Editor’s Note: In this series, “The Next Step,” we are going to be taking a look at one specific thing each of the young Lakers needs to improve on over the summer. Next up is Brandon Ingram.
In every superhero movie, there is a prominent and arc-defining moment of self-realization that occurs. Some are profound — and some are cringingly more cheesy than others — but within that scene or frame, the character typically taps into a previously unearthed power and drastically sees the course of their life alter because of it.
That “a-ha” moment can also be associated with basketball players, most commonly occurring in the NBA’s conglomerate of young men who are still coming to grips on what their strengths are, and how to properly optimize them.
History has showed us that the when’s and how’s of that realization period vary for every individual though. And for some, it never happens at all.
When did Steph Curry truly grasp he could pull up and bury a three from literally anywhere on the floor, and be successful in it? When did Nikola Jokic say “Huh, I am both really tall and pretty good at this passing thing after all. Maybe I can do something with this”? And when did Kevin Durant embrace being both obtusely lanky and ridiculous coordinated, and say “F*** this, I’ll just shoot over everyone”?
For the Lakers, they are banking on this summer to be Brandon Ingram’s turning point in his search for his very own “a-ha” moment to unlock that crucial next step in reaching his enticing potential. But the question thus arrises, what exactly is Ingram’s superpower?
The answer to that prompted question first needs to be prefaced with the understanding that NBA players, in totality, are physical outliers. The combination of size, hand-eye coordination and downright skill are rare athletic concoctions that enable these individuals to perform against one and other at the highest level — and make a living doing so.
But what makes the 21-year-old Ingram stand out, even amongst the aforementioned unique collection of talent he calls his peers, are his own physical measurements being exceptional even by NBA standards.
On bare feet, Ingram continues to firmly push the ceiling of his reported 6’9” height, as he consistently sports a hovering advantage over his opposition. He also possesses a dazzlingly long 7’3” wingspan, and according to the previous iteration of the Draft-Express database, was only the second “non-traditional bigman” — behind Kevin Durant — to own a 9’1” 1⁄2 standing reach when he was drafted into the league by Los Angeles.
In short, Ingram’s limbs have the potential to consume a tremendous amount of space on the court like a black hole. But despite possessing an incredible combination of height and length, he has yet to be able to properly utilize it to both disrupt and impact a game on defense on a regular basis.
Before getting shut down for the season with the legitimately frightening diagnosis of Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT), Ingram put up monster boxscore numbers on offense within a scorching stretch. It was truly impressive, but it also only teased and frustrated by displaying what is still left to be uncovered for the other aspects of his game. Namely, on defense and rebounding.
In what was only his third year as a professional last season (which feels significantly less considering he has already missed a combined 56 games) Ingram is very much still in the learning process when it comes to comprehending his physical gifts, and how to functionally leverage them in a basketball setting.
Or more aptly put, he is still in the post-radioactive spider-bite Peter Parker, but not yet Spider-Man, phase.
In terms of light-bulb moments, Ingram may have come his closest to both realizing and maximizing his super-human extension during a preseason contest against Sacramento back in October.
Tasked with contesting the in-bound passer during a crucial (for exhibition stakes) side out possession, Ingram suddenly transformed into Mr. Fantastic for approximately two minutes of actual time, as he completely overwhelmed his man with his eye-popping wingspan.
As if watching a baby deer gallop for the first time, the collectively shared “a-ha” moment between the fans in the building, and Ingram’s teammates on the bench, was unmistakably palpable.
Although he made noticeable defensive strides this season, Ingram never really captured the same essence of disruption he flashed that night, and hasn’t been able to consistently use his length and height to make useful non-scoring plays. These are arguably the biggest areas he needs to focus on this summer.
When comparing Ingram against the rest of the league, specifically against a criteria of players who are 1) are 6’7” or taller and 2) appeared in at least 50 games last season, it becomes crystalized how much he has left on the table thus far in relation to his physical advantages. Among such players, Ingram ranks:
- 109th in deflections per game (0.9)
- 238th in defensive rebound percentage
- 252nd in steal percentage (a worse percentage than players like Jahil Okafor and Kyle Korver)
- 331st in defensive real-plus-minus (among all players)
As seen by his ranks among somewhat similar players, Ingram’s defensive stock numbers have not been up to the par many would have expected someone with his physical tools to be at. And in some areas, Ingram even took a step back this season when compared to his own career numbers.
It should be noted that the amount of steals, blocks, rebounds, etc, a player obtains does not directly correlate to impact, or what makes someone a “good defender.” It does, however, relay a starting point to identify how much of a hand an individual is having in aspects of the game that do not directly involve getting buckets.
In terms of what Ingram can tangibly do to improve in these areas, much of it may simply come down to uploading the importance of these aspects into Ingram’s mainframe by the team’s higher up’s and expected new coaching staff.
Like most No. 2 overall picks, Ingram has had many expectations thrown his way within his short time in the league, but they mostly have all been in relation to his scoring numbers.
This was perhaps most evident when the team's now-former President of Basketball of Operations — Magic Johnson — went so far as to publicly challenge Ingram with scoring benchmarks:
“I expect him to lead us in scoring, be out there and be the man. It’s his team. It would be disappointing if he didn’t score up toward 20 points a game.”
And while it’s ultimately up to the individual player to actively pursue and work on the totality of their game, it must be difficult to focus on other aspects when the team’s president, and a living legend, puts such an emphasis on a certain per-game point total. Especially for a young player still trying to find his way in a hectic new profession.
Ingram also simply needs to continue to get stronger. Although his aforementioned physical tools are outliers, he still fairly frail in relation to other player’s broad frames as a result of them.
Still, Ingram has come a long way already since his Jack Skellington-like arrival into the league, and that has been most seen in his improved finishing around the rim and a completely overhauled level of confidence.
But on defense, and the glass, he is still susceptible to getting bumped off his spots and overmatched against stronger competition. Ironically though, Ingram’s wingspan is actually the perfect antidote to being so thin.
With his plus-height to wingspan combo, Ingram is able to soar into players for rebounds even if he is boxed out. He can recover in space with his extension even if he is initially shook, blown by, or bumped off by a screen. And he can disrupt or clog up passing lanes simply with his lanky presence. The next step is just doing these things on a regular basis.
Only needing to make such small tweaks in focuse, despite a wonky shot profile, injuries and questionable deployment, is why Ingram remains one of the most tantalizing prospects in the league.
The rare combination of his physical gifts, in correlation with his guard-like skills, are attributes that would make even the most jaded scouts’ mouths drop. But what may ultimately be the difference between Ingram unlocking his full potential, and joining the upper-echelon ranks of the league, is not only embracing his super-powers — but mastering them.
A difficult task for a 21-year-old playing under the Los Angeles spotlight, but with great height and wingspan must also come great results on both sides of the court.
All stats and video per NBA.com. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts, or listen to Alex talk about what each of the young Lakers need to work on in the episode below: