(Ty Nowell/Los Angeles Lakers)
Eager to Return, Ingram Eyes Continued Improvement
After two weeks of rehab that included a practice with the South Bay Lakers, Brandon Ingram is hoping to return to the Lakers line up on Friday against New Orleans for the first time since he sprained his left ankle against San Antonio on Dec. 5.
“I felt really, really good today,” said Ingram after Thursday’s practice. “We’ll see how it responds when I come back tonight and try to treat it and get back in here.
“My goal would be to play. Just see how it feels in the morning, go through shootaround, leading up to the game I’ll go to my pre shoot, and I’ll know then.”
Lakers head coach Luke Walton said he’d wait to see not just if Ingram was available, but also check on JaVale McGee – who missed practice with flu-like symptoms and has been out for the last two games – and Rajon Rondo – who’s been out since Nov. 15 with a broken hand, but practiced in full for the first time on Thursday – before deciding on the lineup.
Ingram has played 19 games (and five minutes) thus far alongside LeBron James and the young core of Lakers of which he’s a key piece. Of course, the limited sample size hasn’t dissuaded some from drawing conclusions about 2-man plus/minus and on/off data* that may, or may not at all, end up being telling about the roster moving forward.
*We’ll get to that.
Before LaMarcus Aldridge’s flagrant foul resulted in the sprained ankle, the 21-year-old Ingram was beginning to find his place as a secondary playmaker and scorer next to LeBron James, a role entirely new to him in his basketball life.
“The ankle was unfortunate,” said assistant coach Brian Keefe, who’s been working with Ingram on a daily basis since he was drafted No. 2 overall in the 2016 NBA Draft. “I thought he was starting to get a good rhythm. Finding where to pick his spots. You start seeing more of the versatility, where he was attacking the basket well for himself. The free throw attempts were getting up. And he was also finding his teammates. He was coming into a nice little groove in his game.”
Defensively, Walton was deploying Ingram’s long arms all over the court, whether to smother smaller guards like Portland’s C.J. McCollum, or take away angles and contest shots for bigger wings like Joe Ingles.
“Defensively, he’s kind of like our Swiss Army Knife,” Keefe continued. “We can put him on a variety of different players. He’s using his length, really bothering guys, and was doing a nice job of shutting some key scorers out the week before he did the ankle. That had been a definite improvement this year … just learning to use his length and effecting guys, he really can make guys miss shots because he’s always there pursuing and challenging shots.”
Ingram said the defensive energy of Lonzo Ball at the head of the snake has rubbed off on him.
“I think when you have the point guard guarding someone full court and just chasing the guy all around, always in the right spot, it just makes you want to get down in a stance and be his backup and have his help whenever he needs it,” he explained. “Or having the same energy that he has. I just try to use my length to the best of my ability.”
Ingram is averaging 15.2 points on 47.0 percent FG’s and 32.4 percent 3’s, plus 4.0 boards, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.7 blocks in 30.8 minutes. In the last two weeks Keefe had mentioned, he’d ticked up to 18.1 points on 49.4 percent FG’s, and had found a nice comfort zone in the mid-range, where he can almost always get a clean look off against his defender, or use his long steps to reach the basket to finish or draw a foul. Ingram’s 4.6 free throw attempts per game are second on the team to LeBron’s 7.8, and 36th in the NBA.
While he’s been out, Ingram has been studying his teammates and trying to envision how he can succeed when he’s back on the floor.
“Just learning where I can still be efficient, where I can get my shots off,” he said. “Where I can be really, really good on the defensive end, individually or on the help defensive side.”
Since being drafted, Ingram has never missed a workout. He’s never gone half speed at the gym or in the weight room, and doesn’t want to do much aside from get better at basketball. In an extended conversation during a Lakers Voices chat, Ingram’s life is all about hooping.
“I might do a hobby or go to the movies, but everything comes back to basketball,” he said. “I think when you have 24 hours in a day to just think about basketball all the time, that’s just what I want to do. I want to fall in love with it and just do everything I can to be the best at it.”
I wondered if Ingram created additional pressure in that way, especially going into a season in which he expected to make the same type of leap he made in his second season, when his production went up significantly across the board.
“It might hinder me a little bit,” he answered. “Absolutely. That’s why sometimes when I look at myself, I get disgusted sometimes. Like, who is this? Who is this? But I’ve learned to calm down a little bit. It’s just because my standards are higher than anyone else’s. I don’t look at anyone’s standards of what they want me to do or what do I need to do, but I just know the person I’m going to be and the person I can be now.”
Ingram spoke to his boss, Magic Johnson, a few weeks ago. Magic’s message was to simply be patient, that all the work Ingram has put in will pay off. His coaches, meanwhile, think that sky high expectations are terrific.
“That’s a super positive,” said Keefe. “You love that about him, that he’s hard on himself, that he cares. This guy wants to be a great player. He’s always going to be his own biggest critic, and that stuff always works itself out over time. When you have that type of desire and the work ethic, it’s going to all click at one point.”
Ingram’s desire to challenge himself to get better is one reason Keefe said he’s “always been on of our favorite guys,” as his work ethic can’t be taught.
“You keep seeing, as he’s adding layers to his game, that he’s challenging himself to add more defensively, using his length and guarding different guys, or really using those skills and gifts he has offensively,” Keefe offered. “He’s constantly growing each month he’s been with us.”
That work ethic came from his family where he grew up in Kinston, North Carolina.
“My mom, my dad and my great aunt,” he said. “Just because of how they worked. I never saw them sit down at all. We weren’t rich at all, far from it, but I felt like everything that I asked for, they just made it possible for me to have it, no matter what. I always thought my dad was Superman because everything I asked him for, he could do. Everything I couldn’t do, he could do. My great aunt, she was just there for me. She taught me things about life.”
On the court, Ingram has an overall net rating of 3.4, tops among starters, and trailing Tyson Chandler, Josh Hart and Rajon Rondo, with whom he spent a chunk of time as the primary scorer on the second unit. Ingram’s level of production alongside the starters was not as high … nor should it be, since that unit involves LeBron James, who does, and should, have more of the ball.
“It’s been an adjustment, just because we’re both so ball dominant,” said Ingram. “(LeBron) can pass the ball, I can pass the basketball. He can drive the basketball. He’s a lot stronger, finish. He can shoot the three, he can shoot the mid-range, finish. He can do pretty much everything on the basketball floor. I think as the games continue, that’s going to help a lot because we can get a connection of when somebody’s going to cut, where exactly is he going to be when I drive the basketball, where am I going to be when he drives the basketball. Just as the games continue and as we continue to talk, there’s going to be some connectivity.”
Josh Hart has subbed in for Ingram with the starters, and alongside Ball, LeBron, Kyle Kuzma and JaVale McGee, that unit has lodged an impressive plus/minus of +42 in 133 minutes. With Ingram, the starters were -1 in 234 minutes. Many of those minutes came earlier in the season before the Lakers had turned a corner defensively as a team, but there are some lessons to be learned. While Ingram’s unique ability as an offensive generator can still be key anytime he’s on the floor, sometimes simply spacing and moving the ball on offense with the starters can have more value to the unit.
Thus far, LeBron and Ingram have been on the floor together for a total of 494 minutes this season, and the Lakers are a +8. Ingram’s still learning how to maximize the minutes.
He said he needs to get better at moving without the basketball, decipher when to cut to the basket and when to space out from 3-point range. Every time he watches film of their time on the floor together, he said he sees things a bit more clearly.
Speaking of shooting 3’s, Ingram attempts just 1.7 per game, a number he wants to go up.
“It’s been a bit of an adjustment,” he said in comparison to his days attempting 5.4 per game as a freshman at Duke. “Coming from college to the NBA, the line does get a little further. My first year, I couldn’t even get the ball to the rim from the the 3-point line, so that kind of changed my shot up a little bit. I had to change my mechanics. Then as the years went on, I just get more comfortable every year, every month, every day that I put in repetition. But I plan to shoot more threes, especially this year. I’m feeling more comfortable behind the three.”
Keefe thinks Ingram’s 3-point volume will tick up naturally.
“His natural instinct as a basketball player is as a creator,” said Keefe, who happened to work closely with Kevin Durant in OKC for seven years. “Attacking for himself and attacking for others. That’s where Brandon’s strength is. But he also, part of his growth is he’s put a lot of time into the shooting and has really improved. And it’s just taking it when it’s there. When the ball comes to you and you’re open, shoot it. He’s so good at the other things that sometimes, even if he’s open, he can still get by his guy, but if he’s got an open three, take it because you’ve put all the time in. The volume is probably what he wants to take more of, but I think that’s also just getting used to how we’re playing and the style. It’s unfortunate with the time he’s missed with the suspension and the injury, because those things would have kept growing naturally. And they will.”
When things get tight in an NBA game, you need more than just one player – like LeBron – who can create a good shot, on his own. And the Lakers should want Ingram to continue to nourish the skillset he has to do that, because there’s a value there that doesn’t always show up in advanced stats.
“It’s tricky sometimes, because I feel like I can get my shot off at any time, and I try to figure out, sometimes I’m not being aggressive,” said Ingram. “Sometimes I’m taking the mid-range a little too much. Sometimes I can get all the way to the rim instead of settling for the mid-range. But what I find is just me being in attack mode and being aggressive at all times. Stopping when somebody stops you. And then that’s when the mid-range comes. If nobody stops you, just get to the basket and that’s what I’m learning as I continue to play.”
His defensive ability can also be big down the stretch of games. Consider that there’s literally only one player that Ingram has ever guarded that he hasn’t been able to influence with his length.
“Kevin Durant,” said Ingram. “He’s like 7-foot-1. I’ve never had a guy that’s had longer arms than me playing at the same position as me. So he makes it easy to shoot over the top of me, and I’ve never had that happen.”
Ingram, by the way, happened to outscore Durant 32 to 29 during a narrow 127-123 loss to Golden State last December, which certainly gave him a boost of confidence, even as Durant outplayed him in two subsequent Warriors wins.
“Brandon has a unique skill set that most players don’t have,” Keefe concluded. “He generally guards the first or second best player on every team we play against. We’re a top 10 defense with him guarding one of the best players. He’s a secondary handler when he’s in the game next to LeBron, and he’s the primary handler when LeBron’s not in. Those are valuable things that you need on your team. We’re lucky to have him. Brandon has unique skills, and as the season progresses, some of those skills will come out even more.
“That’s only natural, and that’s not just him, that’s our whole team. We’re a new team. We’re just starting to see chemistry starting to build. So for him, it’s the same thing. The more time he’s on the court, he’ll get better and better, but the positives are already huge for our team. The defensive and the offensive versatility. We need guys like him, because we can’t just have one guy. Everyone needs to contribute, and Brandon is a big contributor to that.”
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