The player left Lakers coach Luke Walton giddy about his long-term potential. Walton marveled at his defense, outside shooting, versatility and work ethic. And when asked, Walton informed Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss about his hope the Lakers draft that player.
Walton received that wish. The Lakers selected Duke forward Brandon Ingram with their No. 2 pick. The selection seemed inevitable because the Sixers drafted Ben Simmons at No. 1 and Ingram filled plenty of needs the Lakers lacked.
Despite Walton predicting that Ingram will be “a phenomenal player in this league as his career unfolds,” the Lakers’ coach envisioned something different for how the first chapter of Ingram’s NBA journey unfolds.
“We’re not going to throw him into the starting lineup right away,” Walton said in a recent interview with Southern California News Group. “We’re not going to play him 40 minutes a night. It’s going to be a gradual process.”
Walton may have elicited contrasting comparisons to former Lakers coach Byron Scott on a number of things. The Lakers expect the 36-year-old Walton to relate more to his young roster and offer a more comforting touch than Scott. The Lakers also hope Walton shows more innovation in his strategies, stemmed from both his 11-year NBA career as a dependable role player and an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors for the previous two years.
Yet, Walton outlined something Scott would often say when weighing the potentially conflicting priorities between winning games and developing his young players. As Walton said, “you develop the young core by rewarding them when they play well.” When it comes toward determining how to develop Ingram, however, Walton’s initial reasoning does not match Scott’s thought process on how he handled point guard D’Angelo Russell and forward Julius Randle.
Only 20 games into the 2015-16 season, Scott took away their starting positions for reasons that went beyond the team’s losing record. He questioned Russell’s work habits, playmaking and attitude, while lauding Lou Williams’ veteran leadership amid both scoring bursts and shooting slumps. Scott disliked Randle’s inconsistency with his jumper and physical playmaking presence, while becoming intrigued with Larry Nance Jr.’s energy.
For Ingram, Walton anticipated “that the biggest challenge for him will be the physical abuse of an NBA season.” The reasons have little to do with Ingram’s thin frame that is currently listed at 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds. Walton expressed more concern how the 19-year-old Ingram would adapt to the NBA’s 82-game schedule after playing 36 games during his lone season at Duke.
“No player has ever been through that until you get to the NBA,” Walton said. “It’s exhausting until your body gets used to it and adjusts to it. It takes time. The biggest challenge for him will be figuring out the best way to manage that, still train and take care of himself. The on-court stuff and his play will be just fine. It’ll be the challenge of the 82 game season he might struggle with.”
Those potential limitations coupled with his general inexperience prompted the Lakers to sign 12-year NBA veteran Luol Deng to a four-year, $72 million deal. Though Walton insisted he has not established a depth chart, Deng will likely start in place of Ingram after averaging 15.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists in his 12-year NBA career with stints with the Chicago Bulls (2004-14), Cleveland Cavaliers (2014) and Miami Heat (2014-16). Deng signed with the Lakers partly because his conversations with Walton left him with the impression he would have a significant role both with playing time and mentoring Ingram.
Walton brought up the possibility he could pair Ingram and Deng together at times, at least during training camp. He also cited various reserves that thrived both as an Warriors assistant and former NBA player. Warriors forward Andre Iguodala won the Finals MVP award in 2015 after accepting a bench role that season. Former Lakers forward Lamar Odom also won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in the 2010-11 campaign after excelling in that role for the previous three seasons.
“It’s not always the best five that are in the starting lineup,” Walton said. “It’s the players that not only make your first unit good, but makes the second unit good as well.”
Walton envisioned Ingram fulfilling that job description just fine. Though Ingram averaged only 12.2 points on a 41.2 percent clip and four rebounds through five Summer League games, Walton walked away impressed with his gradual development and unassuming nature. Walton also noted that Ingram has often played on the winning team in both full-court and three-on-three scrimmages during informal workouts this summer at the Lakers’ practice facility.
“He’s a phenomenal playmaker not by making fancy passes or having flashy plays,” Walton said. “He sees the court and makes the right play a lot. He does a little bit of everything.”
All of which will likely happen as a reserve until told otherwise.
“He’s been very impressive in everything he’s done,” Walton said. “I’m sure he’ll earn those minutes and that [starting] position sooner rather than later.”
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