Brandon Ingram showed vast improvements in his sophomore season. He looked more confident as a ballhandler, was more engaged on defense, and boasted a much more accurate three-point shooting stroke.
However, with LeBron James coming over to the Los Angeles Lakers, one has to wonder if Ingram’s development as a point-forward could be stunted.
Throughout his first two seasons, Lakers coach Luke Walton has experimented with playing Ingram as a point guard. While his rookie campaign was ladened with mixed results, this past year he proved he could fit well into this role. In fact, the team saw one of its better stretches in February last season with a seven-game win streak that featured Ingram at the helm.
Walton told Sports Out West:
“I told him my vision for him as a player is that every time he has the ball, he needs to put pressure on the other team’s defense when he has the ball.”
But having LeBron James on the roster will take the ball out of Ingram’s hands. And it’s not for good reason, the best player in the league should have the ball as much as possible. It’s just, this order of operations could hurt Ingram’s effectiveness on the floor.
Can Ingram still put pressure on defenses without the ball in his hands?
Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney looked at Walton’s decision to play Ingram as a facilitator as more than just a way to improve his offensive production but to increase his engagement:
“Entrusting Ingram with more creative responsibility was a means of engagement. Every touch was a tether to the moment, demanding of Ingram a presence and focus that didn’t always come naturally.”
When Ingram is not running the offense, he can get stagnant around the perimeter. Sometimes he looked more like a decoy than an actual threat. Ingram will need to develop a better feel for playing off-ball in order to make timely cuts and set screens for his teammates to create a high-powered offense around LeBron while he’s running the show.
And though LeBron still found success with some stationary Cleveland lineups, these were the same lineups that many believed would’ve been helpless without his greatness.
Luckily, Ingram greatly improved his three-point shooting from 29.4 percent in his first season to 39.0. But this increase in accuracy came with a decrease in volume, going from 2.4 to 1.8 attempts per game.
Ingram did perform decently on spot-up attempts last year. He received 2.1 of these types of shots per game and averaged 1.09 points per possession, good to put him into the 75th percentile among players. However, if he is going to stand around the outside and wait for drive-and-kicks from James, Rondo, and Ball, he will undoubtedly see a major increase in these looks.
This season should certainly test Ingram’s ability as a shooter.
Ingram rarely cut within the Lakers offense last year. NBA.com notes this play-type was only ran for him once per game. The lack of this action for Ingram may be connected to his timidness as a finisher.
While he was effective at the rim, shooting 67.0 percent per basketball-reference, he was ineffective from between three and ten feet. From this range, he shot a pitiful 20.7 percent. If Ingram receives a pass on a cut and a bigger defender steps up to challenge his shot before the restricted area, it likely won’t go in.
He will need to develop either a floater or some sort of step-around action to complete these plays more effectively. Especially as the paint will be more clogged with JaVale McGee at center instead of Brook Lopez.
I’d imagine Ingram gets more cuts called for him as defenses will focus on stopping James. If he finds himself in these actions, he may actually begin to improve around the paint as he will be forced to make quicker, simpler decisions without having to dribble.
If Ingram does not see an increase in cuts, paying with LeBron may also force Ingram into a de facto isolation scorer, a la Kyrie Irving. As of now, though, Ingram would be miscast in this role.
He averaged only .78 points per possession in one-on-one actions, hitting only 37.8 percent of his shots taken. He graded out in the 38th percentile as an isolation scorer last season.
That’s not to say he couldn’t run some quick pick-and-rolls when the ball is thrown over to him and improve in the two-man game. But it is to say that Ingram has not found a ton of success yet as a deadly scorer with the ball in his hands.
Ingram being paired with LeBron this year will undoubtedly test his abilities as a complementary option and off-ball player. At only 21-years-old and two season already under his belt, Ingram could take another leap this year. However, the areas in which he takes leaps may not make him an overall more effective player as he will likely be forced to build upon skillsets that have been less-utilized since he came into the league.
Maybe the Lakers find some harmony in their rotations that allow Ingram to continue being the point-forward they wanted him to be. But I think the more likely scenario is that the team shifts their focus on his development to transform him into something we did not expect.