Not much went right for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2016-17 season. They slumped to just 26 wins while finishing the year in the bottom-six in offensive efficiency and dead last in defensive efficiency. They struggled to create good looks and they put up zero resistance when attempting to force the other team into uncomfortable positions. Worse yet, for the second straight season, the player the Lakers picked No. 2 overall failed to get the best out of his skill set.
Brandon Ingram’s rookie year did not go well. The one-and-done Duke star floated through games off the bench. He wasn’t nearly assertive enough for a player with his scoring talent, and when he was assertive, he couldn’t figure out a way to deal with the size, strength, and athleticism of NBA players.Ingram fell into a slightly rhythm toward the end of the season, but on balance, he was just bad. (That's not to say it was all his fault. Coming off the bench for a bad team, when you've been the best player on great teams your whole life, is quite the adjustment. It'd take any mere mortal a while to adjust.)
For a player whose best skill was supposed to be volume scoring, it was not at all encouraging that among the 239 players during the three-point era to play at least 2,000 minutes during their rookie season, Ingram ranked a dreadful 234th in PER. He placed way down toward the bottom in other advanced measurements like Box score Plus-Minus (228th), Value Over Replacement Player (230th), and Win Share rate (233rd), as well. Players who perform that poorly as rookies generally do not go on to become successful, so it was doubly discouraging when Ingram's sophomore campaign got off to a poor start.
However, a light has gone on for the 20-year old over the last month or so. He's playing with confidence, slicing through defenders, and getting to the bucket seemingly at will. There aren't that many players in the NBA that can get wherever they want on the floor at any time, but Ingram is on his way to being one of them. He looks a whole lot like the player the Lakers thought they were getting—one who fills up the stat sheet and lights up the marquee, and might help attract the kind of talent the Lakers are used to having on the floor. Take a look at the numbers:
“As an organization, we will tell you we knew this is where he was gonna go. We just didn’t know when,” Lakers coach Luke Walton says. “It’s nice to see him starting to have that transfer over to games and doing it on the big stage. It definitely gives our team a little extra confidence. And he seems to be playing with a lot of confidence himself.”
Ingram is playing with far more bounce in his step this season than he was a year ago. Part of that is due to the fact that he is now an unquestioned starter, when last year he spent about half the season coming off the bench. Part of it is due to the strength he added to his lanky frame, and part of it is due to all the information he absorbed from the Lakers coaching staff, from teammates like Luol Deng, and from the experiences he had on the floor.
Ingram is now attacking the basket with abandon, and it’s opened up the rest of his game. As a rookie, approximately 33 percent of Ingram’s shots came within five feet of the basket. He finished those shots at a pretty good rate, connecting 56 percent of the time. The problem was that he rarely hit from anywhere else. He made only 32 percent of his shots attempts outside of five feet. During his sophomore campaign, Ingram has made a concerted effort to ensure that those close shots make up a larger share of his total. This season, he’s shooting just south of 58 percent inside five feet, and only 32 percent outside that range. That’s not much different than where he was at a year ago. But this year, 51 percent of Ingram’s attempts have come within five feet of the basket. Only six regular rotation players have decreased their average shot distance by more than Ingram this season.
“I think I’ve gotten a chance to show my work,” Ingram says. “I worked so hard in the summer but it’s not a lot of five-on-five work. The game is catching up to me. It’s slowing down. I’m feeling more comfortable, more confident.”
It shows in the way he’s figured out how to use his strengths to hide his weaknesses. Ingram is still incredibly skinny, but he’s also very long. He’s learning how to use that length, adding a sort-of extendo-layup to his off-the-dribble arsenal. He’s also figuring which defenders he should face up and try to blow by off the dribble (taller, slower players) and which he should just try to shoot over the top of (smaller, quicker ones).
“It takes everyone in this league a different amount of time to have the game slow down a bit – to get used to the size and strength of everyone out there,” Walton says. “And I think he’s just kind of adjusting to that right now and starting to figure it out.”
Ingram has gotten better at both drawing contact on the drive to create a foul (he’s nearly doubled his free-throw attempts per game) and finishing through legal contact at the rim. “Of course, I need to get a long stronger,” he says. “But I feel way more comfortable this year than last year.”
“He was able to get a lot of angles last year and whether it was not being used to the contact at this level or the size of people or the athleticism of people, it seems like it’s starting to slow down for him. Which it does for all good players,” Walton says. “And he’s getting those same angles but he’s now being the one that is either drawing fouls or slowing down to be able to get around that contact and finish it.
However, while Ingram has improved in that area, he’s also become more vulnerable to having his shot blocked. He had 7.7 percent of his shot attempts blocked a year ago, per Basketball-Reference; that was a high number already, but it’s risen to 8.8 percent this season. Some of this is because he hasn’t figured out how to deal with defenders that are just as long as he is. (See Joel Embiid in the video below.) Some of it is because he still struggles to spot the second line of defense sometimes, and simply doesn’t see the helper getting into position to block his shot. (See Noah Vonleh and Kristaps Porzingis.) And some of it is because he’s still not strong enough to fully dislodge his man off the dribble, so when he goes up, the defender is still close enough to block or alter his shot. (See Ben Simmons.)
When he does make use of his length correctly and does see the second layer of help, he’s capable of making the right play and dumping it off to a teammate underneath the rim.
When a skinny scorer like Ingram ventures into the paint, there are a lot of big guys that are going to get worked up getting ready for the block. If Ingram can leverage that desire against them, either by taking an extra beat before going up for the shot (and thus drawing a foul) or by pulling the defender toward him in order to make a pass, that’s likely to yield a far better result for his team than if he simply attempts to challenge everybody in his path.
His slender frame will likely always hamper him in some way, but Ingram, Walton, and teammates Luol Deng and Corey Brewer all note that it’s not size that will matter with Ingram, but strength.
“Your body’s gonna change naturally as you get older. So just focus on getting stronger,” Deng says. “I think he’s starting to figure it out a little bit. But I think as your game grows, the main thing is getting strong in the right places. It’s not necessarily, ‘I just got to look big.’”
Ingram may not have the frame to fill out the way Deng did over the course of his career. (It’s easy to forget given how long he’s been in the league, but Deng was basically a stick figure when he came out of Duke back in 2005.) His body type may be more like Brewer’s. Even in that case, Brewer says, there are advantages to being skinny — especially when you’re also extremely long. It’s that length that both Deng and Brewer maintain will help take Ingram’s game to the next level, largely because of what it can help him do defensively.
“When he becomes a true superstar, that’s what it’s gonna be,” Brewer says. “Being in passing lanes, getting easy buckets, blocking shots.”
Ingram may be at a disadvantage guarding some players because of his frame — he’s never going to stand a chance against someone like LeBron James, for example. But there are plenty of players around the league that just don’t know how to deal with length, and that’s where Ingram can make his bones. He can give extra space and still challenge shots. He can wait an extra half-second before trying to jump a passing lane and still get a hand on the ball. And if he gets beat off the dribble, he can still affect his man’s path to the rim from behind. He still needs to work on his positioning and his knowledge of opposing scouting reports, but those are the type of things all young players need to work on. He has a built-in advantage if and when he gets the hang of things.
“I think with the NBA there’s just so many guys that have different abilities and different gifts,” Deng says. “So, I always think you have to realize what is your advantage. I always knew length was my advantage. So, a lot of time when I played guys, I used my length to bother them as much as I can. I remember guys, defensively, where I gave them a little bit of space and I was quick enough to bother their shot because of my length. Or there’s guys where constantly, length bothers them. And then offensively, I knew certain guys couldn’t get to my shot no matter what they did. And once you figure those things out, you kind of go into a game knowing who you’re playing against, who’s guarding you, how they’re gonna play you, where you’re gonna be focused on getting your points from.”
There are still steps for Ingram to take in order to get where he’s going, just as there are for the Lakers. He and Walton talk a lot about which plays work for him and which don’t; whether he’d rather receive the ball with a hand-off and a live dribble or at the top of the floor on a certain set. A lot of failure is involved. But, as Walton maintains, letting Ingram fall flat will help him get better, faster. A couple months into his sophomore campaign, it appears to be the right approach.