Wednesday’s game between the Lakers and Pelicans—their second in short order since Anthony Davis’s trade request heard round the world ended with a whimper—will put both New Orleans’s All-Star center and the main pieces of Los Angeles’s reported offer back in the spotlight. One of the more fascinating things it figures to illuminate? Even after all that’s changed for the Lakers since LeBron James came aboard, the continued progress of their young players remains the single biggest key to unlocking their future.
Missing out on Paul George and Kawhi Leonard last summer left the Lakers without a second superstar to team with James. It also demonstrated the importance of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart—the remaining prizes of the Lakers’ draft haul after a half-decade of lottery trips—to their chances of both returning to the playoffs this season and finding that second difference-maker, whether through internal growth or an outside deal.
The returns have been something of a mixed bag on that score. Hart profiles as a perfect supporting cast member for LeBron: a big, tough guard capable of defending multiple positions, knocking down 3-pointers, moving without the ball, and generally bringing a lot to the table without needing to dominate possession. (This might be why the Lakers’ reported offer for Davis included all of their best young pieces except for Hart.) But despite solid overall numbers—the Lakers’ most effective big-minutes pairing this season, by far, has been James and Hart—the Villanova product has been one of the team’s worst rotation regulars for more than two months now, as ongoing knee problems have wreaked havoc on his shot and defensive effectiveness.
Kuzma remains L.A.’s most consistent non-LeBron scoring threat, averaging 19.1 points on 46.9 percent shooting as a slicing, attacking power forward, albeit one who doesn’t offer as much production in other areas of the game—rebounding, secondary playmaking, defensive versatility—as you’d like from a complementary player on a LeBron team. Ball seemed tailor-made to meet that Swiss-army-knife need despite his persistent shooting struggles; the Lakers outscored opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions in 821 LeBronzo minutes before Ball suffered an ankle sprain and bone bruise. To some degree, though, the impact of the 2017 no. 2 overall pick has been underlined more by his absence: The Lakers have allowed 3.5 more points-per-100 with Lonzo off the court this season, and have been the NBA’s fourth-most-permissive defense since he left the lineup. It’d be a stretch to say that’s solely because Lonzo has been in street clothes, but let’s just say that the work Rajon Rondo’s been turning in on the defensive end hasn’t exactly helped matters.
The fulcrum of all the Lakers’ prospective wheeling and dealing, though, remains Ingram. The second pick in the 2016 draft was tabbed by many as the young Laker most likely to make a leap this season, after showing flashes as a burgeoning playmaker, scorer, and multipositional defender during his sophomore season. He underwhelmed early, though, often seeming an awkward fit next to James, another jumbo point forward with an inconsistent jumper who thrives with the ball in his hands. The 21-year-old got more opportunities to dominate possession when James (and later Ball) missed extended time due to injury, but remained something of a fits-and-starts producer, more liable to string together a few buckets in quick succession followed by long stretches of relative silence than to make consistent noise throughout the game.
That’s started to change of late, though. Ingram has played arguably the best ball of his career over the past month, averaging 22.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in 36 minutes per game. The Lakers have sputtered since the All-Star break, but Ingram has shined, racking up 88 points on 53 field goal attempts over the last three games.
Ingram has been a bit more aggressive looking for his shot recently, averaging 14.9 field goal attempts and 6.5 free throw attempts a night over his past 11 outings (up from 13.4 and 5.2, respectively, over the previous 38). That commitment to attacking has led to a spike in scoring efficiency —a .630 true shooting percentage over the past month, up from a .549 full-season mark—thanks in large part to a major jump on attempts at the rim. Before January 27, Ingram had made 59.7 percent of his shots inside the restricted area, which would rank 50th among 62 forwards who average at least three such shots per game this season. Over the last 11 games, though, he’s converting 70.1 percent of his up-close tries, which would rank 15th … right behind James (70.3 percent).
The third-year swingman has seemed more confident in his ability to finish through contact, driving into the bodies of shot-blockers before using that go-go-Gadget 7-foot-3 wingspan to move the ball out of harm’s way so he can still release a high-percentage look. While his 3-point shot remains inconsistent—he’s made six of his last seven deep tries, but he’d missed 11 of his previous 12 before that—Ingram has confidently used the threat of his driving ability and length to create space in the midrange, where he ranks in the 72nd percentile in scoring efficiency among wings this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.
He’s also been smart about running the floor in transition and cutting off the ball, using the attention James draws to find pockets in the defense for drop-off passes that he can turn into easy buckets. While Ingram’s individual production has continued to rise when James is off the court, the early-season trend that saw L.A.’s point differential overall improve when the two were split has reversed. The Lakers have outscored opponents by 2.5 points per 100 possessions when they’ve shared the court over the past month, and have gotten their doors blown off by more than nine points-per-100 whenever one plays without the other. Ingram’s best shot of reaching his full potential may well still be getting shipped elsewhere so he can run his own team, but this recent run of form at least offers some hope that he will be able to produce in a complementary role alongside LeBron should the Lakers continue to come up empty in their search for a higher-wattage sidekick.
That ongoing search continues to be the storm cloud hanging over the Lakers and their struggles. The drive to snare Davis midseason undermined those preseason professions of patience. Simply getting past the trade deadline without being moved didn’t necessarily mean everything would return to business as usual for the non-LeBron Lakers, as Rondo predicted, because coming up short on AD in February doesn’t mean the hunt’s going to stop.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are going to keep trying to swing for the fences, because as someone who knows what they’re dealing with—former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin—recently told Michael Shapiro of Sports Illustrated, “LeBron’s presence means you must win championships.” That requires stars, and if the Lakers can’t sign another in free agency—something that doesn’t seem all that far-fetched these days—then the kids continue to represent the Lakers’ best shot at one, one way or another.
After 60 games with LeBron, they’re all still auditioning for their roles. How well they perform down the stretch could determine where they wind up playing them, and how large they’ll be.