Luke Walton’s comments about not wanting to start Brandon Ingram right away led to plenty of headlines and questions about his reasoning. We’ve already explained why the context of this benching is very different than that of last year’s second overall pick, D’Angelo Russell, and just because Walton is bringing Ingram along slowly doesn’t mean he doesn’t love the small forward’s game. In fact, according to Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News, Walton asked the Lakers’ front office to draft Ingram (report in the first paragraph).
As Medina notes, the Lakers going with Ingram wasn’t exactly a shock given that Ben Simmons was all but guaranteed to go first overall and the Lakers’ gigantic hole on the wing. However, it’s still notable that Walton was among those in his camp because of how the Lakers at least gave token consideration to other options throughout the pre-draft process.
So if Walton wanted the Lakers to get Ingram, why doesn’t he want to start him? Well for one, the Lakers just signed Luol Deng over the summer, but Walton also wants to give Ingram a chance to adjust to NBA physicality and the grind of an 82-game season.
For Ingram, Walton anticipated “that the biggest challenge for him will be the physical abuse of an NBA season.” The reasons have little to do with Ingram’s thin frame that is currently listed at 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds. Walton expressed more concern how the 19-year-old Ingram would adapt to the NBA’s 82-game schedule after playing 36 games during his lone season at Duke.
“No player has ever been through that until you get to the NBA,” Walton said. “It’s exhausting until your body gets used to it and adjusts to it. It takes time. The biggest challenge for him will be figuring out the best way to manage that, still train and take care of himself. The on-court stuff and his play will be just fine. It’ll be the challenge of the 82 game season he might struggle with.”
Lakers fans saw this up close and personal with Russell last year, with the guard looking much better after he had a month or two to get his so-called sea legs at the NBA level. Ingram would appear to be (at least initially) even less NBA-ready than Russell was, so bringing him along more slowly while the team plays a more capable veteran makes at least some sense.
The operative words in the proceeding sentence are “more capable.” For a rebuilding team, there is no point in playing a veteran over a developing young player just for the sake of playing a veteran. Unlike the options used ahead of Russell at times last season, Deng is clearly a far better player than Ingram at this point. Not only will he better aid the Lakers in their effort to win games, but his experience (and more importantly, actual talent) will help the team’s other young starters look better as well.
Walton also told Medina he might take a look at lineups featuring Ingram and Deng at times, and cited the Warriors’ success at bringing Andre Iguodala off of the bench, and his Lakers teams doing the same with Lamar Odom, as examples of situations where teams didn’t necessarily start all of their top players, but instead searched for their best units. The whole thing is worth a read for a window into Walton’s thought process, and all Lakers fans should do so.
By the end of the season or almost certainly at the start of the next one, Ingram will be starting for the Lakers. We might see small-ball lineups featuring him and Deng at the four (his best position in Miami last year) or even see Ingram getting power forward minutes as he bulks up. It’s just not going to happen right off of the bat as the team takes the long view with his development.
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