Last season, the two worst teams in the NBA were the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers. For the misery they endured they were rewarded with the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the NBA Draft, respectively. After a summer of vigorous debate over which player was the better prospect, the 76ers selected Ben Simmons who played one year of collegiate basketball at LSU, and the Lakers chose Brandon Ingram who played a single season at Duke.
One of these rookies will be an immediate starter for his club. He will become the team’s leader in his first year and odds-on favorite to win NBA Rookie of the Year honors. For the other player, his immediate future is less clear, except we now know he will not be a starter and his status as a reserve may last longer than expected. His coach recently pronounced, “If there’s 10 games left in the season and [we’re] out of the playoffs and there’s some vets that played long minutes all season, maybe you play all your young guys to finish out the season.”
The player who will begin the year on the bench is Ingram. He has something in common with Jared Goff, selected No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Rams. It appears that both will be brought along slowly. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have the last laugh.
Fans will be disappointed with Walton’s announcement, but it is probably for the best. Ingram may suffer some embarrassment starting the year as a reserve, like Goff is no doubt envious of Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles right now. But Ingram may benefit from taking it slower, with less pressure to excel right away, while learning from a proven high-character guy like Luol Deng. Perhaps that is best for any player in the long run.
Players want to play, but the goal is to prosper over a 15-year career even if one has to wait awhile and earn his chance. When he was young Kobe Bryant played behind Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel, did not become a full-time starter until his third year, and things worked out pretty well for him.
It is an 82-game season which lasts nearly six months. A lot can happen in that time, including injuries. If Ingram is the player the Lakers think they drafted, he will be motivated by the challenge and will make the most of every opportunity to show the coaching staff what he can do. Frankly, if he joins some combination of Larry Nance, Jr., Tarik Black, Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson, Marcelo Huertas, and Lou Williams in the second unit, they may turn out to be more exciting than the starters.
It is not at all surprising that Ingram won’t start – that was determined the minute the front office made Deng the third highest paid player in Lakers history for the next four years. What was unexpected was the timing of Walton’s announcement, coming a week before training camp opens. Walton spent all summer stressing that there will be competition at all positions in training camp. A month ago he said he wasn’t sure how Ingram and Deng would rotate. Despite his words, no one was fooled, and what has now ensued was inevitable.
While fans were unhappy with the way Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell were utilized the past two years, in truth it looks pretty clear they both benefitted from the process of fighting for playing time.
No matter what anyone says, Russell was not ready to start last year. The moment he showed up in Summer League it became clear very quickly that he was not yet an NBA-level player. He floundered as a starter when the season began. When he was demoted it was a learning experience, and humbling, but he had strong games in the second half of the season and overall played very respectable minutes for the year. He knew going into the offseason his whole approach to training and preparing had to change, and from what we’ve seen he worked very hard and looks like a different player now. What he endured last year motivated him and made him better.
Fans bemoaned the fact that Clarkson played sparingly in his rookie season. But eventually, he hit his stride just as Devin Booker did late last season for the Phoenix Suns. When Clarkson got a chance in late January after Kobe Bryant was lost for the season, he made the most of the opportunity and never looked back. His limited playing time for half a season did not prevent him from making the First Team All-Rookie team.
Walton has been quoted as saying this year is not about wins and losses, it is about playing hard all the time. Ingram is going to play hard and eventually he’ll get his turn. Fans have every right to be excited about Ingram, and by all appearances, he is not shirking from the challenge of proving himself to the coaching staff. Isn’t that precisely the kind of mindset the Lakers want from their future superstar?