LOS ANGELES — Brandon Ingram made just one impressive summer-league appearance with the Los Angeles Lakers in Las Vegas over the summer. After scoring 26 points in 32 minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers, he suffered a leg cramp, inspiring team president of basketball operations Earvin "Magic" Johnson to demonstratively shut down his second-year forward.
Johnson, who declared Ingram untouchable in trades back in May, had seen enough. Ingram was too good for summer league. By the time the team had gathered for training camp in September, Johnson doubled down.
"[Ingram's] been practicing so hard all summer long," Johnson said. "I told him, 'If you don't average 20 points a game, I'm going to be disappointed.'"
Three games into his 2017-18 preseason, the lanky 20-year old is scoring just 8.0 points a night on an anemic 26.7 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from three-point range. Meanwhile, through games played Sunday, rookie forward Kyle Kuzma led the league in total points scored with 78 through four appearances. Not the team, the entire NBA.
The ease with which the 22-year old Kuzma has fit in stands out in stark contrast to Ingram, who has yet to live up to his own expectations.
"I'm my biggest critic," Ingram said Monday after practice. "On offense, I'm playing really bad. ... I'm not making shots."
The Lakers selected Ingram with the No. 2 overall pick in 2016 after his one year at Duke, where he scored 17.3 points per night while hitting 44.2 percent from the field and 41.0 percent from the three-point arc.
At 6'9" with a 7'3" wingspan, Ingram joined the Lakers with the potential to be a long, agile two-way player with a reliable jump shot. Against NBA competition, Ingram struggled as a rookie but finished well. His 7.1 points a game on 33.6 percent shooting in December evolved to 13.5 on 51.7 percent in March.
One team source acknowledged that expectations may have been set too high for Ingram—that even 14 or 15 points per game seemed optimistic in the short term.
The Lakers have already given up on 2015 No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell, whom they traded to the Brooklyn Nets in June to acquire Lopez and a 2017 first-rounder (while dumping a bad contract in Timofey Mozgov). Julius Randle, the No. 7 overall selection in 2014, is headed for restricted free agency after the 2017-18 season.
Given how painful the recent years have been—Los Angeles finished with the worst record in franchise history in 2015-16 and has missed the playoffs for four consecutive years—the Lakers need their top picks to pan out, including Ingram and 2017 No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball.
Head coach Luke Walton believes that once again, over time, Ingram will find his way.
"It's similar to how last year went. Early on, we kept telling you guys how good [Ingram] is, and the numbers weren't matching up," Walton said. "Then he got his rhythm later in the year and was really good from January on."
There's no penalty for being a late bloomer, if that's even an accurate term, given his age and body type.
Some of Ingram's frustration stems from how easy the game was in Las Vegas. To a degree, he thought he had already arrived.
"I'm trying to get back there. I know I can get back there. I'm trying to get better conditioned, trying to get to my spots," Ingram said. "[By] watching film and doing everything I can, I know I'll get back to where I want to be."
In addition to talking to Johnson and Walton, Ingram works regularly with assistant coach Brian Keefe. They all give him the same advice: to relax and enjoy playing basketball. The rest will come.
"Magic told me last night he hasn't seen me have fun yet," Ingram said. "I think I'm a little uptight sometimes."
Walton hopes to guide Ingram through a difficult time. "I think he wants to be great so badly, and he's worked so hard that he wants to show everyone how good he is," Walton said. "He's trying to do too much."
"My message to him is that we're going to be together for a lot of years and you're going to be a great NBA player, so just keep working the way you work," he continued. "Have fun with your young teammates, growing together and let the game just kind of come to you as opposed to going out there and forcing things."
Ingram may quickly turn the corner, but it's not unusual for players to wait until their third season to truly break out.
In the meantime, Ingram has his teammates' support. "We're by no means worried. We know what he can do and what he's capable of," Brook Lopez said. "We've seen it in practice and summer league. We have the utmost, ultimate confidence in [Ingram]."