When asked at exit interviews about the progress the team made throughout the 2016-17 season, one name came to mind for most of the Lakers’ players.
For the men of the purple and gold, Brandon Ingram’s improvement was evidence that year one under head coach Luke Walton has the team in the right direction.
“Brandon really got better,” 10-year veteran Corey Brewer said. “He’s a rookie, so he works his butt off. At the end of they year, you saw he started to be be more aggressive. I think he’s going to have a big year next year.”
The Lakers knew that the 19-year-old would be a longterm project when they drafted him second overall last May. But he flashed his potential throughout the season, particularly among the starting lineup post-All-Star break.
“I knew I was going to get better throughout the months of this season,” Ingram said. “I think it’s all mental. When you want to play basketball and you get paid for playing basketball, you want to do it every single day. So I don’t think I’ll get tired of doing it.”
Ingram’s development is both physical and mental.
His first season saw more of the latter, as he claimed that his confidence received big boosts in January and after the All-Star break.
That helped him fire back against the league’s top wings, like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, whom he gave “too much respect” to early on the year.
“I definitely thought I could attack them,” Ingram said. “I definitely try to get some respect in this league and show how I’m going to come back.”
And while Ingram’s 3-point shot never solidified as a rookie (hitting just 29.4 percent), he opened some eyes with his sudden knack for attacking the basket.
After going scoreless against Boston on March 3, Ingram reached double figures in each of his last 16 full games of the season.
In addition to his ability to play multiple positions (from point guard to power forward) and his defensive capabilities, Ingram’s finishing at the rim became his signature by the end of the year.
It was a stark contrast for a player who Jordan Clarkson said looked like a “string bean” going to the hoop at the beginning of the season.
“You see toward the end of the year he’s going to the rack strong, keeping the ball high, finishing and dunking on people,” Clarkson said. “You see his mid-post game grow. He’s going to be a great player in this league once he gets it going.”
Ingram — who averaged 8.0 points on 36.3 percent shooting pre-All-Star — put up 13.9 points on 48.3 percent during this last leg of the season.
The wiry rookie was able to use his 7-foot-4 wingspan to his advantage, shooting 62.7 percent at the rim post-All-Star — 5.0 percent better than league average.
This success also lent to plenty of highlights, particularly in the season’s home finale when he smashed a one-handed jam over a challenging Cheick Diallo.
“He was just aggressive and didn’t shy away from contact,” Julius Randle said. “B.I. is a buck 20, but he is going up and dunking on people. It just shows you the potential that he has. He’s going to be great player here for a long time.”
Randle’s fellow power forward, Larry Nance Jr., shared similar feelings, saying, “There was not anybody who could guard him” after Ingram found his rhythm in the backend of the year.
Now the task is to continue this development. Ingram plans to play for the Lakers’ Summer League team and will work on shaping his body this offseason.
He will also arrange some court time with one of the franchise’s legends, Kobe Bryant, after President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka encouraged him to reach out to the recently retired superstar.
“Brandon’s a much better basketball player than I was,” Luke Walton said. “There are certain players that need guidance from certain types of players. In my opinion, Brandon’s gonna be one of those players.”
Ingram knows there is a long road between where he is now and the heights reached by “those players.”
However, he has the larger picture in mind, as shown when he recognized that he would not reach his goal of becoming Rookie of the Year.
“I was looking beyond that,” Ingram said. “I was looking at the future of Lakers basketball and how I could be a part of that.”