SAN DIEGO — In the same building that Brandon Ingram’s new head coach Luke Walton captured a high school title — a fact he admitted he was unaware of after the game — the No. 2 pick of the 2016 NBA Draft put on his finest stretch of basketball since being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. Ingram showed off his shooting range, decision making, rebounding and defense on his way to 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists. The Lakers may have ended the night with a loss to the Golden State Warriors, but it was a win for a process that has such a long way to go.
“He played really well tonight, and when you get a young guy who can have a good game before the season starts, I think it can really help settle him in,” Walton said of Ingram’s standout performance in his old stomping grounds.
Settling Ingram in to his new life as a professional NBA player is one of the many keys Walton must nurture this season. It hasn’t been a particularly fast start to Brandon’s career — which is completely fine — but it was certainly nice to see him flourish.
The lanky swingman stood in front of a swarm of reporters, all eyes on him, decked in a 2pac shirt with “stop the violence” scrawled across the back. To put how young he is into perspective, Ingram was born almost exactly one year after Tupac Shakur’s life was taken on the Las Vegas strip.
“I think as a player you’re never satisfied, so I don’t think I exceeded my expectation at all,” Ingram said when asked if he was happy with what he’s been able to prove through training camp and preseason. “I think I have a high expectation of myself to be aggressive every game, and I don’t think I was aggressive every game. I don't think I got out there defensively every game.”
Ingram attributed his solid all-around game to growing with each passing chance to put his preparation to the test.
“[I’m] gaining confidence each and every game, I think shooting the basketball, [and] on the defensive end trusting my feet. So I think just gaining confidence every single game has helped me out a lot,” Ingram said.
But what got Ingram going by the Xs and Os was a chance to handle the ball more. Coach Walton has alluded to putting Brandon in position to run point for the squad already in preseason, nothing that he’s shined as a ballhandler during practice. Ingram had plenty of opportunity to do just that against Golden State and looked great doing so.
“He just seems to really gain confidence when he's been running that point position for us,” Walton said about how they jump-started Ingram’s night.
“I think I'm making progressions every time I step on the floor,” Ingram said. “I think Coach Luke, Coach B. Shaw, they're putting me in a good position with the ball in my hand and I kind of thrived in that position.”
Thrive he did:
More important than the results in the immediate is finding nuggets the team can implement going forward as they develop. The fuel for what became Ingram’s preseason coming out party was all about allowing him to take the wheel.
It’s going to take time before he can consistently bring that kind of production on the court, but the Lakers have just that. The “Jim Buss deadline” has been a talking point for years, but ultimately that’s irrelevant to what’s happening within the franchise right now. Walton is embracing the path ahead without trying to force the issue on an imaginary timetable.
“It’s exciting, honestly,” Walton said about laying down the foundation for the future. ”I really, really, enjoy working with the group of players we have, and the coaching staff we have, so it can be frustrating at times, but its a lot of fun knowing that we can continue to work on these things.
And then when you watch guys do it and they get better at it, that’s where you get joy as a coach. Seeing the improvement and seeing the light turn on and seeing them figure things out as a group. To me, it's really the fun part of the job.”
Meanwhile, the fun part of the job as a fan is dreaming of what could be. Ingram is a key piece of the future, and against a team featuring the superstar his skills and physical profile most closely resemble in Kevin Durant, he gave everyone a glimpse. A spark to keep a the fire of hope for the future burning bright:
No, it’s not as smooth or precise as the web Durantula spins around defenses, but getting that kind of shot to drop over Andre Iguodala is one of the many reasons Ingram is an elite prospect. While he’s not the nicest guy in the NBA, he’s at times looked like the baby-giraffe version of him:
“Of course when you’re going against one of your idols you always want to get a piece of them, want to compete against them,” Ingram said when asked if playing against Durant means something extra to him. It bodes well for Ingram that he’s held Durant up as an idol considering the kind of tool set he’ll be perfecting as he finds his way in the NBA.
“Brandon is further along as a basketball player than I would expect any kid coming out of college after one year,” Walton said as he beamed about Ingram finally translating what he accomplishes during practice into competitive play.
That kind of proof that hard work pays off is the exact process Walton said brings him joy, something this team of Lakers players may have to rely on at times when the wins don’t stack. But for the first time in years, win or lose, the purple and gold have just that by the bunches; hope and joy.
*All quotes obtained firsthand.