EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Brandon Ingram is about to enter the largest spotlight of his career as a headliner for the NBA All-Star Rising Stars Challenge showcase Friday in New Orleans.
There’s no Ben Simmons to lead the current draft class. No one from the entire top five, actually, besides Ingram.
Ingram has played almost 500 more minutes than any other 2016 first-round pick. He’s already an everyday starter for the Los Angeles Lakers.
It makes sense for Ingram to be a prominent figure at All-Star Weekend when you trace his ascent. He is exactly the guy you would expect to be playing basketball when others are taking a break or still getting ready.
And that, when you boil it down, is precisely what has separated him from others to this point.
There was always a workout after the workout. The end of team practice just meant more floor to burn all alone or with someone rebounding for him.
He sacrificed his adolescence to drive seven hours every other weekend, sometimes not returning home, to play for the right AAU team.
Ingram’s greatest memories are of being able to level up—whether hanging in pickup games with his older brother or grown men, around whom he never dared to call a foul, or when he delivered as a high school freshman to win the state title so soon after a mere visit from the high school coach to scout his final middle-school game had left Ingram giddy.
“That was my life. All basketball,” Ingram told Bleacher Report this week. “That’s what I like to do. That was the only thing that I did. I loved everything about that.”
And now that he’s a pro with the money, freedom and glamour of being a Laker?
“Basically the same thing,” he said. “Of course, there’s more work to put into it. It’s more of a job. But it’s the same thing that got me here. I love everything about this.
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“Play basketball all day. I’m fine with it.”
This rookie NBA season is the toughest move up yet, obviously. The shooting slumps have been worrisome, and the team’s losing streaks are discouraging.
But when you look at the Lakers’ rebuilding process in this first year without Kobe Bryant, the most pertinent question is whether the young guns have anything like what Kobe had.
Julius Randle, 22, is unafraid of being ahead of the game. He’s done everything in life young—with a fiancee and baby already—and believes age does not prevent him from being a man in a man’s game.
D’Angelo Russell, 20, has the alpha-male, eff-it mentality and often thinks he knows it all. He has a confidence that is unshakable.
But Ingram, 19, has something else: a single-mindedness.
If Bryant taught this organization anything, it’s that if you truly pour your energy into something, it has a chance to grow into more.
Ingram believes passionately in that mindset, one bolstered by Mike Krzyzewski’s teachings at Duke. Whatever his current limitations, Ingram is a lock to improve on them because he is committed fully to self-improvement, not self-promotion.
“It’s just a part of me,” Ingram said. “It’s not something I like to talk about. I feel like it’s something that is supposed to be done, something I need to be doing, something that should happen with a lot of guys.
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“Of course, I feel like I want it a little bit more. But … me going to tell somebody I’m a hard worker doesn’t tell them anything. Put in the action. That’ll be better.”
Ingram needs to be challenged—even more than Lakers coach Luke Walton has in giving him extra minutes “for experience purposes” or assigning him some token ball-handling duties or telling him to increase his defensive pride.
Ingram will give you more if you make him feel needed, and as much as Walton has tried to feed the rookie, the Lakers are leaving opportunities on the table.
They have indulged high-volume shooters Lou Williams and Nick Young along with all the other young players who want to get theirs, leaving Ingram with only the 12th-highest usage rate on the team, at 15.7, a mark that trails Metta World Peace, Thomas Robinson, Timofey Mozgov, Marcelo Huertas and Tarik Black.
The infrequency of Ingram’s offensive opportunities and total lack of rhythm at that end make it difficult to project his future as a prime NBA weapon. Even if Ingram was unfairly propped up in draft evaluations as an unstoppable scorer because he needed to be contrasted with the versatile Simmons, there remains a lot to learn about Ingram’s offense.
That’s disappointing for a player who considers hitting a winning shot his favorite moment in basketball. (Diving for a loose ball is No. 2.)
Can Ingram ever come close to being the shot-maker that his two idols, Bryant and Kevin Durant, were in this league?
Ingram has been longing all season for the chance to connect with Bryant, yearning to find out specifically “whatever he did his rookie year to get prepared” and generally about that killer mentality that Ingram called “unreal.”
Ingram’s wish came true Wednesday when he got a text message from Bryant—”What up, youngin? It’s Kobe. Hit me up”—to open the door to what could be a wealth of information.
Bryant is Ingram’s one and only original idol, but he was not the only model for Ingram.
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“His athleticism, the way he uses his length on the defensive end, his positioning, everything,” Ingram said of Durant, who has a similar body type. “Just the way he plays. I love to see him play.”
Ingram was studying Durant even before Durant got to the NBA, noting that “the fact that he was skinny didn’t bother him at all.”
“He still played the right way,” Ingram said. “He still got his shots off. He still got to the basket when he wanted. It didn’t affect him at all.”
Though only 190 pounds (with a 6’9″ frame), Ingram has, in a similar manner to Durant, worked on overcoming his thin frame.
“I never paid it no mind,” Ingram said. “In high school, I never paid it no mind. In college, I never paid it no mind. It never really bothered me. I just use other things: my IQ, my quickness, whatever I can, to help me along the way. I know I’m not going to get stronger or bigger overnight. I’ve had to do something different to help me along the way.”
It’s possible that for all his mindless practice time, Ingram has been overthinking during games. It could explain why he’s a far worse shooter when left wide open (6+ feet; 32.3 percent) than when very tightly guarded (0-2; 38.7), tightly guarded (2-4; 36.8) or left open (4-6; 37.3), per NBA.com tracking.
Ingram has also shot worse the longer he has held the ball and thought about it: 40.2 percent with a touch time of less than two seconds, 34.3 percent between two and six seconds and 30.8 percent with six seconds or more. He’s also making only 65.5 percent of his free throws.
Indeed, there are moments from which he’ll learn. On Tuesday night against Sacramento, Ingram got the ball in the closing seconds of the first half and drove to draw a foul instead of holding for the last shot of the quarter. Ingram proceeded to shoot an air ball on his first free-throw attempt.
It’s all but a certainty the sequence bothered Ingram. When you live for the game, you dwell on it more than those who think it’s just a game.
Ingram never played any other sports growing up. He doesn’t have a favorite TV show because he doesn’t watch any.
For now, his focus is on the work needed to improve, a dedication he developed watching his father juggle multiple jobs.
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“I can remember him going to his day job from six in the morning, sometimes four in the morning…till three in the afternoon,” Ingram said. “Come home, sleep for an hour or two, go to work again from six to 10:30 or 11 o’clock. Might get home at 12. Stay up for two hours. Go to sleep for another two hours. Then go back to work.”
It wasn’t easy for Ingram to make it out of Kinston, North Carolina, where almost 20 percent of the households make less than $15,000 per year and it carries the most dangerous crime rating possible, according to the national Neighborhood Scout service.
“Everybody around the town did everything in their power to try and keep me in the gym,” Ingram said, “and keep me away from things that can go wrong.”
A detached look might come across through those sleepy eyes, but Ingram is uniquely obsessed.
His parents, his town, his work ethic and his love for the game make for a rare confluence of drives—resulting in rare dedication to his craft.
That single-mindedness—with his willingness to pass the ball, defensive wingspan and old-school view on basketball—perhaps makes him an ill fit for this weekend’s All-Star exhibition for first- and second-year NBA players. It will be all flash and dash Friday night amid New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivities.
Ingram said he’s looking forward to it…but he mainly wants to make sure he gets over the head cold that has been slowing him down lately.
He already is very much a professional basketball player at 19.
Maybe he has been for a long time.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.