In L.A.’s 128-123 preseason victory on Thursday night, there was star on the court … well, in addition to LeBron James, of course.
Brandon Ingram went off for 31 points on 10 of 15 FG’s and 11 of 15 FT’s while grabbing nine boards with three assists, three steals and a block. He made most of the key plays in crunch time, including go-ahead buckets with 1:10 and 0:42 seconds left, plus a steal and ensuing free throws with 0:37 seconds remaining to essentially seal the win.
LeBron, who watched the second half from the bench after (easily) scoring 18 points on 6 of 10 shooting in his 15 minutes, was quite impressed.
“This is the year for him,” said the King during the walk off on Spectrum SportsNet. “I believe in him. I know what his abilities are just being around him for these first few weeks. Every big shot we needed, every play we needed, he made down the stretch, and I love seeing his growth.”
In the postgame locker room, James’ praise of Ingram continued: “His pace, his ability to play the point, play the wing, He’s a very special talent and we’re definitely happy to have him on our side … He’s a great kid, he works hard, extremely hard and he has a lot of talent and he believes in his ability.”
The spotlight LeBron brings with him everywhere enhances a light that’s always pretty bright on the Lakers, so the buzz on Ingram should continue to grow as we get into the season. But let’s hit rewind quickly to a year ago at around this time.
Last September, coming off Ingram’s rookie year, we sat down with Ingram and assistant coach Brian Keefe to discuss all that the 6’9’’ small forward/shooting guard/point guard/potential stretch 4 had been focusing on over his first NBA offseason to get ready for year No. 2.
Keefe’s been working with Ingram individually since he was drafted, and last year was focused on: Ingram’s shot and release point; what to take from Kevin Durant – whom Keefe worked alongside for seven seasons in Oklahoma City; as well as his overall strength and all-around game.
The results of the work spoke clearly in the statistics:
Since we’ve now known Ingram for a few years already, it’s easy to forget how young he is, having just turned 21 on Sept. 2. His youth is one reason Keefe and the rest of Luke Walton’s staff (plus the front office) are very confident he still has a lot of room to grow. But it’s not the main one.
“I was not surprised by any of his improvement (last year) because of the amount of time he put into it, the mentality that he attacked every day of trying to improve and get better throughout the summer and during the season,” said Keefe. “I don’t think that will ever change with him because that’s who he is.”
Towards that end, on Media Day, Ingram was asked about his hobbies.
“I don’t like video games,” he responded. “I really don’t do much … I play basketball.”
Look. All NBA players work hard. It’s not easy being one of the 450-odd best players in the entire world, especially now that about a quarter of the league is composed of international players. But Ingram’s work ethic can be put to the top even of that exclusive pile.
“I just want to be better,” he said after Thursday’s game. “Of course, I’m not satisfied … I’m just pushing every day. I have the same routine every day just to make me a better basketball player, and I’m going to continue the routine just to see where it gets me and how I can reach my potential.”
The Kinston, N.C. native’s stated top offseason priority was getting his body right. He said he aims to play through the entire season. He doesn’t want to miss games like he did last year, when he played in only 59, compared to 79 as a rookie. So he did a ton of lifting, stretching and maintenance work over the summer and said he feels much stronger.
“Brandon is a guy from Day 1 since we got him that just wants to get better, so he’s always looking for ways to improve,” Keefe continued. “One of the biggest improvements he made this offseason was he wanted to get his body stronger to withstand the rigors of the season. You could feel him on the court that he’s functionally stronger. He’s not getting pushed off spots. He made a big jump from year one to year two, but I can already see he’s made a big jump from two to three.”
Ingram is always going to look more like Kevin Durant than LeBron James, obviously, but he’s stronger than he appears.
“He’s confident he can get to his spot, he has the strength to get there, and he can make the play,” added Keefe. “You just feel a presence and a confidence to him that he’s put the time in again this summer and the game is starting to slow down for him.”
As such, Keefe thinks we’ll see Ingram fill up the stat sheet. Blocks, steals, deflections, rebounding. All over the place.
Having LeBron next to him is helpful.
“He takes so much attention,” Ingram noted. “I’ve been way more efficient on scoring, and it gives me more energy on the defensive end just to guard my guy, get into passing lanes and try to start the offense from the defensive end.”
And the shooting? You saw a huge jump in percentages last year, though his volume – at least from three – wasn’t very high. Ingram attempted 2.4 triples as a rookie, but 1.8 as a sophomore as he was more selective. Adding 10 full points on his percentage was notable nonetheless, and Keefe thinks his positive shooting trend will continue.
“I think he’s going to shoot a good percentage, in part because he finished so much better at the rim,” said Keefe. “He made a huge jump at finishing from year one to year two. Attacking, finishing, taking contact. Now I think he’s going to be getting cuts away from the basket, so I think he’s going to shoot a great percentage. The shooting, he feels way more comfortable. He made some slight tweaks to his shot from year one to year three, and it’s mostly strength, speed of the game, being ready. I think he’ll take more threes this year. More volume. And I think he’ll knock them down.
Something that’s been quite obvious early in the preseason is how deadly Ingram can be off the ball, often on the weak side, as a cutter, finisher or spot-up shooter playing off LeBron and Rajon Rondo.
“One of the things about Brandon is he has a great court awareness,” Keefe explained. “Where to be, when to cut. He sees openings, and we have three really good passers* who can really see those things, deliver and find him. And he finds those little seams. With how hard he cuts and his length, I think he’s going to get some easy baskets.
*Including Lonzo Ball with LeBron and Rondo.
One thing I discussed a few times with Ingram last season was the challenge of having enough energy to play well on both sides of the basketball. Only so many players in the NBA are truly two-way threats, and Ingram wants to be one. Keefe thinks he’s getting closer.
There’s a learning curve to the NBA,” he explained. “The physicality, the strength, the schedule, the amount of games. The stamina you need to have to be able to play both ends like that. I think he has a much better feel for that going into this year and he’s going to be pretty good at it.
“But it’s really just the overall game. How much he can impact the game with his length and his size. That’s one thing he wants to do, so we’ll focus on that. He can impact in so many different ways, and we’re seeing it (in the preseason). I think it’s the physicality, imposing himself on defense, that’s going to lead to a lot of his good offense this year.”
How about defensively?
“We’re going to move him around and have him guard a lot of different people because he’s so versatile,” Keefe concluded. “He’ll be guarding threes, probably some fours, point guards. He’s got defensive versatility, so we’re going to take advantage of that.”
“I think I can do everything on the basketball floor,” said Ingram. “I just gotta be consistent in what I do.”
“It’s growing more and more every day,” added LeBron. “I know what I see in him, and he’s looking for this opportunity to make the next jump in his third year. It’s a lot of upside in that kid, and I’m happy to try and give him as much as I can.”
Gaining confidence so early from one of the best players in history in LeBron is certainly nice, but if you know Ingram, it’s not going to impact his path.
“I don’t think I want to stop here,” Ingram concluded. “My expectation is way higher than anyone’s expectation.”