There are very few things that Brandon Ingram can’t do on a basketball court, and the list of players who’ve possessed his combination of agility and wingspan is short. These attributes, combined with his youth and sterling work ethic, make him the NBA’s Mirror of Erised. It’s easy to look at him and see exactly what you want to see.
But there’s value in identifying who he currently is, because it gives us flickers of insight into his likeliest outcomes. A deeper dive into the present leads to a critique that is more directed at the Lakers’ organization than Ingram himself. They have him going down the wrong path.
How Much Can We Actually Know About A 20-Year Old Wing?
The nature of Ingram’s aforementioned versatility makes this a particularly difficult question to answer, because we don’t know what he isn’t. I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that Lonzo Ball isn’t going to become an unstoppable individual scorer, that Kyle Kuzma isn’t going to make an All-Defensive team, or that Julius Randle isn’t going to be a stretch-4. While Ingram has his deficiencies, none of them are so severe that it’s difficult to imagine him figuring them out some day.
Conversely, while his clearest strength is his ability to drive to the basket, the manner by which the Lakers should maximize those opportunities is less obvious.
How common is that uncertainty amongst 20-year old wings? Here’s a statistical glimpse of Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokuonmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George to see what future all-stars with similar physical profiles looked like at the same age:
Now let’s take a look at how often they were using these respective play types.
Kevin Durant was already a tremendous off-ball player. He was below average with the ball in his hands, but still bore that burden for his team even if he wasn’t entirely ready for it. He wasn’t awful in those situations, but he wasn’t the player that he is today either.
Giannis Antetokuonmpo was neither good nor bad at anything he did with any degree of volume at this point. The biggest clues as to what he’d become were in his frequency numbers, where he was already getting a lot of possessions in transition and as a cutter. He did have on-ball responsibilities, but they were as an isolation player rather than being tasked with making pick & roll reads. He’s still adhering to that same profile in 2018, only much more effectively.
Kawhi Leonard was in a different situation than everyone else. Surrounded by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, he was rarely asked to manufacture shots for himself or others, thriving in off-ball situations instead. Yet in the rare instances where he was asked to create, he was extremely effective at doing so, which was a harbinger of what he’d be able to do later in his career.
Paul George’s statistical profile at age 20 is the one that most closely resembles Brandon Ingram’s. He was particularly effective in transition, but hadn’t emerged as a shooter, although he was put in the position to take the types of shots that shooters take. He was respectable enough on the ball (47th percentile in isolation, 40th percentile on pick & rolls) to indicate that he would be a quality player in these situations as he got older.
Defense is more difficult to evaluate without watching tape of each of them from that period of time, but my recollection is that Leonard and George were already very good all-around defenders, Antetokuonmpo was disruptive with his length, and Durant wasn’t nearly as good on that end as he is today.
While I don’t think we knew the caliber of player that each of them would become, I think we had a good idea of the type of player that they would be by age 20, stylistically speaking.
A Flawed Roster
The number that jumps out the most to me on those charts is Ingram’s 36.9% pick & roll frequency. He is being asked to run that action more than twice as often as anyone else on that list. That’s astounding. That level of frequency is usually reserved for point guards who specialize in running the high ball screens that they’ve been navigating since they were 10 years old, not 20-year old wings who are only beginning to learn how to do that at the NBA level.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka traded two guards who were capable of running this action effectively (Lou Williams, D’Angelo Russell) and did not replace them. Jordan Clarkson is now the only Lakers’ guard who is a dual scoring and passing threat out of ball screens, and even that characterization requires a generous view of Clarkson’s court vision. Lonzo Ball eschews mid range pull-ups while struggling to finish at the basket, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope lacks the requisite ball-handling ability, Alex Caruso isn’t a scoring threat, and Tyler Ennis’ pick & roll play is flaccid and confused.
As such, there’s an argument to be made that Brandon Ingram has to assume an increased responsibility in these situations, because few others can. Two Lakers stand out as being under-utilized assets who could alleviate some of Ingram’s burden: Brook Lopez and Jordan Clarkson.
Lopez’s reduced role has practically reduced him to tears, as he’s averaging career lows in both minutes and points per game. Within the shot attempts that he does get, his 3-point rate (how often he shoots threes compared to his overall shot attempts) is up to 42.0%, compared to 33.0% last season with the Brooklyn Nets. His post up frequency is down to 21.2%, compared to 27.0% in 2016-17. He is producing just 0.86 PPP out of his post ups this season, which isn’t particularly impressive, but it’s better than the alternative of Ingram’s 0.81 PPP in pick & roll situations. There is a reasonable chance that he could return to last season’s levels of efficiency out of the post, where he yielded 0.99 PPP. Increasing Lopez’s minutes and post touches would likely improve the half court offense (Lakers rank 29th), make him a lot happier, and – most importantly – would put Brandon Ingram in fewer situations that don’t align with his natural abilities.
But pick & rolls can’t be entirely avoided, and that’s where Clarkson can help.
Clarkson (0.92 PPP on pick & rolls + passes, 50th percentile) assumes even more of the pick & roll burden than Ingram does, but usually does so with the second unit. He’s also one of the rare players in the NBA who can consistently create quality opportunities out of isolation situations (1.15 PPP on isolations + passes, 91st percentile), so it isn’t always necessary to send the screener when he has the ball. He and Ingram share the court for 10.9 minutes per game, and the team has a -2.4 Net Rating when they do. That’s the second-best mark for any 2-man lineup that includes Brandon Ingram. They need to play together more often than they do.
The Math Problem
While Ingram’s pick & roll reps can provide him with valuable experience, it’s a zero sum game. Every possession that he has to snake a ball screen and read a weakside defender is a possession where he’s not spotting up, not cutting, and not using or setting an off ball screen. His 3-Point Rate has decreased significantly (27.3% as a rookie, 12.4% this year) and nearly half of his field goal attempts (49.7%) have been from the dreaded mid range.
Ingram’s Points Per Shot, by Distance
|Distance||Points Per Shot|
|16 Feet to 3PT||0.79|
The inefficiency of the mid range game is well-established, and Ingram is no exception. He’s fairly gun-shy from 3-point range, yet his mid range jumper would have to improve to a level that few players have ever reached (50% or better) in order equal his current level of production from behind the 3-point line.
I recently asked Head Coach Luke Walton about why they have encouraged a high volume of mid range attempts in a league that actively discourages them.
“It’s gonna be a huge weapon for him.” Walton asserted. “His ability to put pressure on a rim and collapse the defense, you know, he’s got that natural ability and the length to do that. And part of that evolution of his game will be when teams know he’s getting to the rim like he’s able to, he’s gonna be stopping on a dime and with his size and length once he gets that shot down, he’s really gonna be able to do what he wants with defenses. He continues to work on that. That’s something we want him doing. He’s already doing a much better job of it. And eventually he’ll continue to work on his 3-point shot and we’ll expect him to have that full package type of game.”
The circumstances that Walton describe here usually manifest themselves in pick & roll situations, against drop coverages.
The defensive big hangs back in the paint while the defensive guard fights over the ball screen, essentially surrendering the mid range, pull-up in order to protect the rim against the drive. This shot is open and enticing, but in a league that only shoots around 40% from this area of the court, it’s a winning formula for the defense. It’s only worth two points, and there’s very little chance of the offensive player drawing free throws.
If the offensive team doesn’t have one of the mid range wizards who can actually make that shot often enough for it to be efficient (think Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, or Chris Paul), they can counter this pick & roll defense in one of two ways. The ball-handler can pull-up from 3-point range instead, or the screen-setting big can pick & pop. Those pull-up 3’s are usually reserved for the Steph Curry’s and Damian Lillard’s of the NBA, because the shooter has to gather their dribble, square up to the basket, and get the shot off before the back-pressure from the defensive guard arrives. Ingram’s elongated gather and shooting stroke makes it unreasonable to expect him to take and make that shot any time soon.
The Lakers had high hopes for their pick & pop big though, in the form of Brook Lopez. At a mere 31.5%, he hasn’t been enough of a threat from 3-point range to force defenses to switch their pick & roll coverages to something that is more conducive to allowing Ingram an opportunity to drive to the basket. Perhaps Thomas Bryant or someone else will provide that for him some day, but even that can be neutralized by simply going under the screen and daring Ingram to pull the trigger.
So in a way, Walton is right. That pull-up, mid range shot is what’s open. But it’s open for a reason, and the long-term potential of the Ingram pick & roll is limited until he can be a 3-point threat in those situations.
Brandon Ingram’s greatest attribute is his ability to drive. Rob Pelinka recently raved about his ability to “unfold at the basket”, finishing in ways that few players can. Now it’s a matter of figuring out how to put him in the position to do that as frequently and as effectively as possible. As counterintuitive as it sounds, I believe that the best way to do that is by moving him off of the ball.
His 3-point shot is the lynchpin to his entire game. It doesn’t need to be his primary weapon, but it needs to be good enough that defenses respect it. His overall proficiency on Spot Ups (0.96 PPP, 43rd percentile) is a bit unexpected considering his reticence to take these shots, and is worthy of a deeper look.
|Spot Up Type||PPP||NBA Percentile|
|No Dribble Jumper||0.80||12th|
|To the Basket||1.26||74th|
He isn’t producing at a respectable level on Spot Ups because he’s shooting well on of them, he’s doing so because he’s really good at attacking closeouts. Now he needs to force defenders to close out more often. His overall 3PT% is plenty respectable (33.8%), but he only shoots them as a last resort, often passing up quality looks in the process.
He needs to take shots like this, and whether or not he makes them isn’t particularly important at this stage of his development. An ideal (near) future involves a star player or two playing alongside him, and if that comes to fruition, he will be involved in more and more situations where the defense is compromised and he has an open look. There are pass/shot/drive decisions that he has to make out of these circumstances just as there are on the pick & roll, and he needs these reps. It would be wonderful for him to get to the point where he’s making 40% of his threes on 6 attempts per game, but that isn’t the primary value of developing him in this manner. The goal is get him opportunities to drive to the basket against a compromised defense, accentuating his best natural ability. Once the defense respects his jumper, a whole new world opens up.
Lonzo Ball helps. When he’s on the court, Ingram has a 54.0 True Shooting Percentage, compared to just 46.2% when he’s off. But the over-reliance on Ingram in ball screen situations has been there regardless of whether or not Ball is playing.
The unaddressed elephant in the room is that Ingram should be a better defender than he is. While he’s solid on the ball and can be disruptive with his length on closeouts, he has a tendency to fall asleep, and can be susceptible to back cuts, offensive rebounds, and weak side screens. I view this, in part, as a function of his offensive responsibilities. Very few players in the NBA have the energy to bear the offensive burden that he’s been given while still being a good defender. Some guys can turn it on when they need to, in the last 5 minutes of a close game, but those who can sustain that effort throughout are the exception rather than the rule. Reduced on-ball responsibilities would allow for a greater degree of focus on the other end of the floor.
Walton’s comments – and more importantly, the positions that Ingram is put in on the court – suggest that the ball screen-centric version of him that we’ve seen has been the plan all along. That mastery will come from repetition. There’s an inherent math problem within that, and it continues a concerning pattern of trying to shoehorn a prospect into a preconceived notion rather than catering to his strengths. The Lakers drafted D’Angelo Russell and tried to make him a conventional point guard, despite the fact that he was more inclined to be a scorer and secondary playmaker. They appear to be doing the same thing with Ingram, deciding that he should be a 20 point per game scorer this year, and trying to cram him into that role.
There’s plenty of time to get Ingram on the right path, but it requires the Lakers to see Brandon Ingram as he is rather than as they want him to be.
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Special thanks to Cranjis McBasketball for his help in compiling the data for this piece.
All PPP data courtesy of Synergy Sports.