The Los Angeles Lakers Lakers began their 2016-17 season on a high note with a hard-fought and very satisfying victory over James Harden and the Houston Rockets. The Lakers had no trouble scoring, but it was not until they started playing good team defense in the second half that they knew this was a game they could win. One member of the roster who showed big-time effort and ability on defense is the team’s youngest member, Brandon Ingram.
When Ingram was showcasing his talents for NBA teams before this summer’s NBA Draft, his highlight reel showed impressive scoring ability from long range and quick drives to the basket for easy buckets at the rim. It showed him dribbling the length of the court with considerable speed and agility for a 6’9” player. Mostly, Ingram showed he was going to be a big-time scorer, someone who could stretch the floor which the Lakers sorely needed.
What the reel did not disclose, however, was Ingram’s potential to be a lockdown defender. Even in the Summer League and during the preseason, when his shot was not always falling, he demonstrated a willingness to play hard on defense. In fact, one thing he has aptly shown during his short Lakers career so far is that Ingram is going to be a very good defender in this league, a bonus that will make him one of the team’s most valuable players by the time his first season is over.
Ingram is so painfully thin that it looks like he would topple over if you blow on him, but despite his slight frame, he has shown that he is no 90-pound weakling. He is able, and more importantly willing, to stand his ground and go toe to toe with players who outweigh him by 30 or 40 pounds. He also has the mindset that he knows it is important to play defense and wants to make it an emphasis of his game, which is smart.
This is not the norm for a hot shot rookie who was a top draft choice, most of whom are more like D’Angelo Russell was last year when he showed very little care or concern for playing defense at all. Ingram knows that with the exception of the game’s most prolific scorers, the best NBA players are those who excel on both ends of the court like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Chris Paul and Paul George. In the NBA defense wins games, and Ingram has made it clear he considers himself a winner.
In the first regular season game, the Rockets scored 71 points in the first half alone. Nearly every Lakers player tried to slow Harden down, but no one could. Then, trying desperately to figure something out, head coach Luke Walton made a creative choice: He asked Ingram to guard Harden. Harden was no doubt thrilled to see the rookie crouched in front of him and immediately went to work. But Ingram didn’t take the bait, kept his long arms raised, and forced Harden to take an off-balance shot to get the ball over those arms. It was his worst and at the time one of his only, misses of the night.
There were plenty of highlights during the opening season victory for the Lakers, and several players contributed in a big way. Those who witnessed the game in person, however, will remember Ingram’s big defensive moment as one of the game’s highlights, and the crowd roared with the excitement of seeing Harden made human for one of the only times that night. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but up until that point in the game, Harden looked like he might finish with 50 points. After that play, and for the rest of the game, he was not nearly as effective even though Ingram did not continue to guard him.
The thing about Ingram that is going to help him become the team’s best defender is that not only is he willing, quick, and unafraid, he has very long arms and knows how to use them. He is especially effective defensively when he plays at guard because he is taller than anyone he will oppose and when he raises his arms it is almost impossible to shoot over him if you are 6’5” like Harden.
Ingram shot well in his NBA debut, making four of six shots from the floor and scoring in a variety of ways including from three-point range, mid-range, and at the rim. But this versatility extends to defense, as his unique physical talents and mental determination will enable him to ably guard backcourt and frontcourt players alike. Against the Rockets he played 24 minutes during important stretches of the game, and the reason he stayed on the court that long was mostly because of his defense.
Ingram is going to become a defensive stopper for the Lakers, which most fans may not have realized when he was drafted. In addition to his on-ball defense, he is going to make steals. He is going to block shots. It seems like the Lakers have not had a player who excelled on defense for a long time. Just think how good Ingram will be when the barely 19-year-old grows up.
Is Brandon Ingram already the Lakers best defender? Not yet, but soon. Don’t be surprised if by the end of the season he has already earned the reputation as the team’s most versatile and reliable defender.