Brandon Ingram is a just turned 21 year old player 16 games into his 3rd season. Of all the things I’m about to write, this is the thing that should resonate most, even if it likely won’t. Because for all his physical tools — Ingram remains all arms and legs, like a praying mantis crossed with basketball player in some sort of NBA version of The Fly — and his array of actual basketball gifts, Ingram is an NBA baby.
This concept gets lost quickly in the instant gratification seeking world of sports fandom. We want progress and we want it yesterday. Progress, though, is not linear. Progress must also be placed into context. And for Ingram, that context is more relevant than for any of the other core-four young players who are holdovers from the previous Lakers era into this LeBron James led one.
You see, Ingram was the player the Lakers were grooming to be their LeBron James before Magic Johnson walked into the actual James’ home on the evening of June 30th to talk hoops and business and being the face of the most popular and well known basketball franchise in the world. And when Johnson left James’ home that night and got a phone call the next day that his recruitment pitch was successful, Ingram’s grooming was placed into a new context.
It’s hard to be LeBron when you’re playing next to LeBron. This isn’t the Spiderman meme.
So here Ingram is, 16 games into a new year trying to find his way. And things are going…okay. Ingram’s scoring about 15 points a night while pulling down a handful of rebounds and dishing out a couple of assists. His per/36 minute numbers are nearly identical to last season. The leap we wanted to see has not materialized. For all the work he put in this off-season — all the skill development, all the hours in the weight room — Ingram’s game has seemingly not grown that much.
He’s still not a polished 3 point shooter, still not the rebounder you want from a player his size, still not the off-the-dribble shot creator who makes precise shot/pass reads to get himself or teammates the types of efficient looks that can prop up a team’s offense. Don’t get me wrong, Ingram can do these things and does do these things.
Well, he does them sometimes.
You’ll see him step into a catch and shoot 3 pointer off a quick pass and bury it.
You’ll see him soar above the crowd in the crowded paint and inhale a defensive rebound and then ingite a fastbreak.
You’ll see him get downhill off the bounce, slither to the paint, and then unfurl his long right arm like an ancient Greek scroll to place the ball into the rim.
You’ll see him gain advantage off the bounce and kick the ball out to an open shooter or drop off a pass to the big man in the dunker’s spot for an easy finish.
But, what Ingram also does is shoot from spots on the floor where you typically do not want players shooting from. Per the NBA’s stats page, 45.7% (73 of 160) of Ingram’s shot attempts come from either the mid-range or the non-restricted area of the paint.
In the age of analytics where the “Morey-ball” philosophy of hunting 3-pointers and layups is all the rage, the mid-range jumper Ingram is often seen taking contradicts the ethos of how the quote-unquote smart fans think players should operate. But there Ingram is anyway, firing away after at catch at the mid-post or uncorking 16 foot jumpers off the dribble. These, too often, don’t go as well as they need to.
Here’s the thing, though. If you compare Ingram’s shot distribution chart from last season (left) to this one (right), you’ll find they’re strikingly similar. (These numbers represent the number of shots out of his total field goal attempts in the general zones of the floor.)
This creates a bit of a conundrum.
One piece of analysis leads down the dark alley of “maybe this is who Ingram is as a player”. After all, if year over year a player does the same type of stuff what exactly is the argument to say what we’re seeing now is some sort of an aberration? If Ingram has mostly taken these shots, not only to start this season but through all of last season, why are so many more people down on him this season than last?
Well, the answer is twofold and work hand in hand.
First, look at the shot distribution charts above again. You can see that this season Ingram is taking more shots in the paint outside the restricted area and fewer right at the rim. This change is not major in terms of volume, but it impacts efficiency and, more noticeably, the general optics of his game. Ingram stopping, planting, and uncorking a turnaround jumper from 7 or 8 feet is just not the same type of shot as him getting all the way to the basket and trying to finish at the rim.
Second, and related to the point above, Ingram is driving to the basket less and this shifts the types of shots he’s taking overall. Per the NBA’s stats database, Ingram’s drives are down from 10.6 per game last season to 7.3 this one. This decrease has a cascading effect on his game — he’s not only taking fewer shots right at the rim, but he’s also not drawing as many fouls or getting to the FT line as often. Ingram’s FT rate is down over 10 percentage points (from .371 to .269) and his per/36 FTA numbers are down a full FT a night. Again, this may seem like a small thing, but it’s reflective of these shifts in his shot profile.
I’d also argue that Ingram driving less and settling more has created the penchant for individual defenders to guard him differently.
Last season, the threat of Ingram driving was so strong, defenders usually gave him a ton of space and invited that pull up jumper rather than risk giving up a layup attempt or fouling. This season defenders are taking away some of that space and inviting more drives, but doing so knowing they’re in better position to contest what is more frequently becoming a pull up jumper. And because Ingram is driving less and taking the types of shots he has been, he’s not creating as much advantage and is not passing out of his drives nearly as much. The results are fewer assists and generally worse shot quality for the shots he’s creating for himself and teammates.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I think a lot of what we’re seeing falls into three categories:
- Ingram is clearly adjusting to playing with LeBron. Of the 376 minutes Ingram has played this season, he’s shared the floor with LeBron for 314 of them. The Lakers’ O isn’t LeBron-centric in the classic sense where he’s bringing the ball up and directing the action every play, but it is one where LeBron is the featured playmaker and has the ball a lot more than Ingram. Per the NBA’s tracking data, Ingram is averaging 7 fewer front court touches per game than LeBron and is possessing the ball in his hands about half the time LeBron is overall per game (Ingram is at 2.8 minutes and LeBron is at 5.6 minutes). Before this season, Ingram was thrown into the deep end to be a point forward who could (try to) control the game with the ball in his hands. That role is now LeBron’s and Ingram is being asked to be more of a finisher off-ball. When he does get to be an offensive creator, he’s asked to be just as productive but in fewer chances. The shift in role for Ingram is more dramatic than any of the team’s other young guys and he clearly needs more time to sort this out.
- Ingram needs to make adjustments to how he’s playing with the opportunities he is getting. The data I’ve cited throughout this piece tells a simple story of a player who is trading drives to the rim for more mid-range and deep paint jumpers. This needs to change. Ingram needs to get back to his roots as a driver where he goes to the basket more, hunts contact to get to the foul line, and creates more passing opportunities to setup teammates for easier shots. Ingram has good feel and instincts as a passer, but has turned those down in order to turn up his aggression in looking for his own shot. He needs more balance and his coaches need to talk to him about finding it.
- The coaches need to help Ingram help himself by making some adjustments both schematically and in the rotation. Ingram certainly needs reps playing next to LeBron, but I would like to see their minutes staggered a bit more to give him a few more opportunities to play in units where he can take on a bigger load. As it stands now, the Ingram plays about one minute by himself for every 5 minutes he plays with LeBron. If that ratio could be 1 to 4 (or even 1 to 3), I think the Lakers may get better and more efficient production from Ingram — assuming he makes some of the tweaks I talked about in point number 2. Schematically, I’d like to Ingram used more in situations where he’s starting possessions with the ball to initiate an action then cuts to the weakside. After that cut, he can have the ball reversed to him on the perimeter in order to get him spot up 3’s or where put in position where he can attack closeouts. I’d also like to see him get fewer post ups (for now) and more elbow touches with a live dribble where he can play more in the role LeBron is now (both in units where they share the floor and where he’s flying solo). A few more Ingram/Chandler P&R’s would be nice too, especially since Chandler really does crush guys to open up space on his screens.
I’ll finish this post how I started it, however. Ingram is still so young and is in the fledgling stages of what will be a long and productive career. He’s also gone from being groomed to be the man to having the man dropped onto his team (and they share the floor for nearly all his minutes). Adjusting to new life and figuring out how to play next to LeBron will take some time.
Ingram is talented, smart, and works hard enough to sort through this. But it will take some coaching to make it happen, both through communication on how he needs to tweak his game and then through adjustments in scheme and rotations to help facilitate that. Trust me, Ingram is worth this investment because the ceiling of this team with a LeBron at his full powers and Ingram playing a more optimized game laps one where that’s not the case.