Brandon Ingram struggled last season as a rookie. Not only did he have to contend with the high expectations that accompany any No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft – especially one who was hailed as the next Kevin Durant – he had to do it as the second-youngest player in the entire league. And, do so with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ingram was 18 years old when he was drafted and turned 19 the month before training camp opened. In the midst of his second season, he only recently turned 20, which makes him considerably younger than some of this year’s top rookies including Donovan Mitchell, Josh Jackson, Ben Simmons, and teammate Kyle Kuzma.
Part of the problem was that Ingram was painfully thin when he entered the NBA, and he found it difficult last year to maneuver in the paint because he could easily be thrown off course by savvy opponents who knew how to defend him.
It would have helped if Ingram’s outside shot was falling, but to be charitable, it was missing in action. On the year, he averaged a mere 9.4 points a game on 40 percent shooting from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range. He made only 62 percent of his free throws.
These statistics were poor by any measure, and if anything, were misleading because for most of the year Ingram was shooting even worse until a late-season surge. Yet, despite his struggles, there was something about Ingram that generated confidence that he would eventually find his way.
The year before, D’Angelo Russell had also struggled as a rookie, but his statistics were far better than Ingram’s. Still, it was hard to be confident in Russell because there was just something lacking in his mentality and maturity.
No one has ever questioned Ingram’s drive and determination. From the outset he has been a hard worker and very serious-minded about the game of basketball. Ingram gives the impression that he is 100 percent dedicated to the game and becoming an elite player.
Even when things were at their worst last season, he played hard on both ends of the court and never lost his focus. Part of Ingram’s problem was that he was playing on a poor team surrounded by modest talent, so fans wanted him to be the savior and became impatient waiting for him to emerge.
He played much better after the All-Star break, when he suddenly found a way to get to the rim and finish. It seemed to give him confidence, and Ingram ended the season on a high note.
In a year when the Lakers were decimated by injuries, Ingram appeared in 79 games, started 40 of them, and averaged just under 29 minutes a contest. His improved play towards the end of the season earned him second team All-Rookie honors.
There was plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Lakers going into this past offseason. The team had once been very high on Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, and Russell, but that was the old regime.
The new front office was anxious to win sooner rather than later and made it clear that the entire roster was on the trading block, all except Ingram. Despite his disappointing rookie season, Magic Johnson saw something in Ingram that made him decide that he was the only untouchable.
An unprecedented number of All-Stars changed teams within the past year, including DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving. Reportedly, had Johnson been willing to include Ingram in a trade package, the Lakers might have made one or more of these deals.
On a team where all of the young players worked very hard over the summer, Ingram reportedly worked hardest of all. It was said that the Lakers had to close the gym at times so Ingram could get some rest.
Johnson spoke glowingly about the new and improved Ingram that fans were going to see this year. He predicted that Ingram would be the Lakers’ leading scorer and the closer on a team that desperately needed someone to assume that role.
But when the season began, it didn’t happen. Again, there was considerable disappointment as Ingram struggled in the preseason and when the regular season began, so much so that fans were left wondering what Johnson had been talking about all summer.
In the season opener, a blowout loss to the Clippers, he was 3-of-15 from the floor. Ingram had 25 points in the second game against the Phoenix Suns, but only seven points the following game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Then he had 19 points against the Washington Wizards, but only nine points the next game against Toronto. There was a maddening lack of consistency.
Things looked bleak in mid-November when Ingram had consecutive games in which he scored only 10, eight and six points against the Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks, and Suns, respectively. Some fans were close to giving up on him when unexpectedly he turned things around with a 26-point effort against Philadelphia.
In the last nine games, Ingram is averaging 19.1 points. In November, he shot 48 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from 3-point range. For the season, he is averaging 16.0 points a contest, making him the second leading scorer on the team behind Kuzma.
For Ingram, the turning point may have come in a recent loss to the Golden State Warriors. Matched against Durant most of the night, he set a career high with 32 points. Ingram made 12 of 21 shots, was 2-for-2 on 3-point attempts and 6-for-7 from the free throw line.
Plus, he had five rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks for good measure. It was an eye-opening moment for a barely 20-year-old Ingram.
Most important, he followed that effort with games in which he scored 20 and 18 points, respectively. It is one thing to have an occasional good performance, but it looks like Ingram may be finally achieving the kind of consistency that all young players strive for.
He is starting to make his mid-range shots and now has to work on improving from behind the arc. It is worth pointing out that he is also working hard on defense and getting much better on that end of the court.
Ingram is still a work in progress, and in particular he needs to reduce his turnovers. At times he is too aggressive, trying to force himself into the paint when there is no room. But he is beginning to live up to Johnson’s glowing predictions over the summer.
In addition to maintaining consistency, on a team that regularly implodes at the end of close games, Ingram must show he can be the leader down the stretch with the game in doubt.
While that may have seemed unlikely a month ago, given his recent stellar play, most fans are now placing their bets on Ingram.
Lonzo Ball may get more attention, Kuzma may contend for Rookie of the Year, and many are focused on how much longer Randle or Clarkson will remain with the team. But in the end, the real story may be Ingram.
Five years from now, when he is a 25-year-old veteran, and he is bigger and stronger, Brandon Ingram is very likely to be the NBA All-Star that was predicted when he first joined the Lakers.