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The Rising Star at the Center of the Kawhi Leonard Trade Talks

Should the Lakers trade Brandon Ingram to get another star for LeBron James ASAP? The potential of their former no. 2 pick may be worth the wait.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Magic Johnson visited LeBron James’s Brentwood mansion at the start of free agency, James told Johnson that he wants to build a contender that lasts, according to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. They also discussed how the Lakers would build a roster with playmakers that’d enable James to play more off the ball and in the post, ESPN later reported. LeBron’s three-year deal (with an option for the fourth season) underlines his commitment to the Lakers, and the front office signing a motley crew of Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shows the team’s commitment to the vision Johnson outlined to James. Stephenson and Rondo are ball handlers who can help carry the playmaking burden; more importantly, all four players signed one-year contracts, which means the Lakers are projected to have about $25 million in cap space next summer. They only have to trade or stretch Luol Deng’s contract to create the space necessary sign a player to a maximum contract. It might seem like the Lakers are building a meme squad around LeBron, but they’re laying a foundation as they continue their star search.

It’s no secret the Lakers have eyes for Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, who has only one year remaining on his contract before an option year and wants out of San Antonio to play in Los Angeles for either the Lakers or Clippers. League sources say the Spurs aren’t seriously listening to offers, and they also haven’t made serious offers involving Leonard. This saga could drag into training camp, as I reported in June. It’s a long, hot summer, and Gregg Popovich is a persuasive man: He served five years in the United States Air Force and could have pursued a career with the CIA had he not become a basketball coach. If Leonard is still on the Spurs’ roster once training camp rolls around, maybe Popovich and the team can fix the relationship. Money talks, too: San Antonio can offer more financial security than any other team with a supermax extension for five years and $219 million. You’d think that sum of money would be mighty appealing to a player recovering from a major injury. Much like LeBron willingness to be patient with the Lakers’ plan, the Spurs are in no rush to give up on Leonard.

The Lakers should be fine with San Antonio’s wait-and-see approach. It seems the key piece the Spurs want from the Lakers in a deal for Leonard is Brandon Ingram, a 20-year-old, 6-foot-9 forward with a versatile scoring skill set, passing vision, and the length to defend multiple positions. If I’m Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, I wouldn’t trade with the Lakers unless the former no. 2 pick is involved. But if I’m Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, I’d view Ingram as a keeper that’s virtually off limits in trade talks. Here’s why:

Another Playmaker for Magic

Ingram will be 21 by the start of this season, and his versatility on offense could blossom playing alongside James, much like Kyrie Irving did during their three seasons together in Cleveland. Ingram’s most encouraging stretch of last season came through 14 games from January 26 to March 1 when he averaged 18.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists. Lonzo Ball was sidelined for 11 games of that stint, which unleashed Ingram’s playmaking.

The Lakers ran their offense through Ingram with an uptick of pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs like the play above, where Ingram sprints toward Brook Lopez to receive the ball before attacking the paint. Ingram had excellent passing touch at Duke, and it has carried over to the NBA; he delivers a ball with accuracy and velocity.

I’d love to see how Popovich would use Ingram as a potential point forward—like a (skinny) star version of Boris Diaw—as Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are the only point guards in the pipeline as potential heirs apparent to Tony Parker. There aren’t many players with Ingram’s size, allowing him to see over the defense, that are as adept at passing off the dribble using either hand. Popovich’s equal-opportunity offense could tap into Ingram’s upside. But Lakers head coach Luke Walton already began to do that last season, and now they have multiple playmakers to whip the ball all over the floor with James, Ball, and Rondo.

Ingram developed a smooth screen-game rhythm with Lopez in which the center would pop to the 3-point line, and he did a good job of finding Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. on the roll with accurate, timely dimes. It’s a steep learning curve for players to adjust to the speed and pace of the game, and Ingram has made rapid progress that should continue as he’s surrounded by more talented teammates.

If James does commit to playing more off the ball, Ingram will find him cutting.

It looks like a simple play, but take note of Ingram’s hesitation move to keep Wolves big man Taj Gibson off balance, and then the patience to circle the wagons underneath the rim. Ingram used to settle for tough layups earlier in his career, but he has gotten significantly better at making the read for a pass, or finishing at awkward angles with ambidextrous skill.

A Fit for King James

Cutting off the ball isn’t a one-way street for Ingram.

Ingram’s basketball IQ should translate when LeBron is running the offense. Ingram is a good cutter, and has the sort of height that makes him an easy target.

One of the more intriguing wrinkles from ESPN’s report this week is the Lakers’ intent to play LeBron more in the post, much like Michael Jordan did later in his career. As more and more defenses switch pick-and-rolls, there are advantageous mismatches to be found. Or if the Lakers continue to play at a fast pace, LeBron can dribble into the low block to influence defenses to double.

Randle dribbles into a post-up like a freight truck backing into a dock, then the double comes to free Ingram for 3. Ingram shot 39.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per NBA.com’s Second Spectrum data, and though it came on a teeny sample (94 attempts), his form has changed for the better.

At Duke, Ingram had a low set point and slowly gathered. Now he brings the ball above his head, rather than just on the side, and hops into his shots to unload quicker. Ingram is below average from the free throw line (68.1 percent last season), so he needs to prove he can continue shooting well on a higher volume, but his fundamental progress is impressive.

Ingram also has developed physically, which has helped him on defense. He has a 7-foot-3 wingspan and quick feet and can contain players at multiple positions. He needs to keep getting stronger so he’s not overpowered on dribble penetration. And he’s still too sleepy off the ball, which was also an issue at Duke. But when he’s engaged mentally, like with his block against Carmelo Anthony, Ingram looks like a lockdown defender.

Go-to-Scorer Potential

Ingram can already pass, slash, cut, and spot up. It’s everything else that he can do that makes him so tantalizing. Ingram showed flashes of stardom once every month as a rookie, then once every week as a sophomore; his career-high 32-point performance against the Warriors last November showed off all the goods.

Ingram drained hesitation pull-up jumpers, made clutch plays, and scored from different areas of the floor against bigs, wings, and guards. It was an excellent all-around performance and one that could we see more regularly in the future. Ingram still commits too many turnovers when executing advanced moves, but his handle has improved since Duke and should continue to as he trains this offseason with Micah Lancaster of I’m Possible Training.

Lancaster helped improve Victor Oladipo’s handle by running him through unusual drills that forced him to stay low and react to defensive pressure. Oladipo’s hard work culminated in a breakout season. Ingram already has a quick first step, takes long strides, and draws a lot of fouls. He also began experimenting with hesitation pull-ups and step-backs, and made steady progress over the season. If his body keeps getting stronger and his ballhandling gets tighter, he has the makings of being a go-to scorer.

Ingram’s adaptability is what I loved about him as a prospect, and still do now. LeBron has never played with anyone like what Ingram could be. He’s had a ball-dominant point guard in Irving, an athletic slasher in Dwyane Wade, a playmaking power forward in Kevin Love, and a stretch power forward in Chris Bosh. Ingram blends all of those qualities, which is why some scouts and executives had him ranked no. 1 ahead of Ben Simmons in the 2016 draft—and still do, as crazy as it might sound. Ingram can be whatever the Lakers—or Spurs—need him to be.

Ingram might not get to show all these skills in heavy doses over the next two seasons playing with James. Sacrifices will need to be made, like they were for all of LeBron’s aforementioned star teammates. But the ability is there if his handling and shooting progresses like as it did over his first two seasons. Ingram isn’t a guarantee to become a star, but I’d worry deeply about trading him for Leonard.

The Trouble With Trading for Kawhi

I know it seems nuts. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a former Finals MVP, and a legitimate MVP candidate. But it’s a monumental risk to unload valuable assets for Leonard, whose quad injury first became an issue in 2012, then flared up again in 2016 before sidelining him for almost the entire 2017-18 season. Leonard might be healthy for the start of this coming season, but how much of an issue will the quad be moving forward? Will he return to his former level? If I ran any team, I’d have reservations about trading for him if the price remains high without actually knowing what version of Leonard I’m trading for. I’d want my team doctors to give him a physical ahead of any trade. I’d want to meet him face-to-face, like when Danny Ainge convinced Kevin Garnett to accept a trade to the Celtics after the Timberwolves front office gave them permission to meet. Should there really be this many stipulations for a trade in which a team’s best asset(s) are sacrificed?

There aren’t quite as many ifs for the Lakers, though; they can feel somewhat confident that Leonard would consider signing with them next summer. The Spurs want a lot from the Lakers now but don’t have the leverage to get it. Leonard has made his wishes clear that he wants to play only in Los Angeles for the Lakers or Clippers. The Clippers don’t have the assets to trade for Leonard—their 2022 first-round pick is the earliest one they can trade—unless San Antonio’s demands plummet. Other teams interested in Leonard, like the Celtics and Sixers, have resisted including their top assets in trade talks.

If Leonard’s camp wants him on the Lakers this season, they should create leverage for the Spurs by signaling that Leonard is open and willing to play long term for a different team in a different city. The more teams that feel they have a shot to keep Leonard beyond this season, the better the odds are for the Spurs to receive strong offers. The better the offers, the more the Spurs can realistically demand from the Lakers. The higher the possibility that Leonard would sign somewhere else, the more the Lakers would feel pressure to make a trade now and avoid missing out the following summer, like they did with Paul George. Then again, if Leonard’s camp takes this approach, the Lakers could end up looking like the Knicks did when they dealt all their valuable assets for Carmelo Anthony in 2011. If Leonard waits until next summer, he can join and enhance an appealing roster instead of depleting it.

If it comes to the point that the Lakers feel pressured to give up Ingram in a trade for Leonard, I’m still skeptical that the Lakers should bite. Sure, you can say that we don’t know what player Ingram will develop into. But the same can be said about what Leonard will look like when he returns. If Leonard is a shell of his former self, or even if he ended up signing elsewhere, there are still a wide number of other unrestricted free agents to target such as Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, a healthy DeMarcus Cousins, or restricted free agents like Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Lakers could also stay positioned for the next superstar available on the trade market that wouldn’t cost nearly as much as Leonard, like Bradley Beal, DeMar DeRozan, or Damian Lillard. Or, if Anthony Davis is available and healthy, then it’d be easier to stomach dealing Ingram. Leonard should be the current top option for the Lakers, but there are always other stars dreaming of playing in Los Angeles with a chance to compete for titles with the greatest player of this generation.

I moved to Los Angeles in January, so I’m still new here. I haven’t even been to the beach. But over the past six months, conversations with locals often lead to LeBron and the Lakers. There was a restless excitement in this city in anticipation of his free-agent decision. Now that LeBron will indeed don a Lakers jersey, sports talk radio and water-cooler talk will be buzzing every day into the 2020s. With so much excitement building, it’s surely tempting for the Lakers to go all in on these next three or four seasons; anything less than a championship would feel like potential gone unfulfilled. But even if the Lakers did acquire Leonard in a trade that involved Ingram, I doubt they’d beat the Warriors this season. They’d still be one star away.

Ingram could be that piece. If the Lakers resist trading him for Leonard this offseason, and then manage to sign Leonard next summer, the 2019-20 Lakers could end up with Leonard, James, Ingram, Ball, and Kuzma, plus whichever veterans tag along for an NBA Finals run. It’d be a loaded squad filled with players who can switch on defense and play with or without the ball. And depending on other decisions made, they could decide to use Kuzma or Ball—not Ingram—as a sweetener in trades.

The last thing the Lakers should do is sacrifice the whole future like the Cavaliers were forced to do when James signed short-term contracts. The Spurs are right to target Ingram in any deal for Leonard. But of all teams, the Spurs should understand why the Lakers would resist. When Tim Duncan entered the homestretch of his career, Leonard became the difference-maker during their 2014 championship, and then the star to bridge into the new era. If the Lakers keep their long view, the same could someday be said about Ingram in a post-LeBron world.