LOS ANGELES — While opinions may vary on whether outspoken parent LaVar Ball is helping or hurting his son's career, the white-hot spotlight on Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball has cast a safe shadow where sophomore forward Brandon Ingram has begun to thrive.
The soft-spoken 20-year-old is only one month older than Ball. Both have started their NBA careers slowly, but while Ball is scrutinized to the extent that his recent haircut made news, Ingram is quietly becoming coach Luke Walton's go-to player.
"When Coach puts the ball in your hands and tells you to go, [Ingram is doing what] he's been doing his whole life, he's being a killer," said NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant after the Golden State Warriors' 127-123 overtime win on Wednesday over the Lakers.
Ingram was huge for his team, often scoring against the long arms of Durant.
"For Brandon ... the confidence in himself to be able to go against KD, not only one of the best offensive players in the league [but] he's really tough to score on, and Brandon was up for the challenge," Walton said.
As prospects enter the NBA, upside comparisons are inevitable, and Ingram was widely deemed a Durant doppelganger. Last July, Durant even acknowledged, "I can look at him [and] feel like I'm looking in the mirror."
Drafted second in 2007 by the Seattle SuperSonics (who eventually moved to Oklahoma City as the Thunder), Durant averaged 20.3 points a game as a rookie but shot just 43.0 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from three-point range.
Ingram wasn't as polished when he joined L.A. as the Lakers' 2016 No. 2 pick, scoring just 9.4 points a game on 40.2 and 29.4 percent, respectively. Those numbers have jumped in his second year to 15.7 a night at 46.6 and 33.3 percent. That's second in scoring among sophomores, behind just Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid at 22.9 points a game.
From Ingram's 2016 draft class, only Ben Simmons has a higher scoring average (18.6). Simmons is still considered a rookie after missing his initial campaign with the Sixers after a foot injury. Both Embiid (23 years old) and Simmons (21) are older and more physically mature than Ingram.
Nicknamed "Tiny Dog" by his teammates, Ingram is listed at 6'9" and a generous 190 pounds. His slight frame was a problem through much of his rookie campaign. A simple bump from an opponent was enough to knock him off track. After a dedicated offseason filled with weight training and skill work, Ingram is just scratching the surface of what the Lakers need him to become.
Lakers executives and staff have raved about his work ethic since his arrival out of Duke. One scout from another franchise noted that Ingram's potential is sky-high, once his body fills out a little more.
On Wednesday, Ingram fell short of what was nearly a game-winning drive at the end of regulation.
Walton called Ingram's number after a timeout with 5.3 seconds left in regulation, knowing that, make or miss, it was an important moment in the forward's young career. "They make commercials about it," Walton said. "How do you succeed? By failing."
"I'm not saying [Ingram] is Kobe ... but that's the reality of how you get better. You try and you fail and it hurts, and you get your butt back in the gym and the next time you hopefully make it. And if not, then you work even harder and eventually you start hitting those things."
Ingram was a serious problem for the Warriors, but it was Stephen Curry and Durant who made game-winning plays in overtime. They're today's stars; Ingram's moment will come. Still, Durant couldn't deny Ingram's improvement: "I hate to see it, but if I was watching on TV, I'd be really excited for him because you can see that he's learning and getting better. He's growing as a player."
Ingram's confidence is quickly rising, and "confidence" is a word he uses regularly. The additional strength he added through an offseason of work has made him more confident in driving to the basket. That Walton trusted him with the shot in the end and the way he took it to Durant and the Warriors—all confidence-builders.
That's what Walton has been tasked with, developing the team's young foundational players like Ingram and Ball. While Ball faces constant scrutiny and has struggled to find his jump shot at the NBA level, Ingram has begun to step forward as the team's most important piece.
Ingram hasn't caught up with Durant yet, but he's gaining rapidly. As Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum tweeted on Wednesday, "Ingram gonna be a probleeem."