LOS ANGELES — It’s happened time and time again this season. Brandon Ingram hustles to make the exact correct rotation. He gets his elastic arms on a ball no normal human could tip. The No. 2 pick has done it all, with consistency, for the Los Angeles Lakers.
But here’s the rub: NBA Rookies aren’t supposed to help a team defensively. At least, certainly not 19-year old rookies who most predicted would struggle at the NBA level due to their rail-thin frame. Right?
“I won't tell you right away,” said Lakers head coach Luke Walton. “I saw from Summer League that he could be a very, very good defender with his length and the way he sees the game and the feel he has for the game. But there is no way to ever know how quickly a player will ever pick it up during actual NBA games, and it's impressive to watch.”
It’s no secret how atrocious the Los Angeles Lakers were on defense last season. The team ranked dead-last in defensive efficiency, giving up an astounding 109.3 points per 100 possessions on average. For comparison, the Oklahoma City Thunder were second in the league in offensive efficiency while scoring 109.9 points per 100 possessions.
Basically, the Lakers turned any team they were playing into the second-best offense in the NBA.
Things have been different this year. With an overhauled roster and new head coach, the Lakers rank 20th in defensive efficiency, giving up 105.4 points per 100 possessions amid a surprising 7-5 start, and the team has been even better with their precocious rookie wing on the floor.
The Lakers’ defense has allowed 12.3 points fewer points per 100 possessions when Ingram plays versus when he sits. There is some noise in that stat (noted defensive ace Lou Williams is first with a 14 point differential), but even still, 19-year-olds aren’t supposed to make this kind of immediate impact defensively.
"He's a problem. At 6'8, 6'9, his friggin' wingspan is like mine,” said 6’9 Lakers big man Tarik Black, whose Draft Express-listed wingspan of 7.275’ feet is actually a smidge shorter than the 7’3 wingspan of Ingram. “He's been disturbing shots. He's been doing well and he's going to continue to grow."
That length has been a major key for the Lakers’ Energizer Bunny bench unit of Ingram, Black, Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, and Larry Nance, Jr. that has blitzed the league while holding opponents to a moribund 88.9 points per 100 possessions.
“He definitely makes us more versatile,” Nance told Silver Screen and Roll. “I love that unit."
In addition to helping power the Lakers’ surprisingly effective bench, Ingram’s versatility has led the coaching staff to leave him in to close out games for defensive purposes.
"Down the stretch of games he's almost getting to the point where he's a lock down defender with that length and feel for the game and read of what's happening,” Walton said. “He's constantly proven he's earned the trust to be out there at the end of games.”
Despite being able to be so helpful on defense at such a young age, Ingram is still nowhere near reaching his potential, which stretches longer than his seemingly endless arms and higher than the release point of his cloud-scraping jumpshot.
"I'm not where I want to be right now of course,” Ingram said. “[The coaches] like where I'm at right now, especially on the defensive end, but of course they want to see me push every day."
Ingram’s play on its own offers enough reason to believe he’ll reach his full potential, and his head coach says he has the intangibles to get there as well.
“He’s a winner,” says Walton. “Day-to-day, week-to-week, you see improvement and him getting more comfortable, and more impactful on defense and on offense. It's pretty impressive."
It may take Ingram some time to get there, but he’s already ahead of the curve.
“At 19 if you had stuck me in up here, it would've been...” said Nance, pausing before settling on “bad.”
“But he's doing awesome,” Nance continued. “We saw it in training camp, we saw it in preseason, and he's just gonna continue to keep getting better."
And even if it takes some patience from fans and the organization, Ingram says he isn’t going to stop until he converts every ounce of his natural ability into production for the Lakers.
“As a player you’re never satisfied,” Ingram said. “I just come in every day and try to get better.”