Heading into the season there were clear and high expectations in place for former Lakers lottery pick Brandon Ingram.
After statistically being one of the worst small forwards in the NBA as a rookie, Ingram bounced back with a solid sophomore campaign last year.
His usage rate as a second-year player (22.9% up from 17.3%) typically would be reserved for NBA team’s elite creators, which as a then only 20-year-old speaks to the faith the team and it’s coaching staff had in Ingram’s talents.
Ingram took advantage of their confidence. Despite standing 6’9,” he often served as the team’s lead ball-handler and showed an impressive knack for getting to the rim, flashing the eye-popping potential that made him such an appealing prospect back in 2016.
There was — and still is — plenty to be excited about in Lakerland with Ingram’s development curve, particularly the enticing potential on what playing off of LeBron James could open up for his game.
Although there have been a few rough — and expected — bumps in the road in the early stages of his third year, Ingram may have turned a subtle and necessary corner.
In that time frame, Luke Walton installed a new starting lineup that yielded positive net results and helped secure the team’s first wins.
Once Ingram was allowed to get back on the floor, many questioned if his offensive fit next to James was effective enough to warrant a starting nod as the on-court chemistry between the two players had yet to materialize.
This was partly expected given the similarity in the player’s on-ball styles and simply needing more time to learn each other’s habits.
Ultimately Walton opted to construct a lengthy five-man group of Lonzo Ball, Ingram, James, Kyle Kuzma and JaVale McGee as his starters which thus far have garnered poor net results (-11.3). Yet with that being said, the Lakers have won three of their last four games.
So what exactly has prompted the team’s recent turnaround?
The Lakers’ biggest area of weakness this season has been on the defensive end. While not as horrendous as many have made it out to be (22nd in points allowed/per 100 possessions) the team has done a poor job containing the opposition’s perimeter players.
The combination of defensive inconstancy from Ball, Josh Hart’s inability to defend in space (11th percentile defending in isolation) and James’ casual effort level on that end has allowed free reign for other team’s wings.
Since his return, Ingram has been asked not only to play a new position (shooting guard), but also has been tasked with guarding the opposition’s toughest perimeter players.
Although only a small sample, the early results have been impressive.
Ingram has done a promising job as the team’s psuedo-wing stopper which they can plop onto the opposing primary and secondary options.
While still having difficulty defending the pick and roll, allowing 0.974 points per defensive possession (28th percentile) according to Synergy, he has been about league average defending spot ups, and in the few opportunities he has had, has also been good against handoffs — 0.33 points per possession.
In the Lakers’ victory over the Dallas Mavericks, Ingram was given the responsibility of covering Slovenian wunderkind, Luka Doncic, and gave the rookie absolute fits.
In the clip above, Ingram exemplifies how he is able to functionally use his length to close the gap once defenders create separation on him.
Ingram, like Hart, is susceptible to getting blown by due to his average twitch ability, but because of his 7’3” wingspan, Ingram is able to compensate for this initial spatial deficit.
Here, Ingram once again anticipates Doncic’s patented step-back move by firmly planting his foot to gather enough momentum to raise and swallow up this 3-point attempt.
Ingram defended Doncic for 52.4 percent of the game, and during that stretch the Mavericks’ forward went 0-5 from the field, including 0-3 from three. Against all other defenders on the night, the third-overall-pick went 5-6, according to Second Spectrum.
Ingram’s defensive potential has always been one of the most enticing attributes about the 21-year-old.
Armed with fantastic height, length and foot speed, he has always been blessed with the physical measurements needed of a great perimeter defender, but simply has yet to fully capitalize on them — until now.
On the season, opponent’s are shooting only 44.2 percent on attempts he has defended, the best mark on the team among players who have played in at least 200 minutes.
In the team’s dramatic triumph over the Portland Trailblazers, Ingram once again helped stifle one of the opposition’s main offensive weapons, CJ McCollum.
Tasked with playing shooting guard often comes with the responsibility of chasing guards and wings off of screens or simply staying in front of them in isolation possessions.
This is one of Ingram’s current weaknesses, as he is physically unable to hunker down and craftily ride the hips of faster players due to his height and average lateral quickness.
Yet against McCollum, Ingram flashed some impressive defensive sequences.
In this possession McCollum is unable to shake Ingram on his probe into the paint. Doing a good job in once again using his length to prevent the jumper, Ingram forces the former Most Improved Player of the Year to kick the ball out, an individual victory in almost every defensive stance against a player of McCollum’s pedigree.
In another trip down the court, Ingram was challenged with trailing and defending McCollum off the initial flip pass and corresponding screen. Showing agile feet, Ingram stalls a bit on the screen but again is able to offer a sound contest because of his wingspan.
Ingram was asked to defend McCollum almost exclusively that night as he matched up with him for 64.2 percent of the game. The Portland guard shot 7-16 when he was defended by Ingram, and was also 1-6 from three including one turnover.
Against all other Lakers’ defenders, McCollum was 6-8 from the field and 1-2 from three.
Ingram’s defense has also begun seeping over into the Lakers’ offense. In their most recent win against Minnesota, Ingram helped ignite two transition opportunities through his shot blocking ability.
This season Ingram has done a better job staying grounded on his opponent’s initial up-fakes, which has aided him in meeting the shot attempt at it’s point of release with his aforementioned pterodactyl-like wingspan.
This improved sense of timing has helped Ingram rack up blocks at a consistently high rate compared to other players at his position.
At the moment, Ingram is currently in the 98th percentile in block percentage among wings (the percentage of an opposing player’s shot attempt that end in a block).
These blocks, like the one against Josh Okogie in the clip above, have helped ignite transition opportunities for the Lakers on the other end. In this example, it results in a wide open three for Josh Hart.
The team still could not do much in terms of stopping Jimmy Butler in their last contest, but did do a better overall job containing him, especially with Ingram as the primary defender.
According to Second Spectrum, Butler was matched up against Ingram for 43.2 percent of the game. In that time span, Butler went 4-9 from the field with one miss coming at the hands of another Ingram block.
Once again his length is key to this recovery possession.
Ingram still has defensive issues he needs to clean up in a broader sense, specifically trailing wings off of screens.
In the Lakers’ discouraging loss to Toronto, Ingram was noticeably lost against the Raptors’ utilization of Danny Green coming off pin down screens and was exploited for his lack of off-ball awareness.
One of the biggest reasons for this current weakness is simply being too thin to fight over screens, which has often let his opposition get the necessary space to launch. Hopefully in time, improved strength and technique cleans these areas up.
Yet, one can not help but be encouraged by the flashes Ingram has showed early into the season and what it could ultimately mean for the Lakers.
Despite the concerns about Ingram’s offensive fit next to James this season and going froward, there is no denying the team simply needs his defense and length in the starting lineup to help combat their current weaknesses.
If Ingram continues to prove he is able to consistently unleash the swarming havoc his endless limbs can create on the perimeter, he may be the catalyst that catapults the Lakers past what has been a dreary start and back on the right path.