LAS VEGAS —The Thomas and Mack center was nearly filled to capacity with rabid Los Angeles Lakers fans looking to sneak a peek at the team’s future. The Lakers’ first basket of their 96-93 overtime loss to the LA Clippers served as a solid preview of what the Lakers hope that future will heavily feature, with Lonzo Ball effortlessly tossing a lob pass to Brandon Ingram, who flushed it with authority as the building exploded in cheers.
Ball’s first night as a Laker was a mostly forgettable affair, but Ingram sneaking along the baseline served as a solid allegory for the fervor currently surrounding the team. While most were focused on Ball, Ingram was there to remind them that the Lakers have two untouchable No. 2 picks on their roster, and that he is still very much worth being excited about even after a rough rookie campaign.
"He had a great game. I loved his leadership out there, loved what he did for us,” said Lakers summer league head coach Jud Buechler. “I was really proud of how he competed tonight."
Ingram’s full potential was on display in his 26 point, three steal and two block performance against the Clippers. Not only does he look longer and stronger, Ingram is now leveraging those raw physical tools into functional basketball in a way that simply wasn’t possible for him as a spindly, raw and inexperienced rookie. It was clear Ingram has put in work this summer on improving areas in which he was literally and figuratively weak last season.
"Two months can do a lot of things,” Ingram said. "As these months go by I'm just continuing to get better. I don't want to stay complacent.”
Complacent he wasn’t. There were pick-and-rolls leading to buckets for himself or pinpoint dump-offs to reward the big man. There were pull-up jumpers following pump fakes to create soft spots in the defense.
Ingram’s shooting may not have been much to write home about (1-4 on 3-pointers) despite well-publicized work on his stroke with assistant coaches, but that was less important with the way Ingram used his extra muscle to bump defenders out of position in situations in which he would have been bumped backwards as a rookie.
When brute force didn’t work, Ingram utilized improved footwork to gracefully dance around opponents on his way to the bucket.
The offensive clinic led to not just above 50 percent shooting (a rarity for Ingram as a rookie), but a newfound control of the game that was accompanied by increased control over his teammates.
"We see him as a real big leader of this team. I look up to him because he's been here,” said Lakers rookie Thomas Bryant. “He's just been giving me pointers and helping me out there on the court."
Ingram described himself as a “player-coach” after the game, and earned the moniker with the way he actively cheered and instructed his teammates from the bench and on the floor. Ingram was just far more vocal that he ever was as a timid rookie, when it seemed as though Ingram might need a megaphone if he was ever going to instruct his teammates in the din of an NBA arena.
"I think he realizes that this is his team out here this summer and I'm hoping that's going to transfer to our team,” said Lakers summer league head coach Jud Buechler. “Leadership is a lot of different things. Guys have to respect you. It's about your work ethic, and I think he has that. You also have to get on the court and earn that respect, and I think he's done both. In my mind I think he's ready for the next step."
Ingram’s newfound ease was on display with the media as well, with the usually soft-spoken and sometimes barely audible forward easily cracking jokes and even ending his press conference with a laugh when he made a crack about eventually growing to Kevin Durant’s height. The whole night showed brevity and confidence that simply didn’t exist for Ingram as a rookie.
Perhaps fittingly, Ingram was the go-to guy on the Lakers’ final possessions of the game, making a driving layup to tie the game before diving on steal to give himself a chance to win it.
Ingram missed a jumper on the final possession of regulation, cramping up afterwards and not playing in overtime of a game the Lakers would eventually lose. Ingram said he wanted to return, but Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson put the kibosh on that idea from his courtside perch, motioning to the Lakers’ bench to not send Ingram back in.
The injury was just a cramp, but it’s unclear if Ingram will play in the Lakers’ Saturday game against the Boston Celtics or in the rest of summer league at all.
No matter what his injury is though, letting Ingram suit up again is too big of a gamble even for Las Vegas. As high lottery picks in their second year in summer league want to do, Ingram showed he has nothing left to learn in the desert tournament.
While it’s dangerous to take too much from one summer league game, it certainly feels like Ingram’s big night could be the start of a breakout sophomore season.
“We’re playing against guys who just got out of college, so it’s nothing compared to the league,” Ingram said. “When you come out here you probably expect to play like this.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com. and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.