Brandon Ingram is perhaps the most interesting and important player on the Lakers as we begin this new season. Is he a blue chip prospect who will make repeated all star visits in his prime, or is he going to end up “just” a really good role player? Where he falls on this spectrum will massively impact the Lakers’ future, and I see a wide variety of possible outcomes.
Ingram’s statistics were unequivocally awful last year, yet the team, fans (and I) nevertheless expect so much from him this year. If Ingram is going to become the all star level foundation piece that Magic/Pelinka see, then he will need to improve statistically in perhaps unparalleled ways. And if he is going to become a primary perimeter scoring option this year, then he will need to make massive improvements extremely quickly. Is it reasonable to expect him to become a 20 point scorer now? Or ever? It’s too early to answer these questions with any kind of certainty, but we can clearly identify where he needs to improve and where he’s already shown strengths that he can build on.
Notably, Ingram showed enormous improvement at the end of the year, looking like a totally different player from the tentative, ineffective 18 year old we saw before the all star break, which lends support to the team’s faith in his eventual success. I will recap below Ingram’s statistics in key areas last year, comparing his performance early and late in the year, and consider what the end-of-season surge means for his likely performance this season.
REVIEWING KEY SEASON LONG STATISTICS
To get our bearings, I’ll begin by summarizing Ingram’s season long statistics in the chart below: Stats were found at nba.com/stats, basketballreference.com, and Synergy.
|Category||Per Game||Per 36||Category||Statistic|
|Minutes||28.9||—||Off. PPP||.823 (19th perc.)|
|Points||9.4||11.7||Def. PPP||.955 (30th perc.)|
Ingram’s high level stats are uniformly terrible. He placed 459th out of 468 total players in RPM (ESPN’s overall advanced metric), had the fourth worst TS% among all players who played over 24 min/g, was 404th out of 452 total players in NetRtg, and had extremely low per minute counting stats.
In short, despite high minutes for a rookie, he placed near the bottom of the league in most key statistical categories. With the league so focused now on high volume, high efficiency players (Durant, Curry, Harden, Lebron), Ingram was the epitome of low volume and low efficiency… If the Lakers are going to take a big step forward this year, Ingram will have to be substantially better given his likely minute and usage load.
PLAY TYPE DATA
Digging deeper on Synergy, we see that Ingram struggled with some things more than others:
(including poss’s that led to assists)
This play type data shows interesting variance in Ingram’s performance by play type. He was near or above league average when spotting up, in isolation, and during post ups, but was extremely poor as a pick and roll ball handler and in transition, which really tainted his overall numbers.
I wonder if this disparity reflects early discomfort with the speed of the NBA game, which is an issue for most rookies. Ingram struggled making reads out of the pick and roll or in transition, situations where you are attacking team defense and uncertain or changing coverage, but looked much more comfortable when just attacking his own man more methodically in isolation (whether from the perimeter or from the post).
I believe his efficiency will improve as he adjusts to NBA speed and learns to read and anticipate team defensive concepts. His end of year performance suggests he already began to turn things around as the season concluded.
END OF YEAR SURGE – REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Despite the dismal season long numbers, I remain extremely bullish on Ingram. That optimism is largely rooted in my projection of how I believe his skill set will develop into his prime years – there just are so few players with 7’2” standing reaches who can potentially score from all three levels, create for others, defend multiple positions, etc. Remember, Ingram was one of the youngest rookies last year, and there were meaningful stints where Luke had him playing point guard. Combining center length with guard skills is a golden recipe in today’s NBA, where everyone wants to play small (meaning play as many skill players as possible) while retaining defensive length. If, and this is no sure thing, Ingram’s potential skillset becomes actualized, then he could become one of the next great wings in the league.
But projecting this kind of career arc means believing that Ingram’s rookie statistics are largely meaningless; that he’ll be great despite those awful stats. There are rational reasons to believe this, but history shows that rookie year stats are usually meaningful in projecting future performance.
Another reason I’m comfortable projecting Ingram’s stardom is that he finished the season with a fairly extended stretch of strong statistical play. Ingram looked like a completely different player during the last month or two, and comparing early and late year statistics confirm massive improvement. For example:
|Category||Pre-All Star||Post-All Star|
This chart shows that Ingram substantially increased his scoring volume and efficiency after the all star break, with his points per game rising over 5 per game, his eFG% increasing over 10%, and his PPP rising from an anemic 14th percentile to above league average.
Being above 50th percentile in PPP and over 50% in eFG are promising signs of real progress. For comparison, that eFG% is higher than the season long marks of other quality small forwards, including Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins. If Ingram can sustain and build on this improved shooting, then he’s on the right path to scoring at an efficient rate. His pre- and post-all star shot diagrams show Ingram’s radical improvement as a shooter:
Note the improvement near the rim from 44.7% (12 points below league average) to 62.7% (5 points above), and the strong midrange game from all over the court. He did not, however, improve from 3 or the FT line, which are going to be critical areas in determining whether he can ever score at an elite rate.
Now, the post-all star stretch only accounts for 21 games, so it is possible that he just had a hot stretch over a fairly small sample size. We can usually find nice 20 game stretches for any player, and it is dangerous to assume a two month hot streak indicates permanent change. I tend to believe that the improved statistics reflect tangible improvement rather than a small sample hot streak because his end of year performance looked sustainable. The improved play was driven by increased aggressiveness, better sense of space/timing, and relentless penetration, which I think can hold up over time. I also just fundamentally believe that his core physical traits and skill set can develop into an effective player over time, but we should look carefully to see if the late season surge continues into this year, or whether he reverts to the early struggles.
DRIVING MAY BE THE KEY
Ingram’s second half surge as a scorer was driven by his relentless penetration to the rim over the last few months of the season. The following chart compares his drives data per game pre- and post-all star game:
|Drives Data||Pre-All Star||Post-All Star|
Before the all star game, Ingram was notably passive in taking the ball to the basket (3.1 per game), and he was an abysmal finisher once there, as reflected by the 39 FG% on such drives. But after the break, his 4.9 drives per game was second on the team (to Clarkson) and 7th best among small forwards, and more than several high level scoring forwards (Hayward, Barnes, Blake, Anthony Davis, Gallo, etc.). In addition, his FG% on drives rose to 50% (same as Butler and Hayward), and his passing spiked (12.6% assist rate, highest on the Lakers, and one of the best rates for forwards league wide). In short, Ingram became a relentless driver at the end of the season, scoring effectively, and showing great court awareness to create plays for others.
I believe Ingram’s drive game can become the foundation of his scoring attack. His elite stride length allows him to get around defenders without elite quickness, and his elite wingspan allows him to finish and pass once into the paint. He has shown impressive determination in taking the ball to the rim, even with such a frail rookie frame, and his effectiveness will grow as he gains strength to bump off defenders and finish through contact. If Ingram can continue to increase his driving volume and effectiveness then this will create high efficiency scoring options, both due to field goal attempts at the rim and an increased free throw rate. For reference, Kawhi averaged 6.4 drives, Giannis averaged 8.7, and Lebron led all forwards with 9.5. Ingram has a ways to go, but his post-all star drive numbers are very strong for a rookie forward.
I also believe Ingram’s driving abilities can become an important element of the Lakers’ offensive attack. One of the fundamental goals of any offensive possession is to create an action where a player draws multiple defenders to the ball, which then creates advantages/seams for other players to take high efficiency shots. The elite scorers in the league draw two defenders doing simple things (think KAT being doubled on a post up, Curry sucking in two defenders on a pick and roll, etc.), which creates easy playmaking opportunities for the team.
One of the easiest ways to pressure a defense is through penetration, which collapses in help defenders, leaving other players open for spot up shots or to attack a scrambled defense. Russell Westbrook is basically an offense unto himself through his ability to get into the paint by himself, without complex offensive actions. Miami’s dominant second half last year was fueled by a drive and kick offensive system where Dragic, James Johnson, and Waiters collapsed the defense (usually after some primary action to get them downhill), and kicked the ball out for a secondary attack against compromised defense. Without a “star” offensive player, Miami still generated an elite offensive attack, and the drive game was critical to this success.
The Lakers were bottom 10 in drives per game and second to last in assists off drives as a team last year, and do not have an elite penetrating guard like most other teams (KCP almost never drives and Lonzo does not forecast as a Dennis Smith type), so Ingram may be the key to any drive and scramble possibilities. If Ingram can build on last year and continue penetrating a high level then this may help catalyze easier team opportunities. The fact that his passing statistics rose when driving at the end of the year is encouraging, and hopefully suggests that he won’t turn into a tunnel vision driver like Clarkson.
WHAT TO EXPECT THIS SEASON
What should we reasonably expect this year? Can Ingram really breakout? Magic has unfortunately set a 20 point per game expectation, and I’m not sure this is quite realistic. He averaged less than 10 points per game last year, and during his post-all star surge he only averaged 15 points per 36 minutes. Even if Ingram’s minutes increase to around there, he has a long ways to go to reach 20 points. It may be more realistic to hope for 15-17 points per game.
If he is going to make that scoring leap, I believe the key will be an increased free throw rate and three point accuracy, which would generate far more points per opportunity. Can he get to 6+ drives, 5+ FTAs, and approach 35 3P% this season? Can his TS% reach 53-55% this year?
I’m also interested in whether Ingram becomes more comfortable creating offense against team defenses, especially in the pick and roll (a real weakness last year), and whether he can capitalize on the transition opportunities that Lonzo should create. I see the potential for Ingram to do all of these things well and make substantial strides this year, but hope he doesn’t get overly focused on “having” to score, and lose some natural development in the process.
Non-statistically, I’m anxious to see if Ingram can find a way to create easier separation. He has truly elite length and the beginnings of a broad, diverse skill set, but I worry that we don’t see him often blow by defenders. The “shake” or “twitch” that we see in most high level wings isn’t there yet. And this preseason we’ve seen Ingram repeatedly force his way into the paint, only to take extremely contested shots against bigger/stronger defenders.
I’m also going to be looking at whether Ingram can make an impact outside of scoring, especially if he continues to show the kind of scoring aggression we’ve seen in the preseason. I’d be ecstatic if he approached a 20% assist rate and showed a consistent ability to set up LA’s shooters after drawing defensive attention. On defense, can he use his length to create more turnovers and deflections, and help on the defensive boards? His statistics in those areas last year were fairly anemic, and while they don’t perfectly capture impact, they do show a certain level of active involvement that is important. I have never seen Ingram as one-dimensional player (cough, Wiggins), and hope he will develop into something like a poor man’s Pippen that can do what is needed on any given night, leaving the primary scoring duties to someone else.
And beyond individual play, will he show steady improvement in the little things that develop bad teams into good ones – mastering the offensive sets, understanding spacing and timing on offense, showing court awareness on defense, committing to defensive fundamentals, etc, etc. Can he, above all else, help the team win? I’m excited to watch Ingram continue to develop throughout this season, and expect him to be a foundation piece for the team’s future, but will be watching closely to see if he can make tangible strides in areas that need substantial improvement.