When LeBron James committed to singing a four-year, $153.3 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, it was a monumental victory for the franchise, not just because they got arguably the greatest player to every step foot on the hardwood to sign with a 35-win team, but because they got James to come by himself.
That’s right: for the first time since the 2009-10 season, James will be the lone All-Star on his team. It will also mark just the third time in seven seasons James will be the only player on his team to have averaged at least 20 points per game in the season prior, per basketball-reference.com.
The Lakers could have easily made a move to pair James with another All-Star player like Kawhi Leonard or Damian Lillard, but James nor his camp put pressure on the front office to shake up the roster. Why?
“Because I love the young guys that they have,” James told Rachel Nichols of ESPN, “and I’m not trying to force my hand in no way, shape or form. I believe Rob [Pelinka] and Magic [Johnson] and Jeanie [Buss] have done an unbelievable job of reshaping what the organization should be, keeping Dr. Buss’ dreams and what he was all about, to keep that going. I feel like they know what’s best for the team and I wanted to be a piece to continue that motion of being back to a championship franchise where they should be.”
The concept of James happily playing alongside a group of unproven young players is a foreign one to many. After all, we are talking about the same guy that has a reputation for wiping out half of every team he’s played for like he’s Thanos, the Mad Titan.
But perhaps the reason James is willing to be so patient with this team is because he sees star potential in one or more of the young players on the current roster, even if there is no obvious co-star for him next season.
James first showed interest in the Lakers’ young core last year at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League tournament. The four-time league MVP sat courtside as Ball did his best LeBron impression, tallying 36 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds in the Lakers’ win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Fast forward a year and James will now be on the receiving end of the full court outlet passes he saw Ball throw at bullet speed that day.
James has played with a handful of capable points guards in his 15-year career but none quite like Ball.
In his rookie season with the Lakers, Ball averaged 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists , 1.7 steals and a hair shy of a block per game (0.8 BPG). James hasn’t played with a guard that has averaged at least 7 assists per game in a single season since Dwyane Wade, who has averaged more than 7 assists per game twice in his career.
Had James and Ball averaged 4 more assists per game between the two of them, they would have averaged more assists per game than the entire Portland Trailblazers team.
Ball isn’t the scorer Wade is, nor are his handles as flashy as Kyrie Irving’s, but his game allows James to play off ball and focus on scoring in a way James hasn’t been able to before. If James can lead the league in field goals made while being his team’s primary facilitator, just imagine what he’ll be capable of when he’s not asked to handle the ball so much.
That’s not to say James won’t be handling the ball at all next season, he’s just one of the few players on the roster that can play off ball.
However, as much as Ball will help James and his teammates, his game doesn’t scream “second-best player on a contending team.” The player most likely to breakout as a clear No. 2 option to James next season is Brandon Ingram.
After an uninspiring rookie season with the Lakers, Ingram showed everyone why he was such a highly touted prospect coming out of college in his sophomore campaign.
On the surface, his stats are respectable, with the 20-year-old averaging 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game in his sophomore season. However, Ingram’s game is even more impressive when you go deeper into the numbers.
Last season, Ingram averaged 10.6 drives to the basket per game, more than any of his new teammates not named LeBron James, who averaged 11.7 drives per game. As a result, Ingram found himself at the charity stripe at a far higher rate than he did during his rookie campaign.
Here’s a breakdown of how well Ingram drew fouls last season, courtesy of Silver Screen and Roll’s own Alex Regla:
According to Cleaning the Glass, Brandon Ingram had a solid 12.6 shooting-foul percentage (76th percentile) as a rookie. This season he has raised that number nearly by three percent and ended the year with a ridiculous 15.2 shooting-foul percentage, which ranked in the 95th percentile among all NBA wings. To put into context the level of foul calls the former Duke standout received this season, these are the names of other notable players which he recorded higher percentages than this year: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, and Anthony Davis.
Ingram’s knack for getting to the hoop will make him an easy, 6-foot-9 target for James, but it also makes him a drive and kick threat.
Head coach Luke Walton experimented with lineups featuring Ingram as the primary facilitator and it showed that Ingram is not only capable of making the smart pass, but that he excels at creating for others. His offensive versatility and length at the wing will give James a tool few teams have, especially if Ingram can build on the progress he made as a three-point shooter last season.
Ingram drained 39 percent of his 105 three-point attempts last season, which is promising, but he did it while averaging just 1.8 three-point attempts per game. That could be seen as Ingram just taking smarter shots, but it’s more likely his volume decreased because he was testing out a new and improved jumpshot.
After working with Michah Lancaster this summer, the same trainer that worked with Victor Oladipo leading up to his breakout season with the Indiana Pacers, Ingram should come into the season a more confident scorer. When Ingram is attacking with confidence, he’s damn near unguardable.
With how stacked the Western Conference is, it’s unlikely Ingram will make an All-Star game in the near future, but it’s not unrealistic to think he can be a 20-point per game scorer as soon as next season.
Ball and Ingram alone are reason enough for James to be excited about his new team’s future, but factor in Kuzma and Hart — who look like they can be starters themselves — and it’s no wonder James wanted the Lakers to stand pat and take a leap of faith that this young core can grow into the supporting cast he needs, and that one of them might eventually become his co-star.
The Lakers will have an opportunity to add another star player in free agency in the summer of 2019. In the meantime, James will have to make do with what he has, and what he has is good enough for him.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.