LOS ANGELES — Midway through the third period of the Los Angeles D-Fenders' 123-121 Saturday victory over the Grand Rapids Drive, 19-year-old rookie Brandon Ingram arrived confused at the Los Angeles Lakers' El Segundo practice facility.
The Lakers had the day off after games Thursday and Friday night, but Ingram came in early anyway to work with assistant Brian Keefe. After taking a break, the 6'9" forward returned later that night to the Toyota Sports Center, only to find the court was occupied.
"I really didn't have any idea that they were playing," Ingram said of the Lakers' NBA Development League affiliate. "I just came in to get some shots up."
He settled instead at a nearby gym to put in his extra time.
"It's down the street, the Bay Club or something," Ingram said. "[It's] about five minutes from the facility."
This sort of conflict won't be an issue next year when the Lakers move a few blocks to the UCLA Health Training Center, their new home with two full-sized courts that is nearing completion. Regardless, it's a nice problem to have: Ingram's dedication is starting to pay off.
Taken second in the 2016 NBA draft, the Duke Blue Devils product has struggled at times to adapt to the physicality of the league. Halfway through the season, Ingram is leading all rookies with 27.6 minutes a game but is averaging just 7.9 points while shooting 36.9 percent from the field and 26.1 percent from three-point range.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old center Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year and is scoring 19.4 points a night after missing his first two seasons with foot injuries. His seasoning is showing.
At a wiry 190 pounds, Ingram may not be as physically mature as Embiid, but he's beginning to look like a player worthy of a No. 2 selection. Over the past three games, Ingram has reached double figures, and over the last four, he's hit 17 of 28 shot attempts (60.7 percent).
"I'm starting to feel comfortable," Ingram said. "I'm just seeing the game better, being more aggressive."
"We're big fans of what he can do on the basketball court. Whether he's shooting 1-of-8 or scoring 17 points, we keep leaving him out there because we know what he's capable of," coach Luke Walton said Sunday.
"Some of the passes he had today, for a 19-year-old rookie that's not a point guard, to make those type of passes in traffic in the fourth quarter of a game...it speaks to his feel for the game of basketball."
Ingram's true NBA position is small forward, but he'll be able to move up to the 4 when he gets stronger and down to the 2 as his shot improves. While he may never be a true point guard, Walton has given Ingram that responsibility with the second unit.
"I played with Magic Johnson, and I'm not saying Brandon is going to be a Magic Johnson, but Magic was 6'9", and he was a ball-handling guard, and he brought the ball up the court," general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "I'm watching Brandon bring the ball up the court, and I'm thinking this is an interesting look."
On December 17, Ingram dished nine assists to go with nine points and 10 rebounds. One of his goals is to beat out Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star LeBron James as the youngest player to ever notch a triple-double.
"I'm working on it," Ingram said.
James, who reached that mark as a 20-year-old, was an oddity in the NBA—a full-grown man coming straight out of high school. Ingram is going to need more time for his body to develop, but veteran teammate Luol Deng is a believer.
"I've been around basketball a long time, and I know talent when I see it," Deng said.
"There's just things that you have that you can't teach, and he has those things. The best thing about Brandon is just his maturity level, being such a young kid, it's the way he responds to everything. Even when he makes a mistake...he really listens to everything you tell him.
"The kid is gifted. He can shoot, he has a good set of skills. He's long, athletic. When you come into the league, a lot of times with young guys, either you're super athletic but you need to work on your jump shot or you can shoot well but you're not that athletic. There's always something missing.
"With Brandon, it's really just time...I really can't say that there's a weakness besides just the fact that he has to get stronger, and I don't know if that's even a weakness; that's just his body and age."
The Lakers (15-26) are already halfway through their season, and Ingram has played in all 41 contests. While his minutes are heavy in relation to other rookies, Walton doesn't believe he's put a heavy load on him.
"He's got a bounce in his step still," Walton said.
"I keep thinking he's going to hit a rookie wall...maybe he already hit it and pushed through. He looks great, he really does. A lot of times you can physically see when a rookie hits that wall; they can't even keep their eyes open in film sessions. He's alert. He's in there early. He wants more every time I talk to him. He wants that responsibility."
Ingram, who has played in more games as a Laker than his 36 at Duke, acknowledged Sunday he did feel the wall.
"I think I hit in on the road trip, the [December] 12-day road trip," he said. "But I'm better. I'm good."
With Ingram eager to play, Walton has given him room to learn on the court during games.
"There are times that, yeah, maybe we should take him out, but we need to get him that experience," Walton said.
"As long as he's not playing the wrong way, taking bad shots or being selfish or being lazy on defense. If he's doing any of those things, he has to come out; it's the only thing that's right. But if he's trying to do what's right and he's trying to make the right plays, we're going to give him the benefit of the doubt and let him play through some of those mistakes.
"The mistakes are happening fewer and farther apart. A lot of it with him is really figuring out the physicality of the game. Every time he used to get into the lane, he'd get bumped and get off-balance and not really have a chance. Now he's going around defenders, taking off one leg."
Ingram said he was taught at Duke to leap off two legs, but that hasn't worked well against the speed, strength and athleticism of NBA players.
"That's something that they encourage in college is to jump off two feet, for better balance," he said. "It's something that definitely helped in college, but it's different here; it's just better to go off one foot instead of gathering myself."
Laker Film Room @LakerFilmRoom
Took a closer look @ what I thought was Ingram's best game as a pro. It's short but it's my favorite vid in a while. https://t.co/pemAJ2UDej1/8/2017, 1:24:53 AM
Experience and subtle changes have helped Ingram become a higher-impact player for the Lakers. As the franchise looks to establish itself as a playoff contender after multiple trips to the NBA draft lottery, the Lakers need him to continue making strides.
As his body fills out, he may prove to be the best of the 2016 draft class.
Lakers Insider Notebook
Nance Nearing Return
When second-year forward Larry Nance Jr. went down with a knee injury December 20, L.A. feared he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. Instead, Nance was diagnosed with a bone bruise that is already almost healed.
"I'm feeling better, starting to shoot around, move around the court a little bit. It feels good," Nance said, hinting he's about a week away.
Nance, who suffered a season-ending injury in his right knee at Wyoming, is thrilled to have escaped serious damage against the Charlotte Hornets.
"I'm as content as can be the way everything is going and how fast it's been progressing," he said.
Nance wouldn't elaborate if the injury would get in the way of his participating in the NBA's dunk contest during All-Star Weekend if invited.
"I haven't even thought about it," Nance answered. "I'm just worried about my health."
Clarkson Fined $15,000
On Friday, Jordan Clarkson and Goran Dragic were ejected for a third-quarter altercation in the Lakers' win over the Miami Heat. Both players escaped suspension, but Monday the NBA announced Clarkson had been fined $15,000 for "throwing a forearm above the shoulders."
The Lakers, who were up by just eight points, were galvanized by the fracas, outscoring Miami by 19 points over the final 18.5 minutes of the game.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Clarkson squared up on Dragic 😂😭 https://t.co/BLJNyJ2NaM1/7/2017, 5:20:33 AM
Coupled with the Sunday night victory, Walton was happy his team took advantage of franchises with losing records.
"I think everyone can get up for one of the elite teams," Walton said. When you go about getting wins like we have the last three home games, where it's hard-fought, it's a professional approach, it's withstanding runs, it's getting stops when we need stops [and] it's guys making plays.
"To me, that's more satisfying and telling that we're starting to have that growth and make those changes."
The Lakers also defeated the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday at Staples Center, 116-102.
Lakers Keep Robinson, World Peace
The Lakers let the Saturday deadline expire without waiving the non-guaranteed salaries of forwards Thomas Robinson and Metta World Peace.
Robinson, who has earned a regular rotation role with Nance out, is now locked in at $1.1 million for the season. World Peace is guaranteed his full $1.6 million. While the 37-year-old World Peace doesn't get much time on the court, the team values him enough as a mentor to pay the remainder of his salary.
"I want the guy around our players," Walton said Friday. "I think it's more beneficial when he's actually at practice in the trenches with them...he's someone that helps the team just being around."
World Peace could still be cut before the end of the season should the Lakers need a roster spot for a trade or free-agent signing. As a team, the Lakers have the maximum 15 players at $93.6 million in total salary, just $529,911 under the NBA's $94.1 million salary cap, per Basketball Insiders.