a better passer than most thought, and next season should provide an opportunity for him to cement his status as a playmaker that. He spent a solid chunk of his rookie year successfully playing point guard for the Lakers’ second unit, something that few expected out of him. There is work to be done on reading the floor, but as he learns, Ingram has the potential to morph into a sneaky-good ball mover, but again, his shooting will have to improve to create more drive-and-kick opportunities.
On the other end, Ingram will get better as he gets a better feel for the subtle nuances of team defense. His impossibly long arms should someday wreak havoc on passing lanes and torture shooters with both weak and strong-side blocks. Currently, he relies on his length to make up for poor positioning, but once he learns to anticipate a bit better those endless arms will become a weapon for the Lakers. His frame still makes him easy to move out of position in the post, but a summer in the weight room will help, as will another year of physical maturation.
The most exciting thing is that there isn’t anything that Ingram needs to work on that can’t be learned through a strong work ethic (which he is already known for) and good teaching. The physical tools are all there to build one hell of a basketball player.
Ingram isn’t the next Durant, and it was foolish to expect him to be, but there is still a lot of potential just waiting to be developed.
So what can Ingram eventually become? Perhaps something like Rudy Gay on the offensive end and a mash-up of Tayshaun Prince and Andrei Kirilenko on defense, which would be incredible. That being said, player comparisons are always difficult, especially with young talent, and plenty of patience is going to be required. It’s important that the Lakers get back on track quickly, but history has taught us that rushing a rebuild can prove disastrous.
As exciting as it is to throw names like that out there, it’s probably best to just let the story unfold. Ingram will become exactly who he is supposed to be, whether that’s Durant, Gay, Kirilenko, or something else entirely.
The Lakers may be in a hurry to rebuild, but they may have found something special in Brandon Ingram if they can wait just a little longer.