Ingram on Tuesday made his fourth straight start at small forward, a significant moment for the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft. Earlier this season Coach Luke Walton wisely deflected some pressure away from his young players by saying he would judge individual progress before team results. When he gave Ingram a start it was because someone was injured, and Ingram found himself filling in at small forward, point guard and shooting guard.
Now, Walton is giving Ingram a chance to regularly start at small forward. It’s a smart move and a challenge the still-gangly 19-year-old is approaching with eagerness and maturity.
“It means working hard to try to sustain a spot for the next years in this organization. It meant a lot, of course,” Ingram said of starting consistently. “It’s another opportunity for me to play with another group on the court with our organization. Of course, it is a sign of responsibility and ownership and I’m definitely glad they have faith in me to take that position.”
Walton said Tuesday before the Lakers’ 97-96 loss to the Sacramento Kings he plans to keep the lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Nick Young, Ingram, Julius Randle and Tarik Black together again on Wednesday at Phoenix. “And then getting back from All-Star [weekend] we’ll stick with it and then we’ll have a better idea of what we’re looking like,” Walton said. “And maybe then we feel like we need to try some different groups, but we’re just going to keep kind of taking it as it comes with that.”
Whatever changes Walton might make, keeping Ingram in the starting lineup should be part of his plan. It makes sense for Ingram and for the Lakers. They must find out what they’ve got. He must continue to learn what it takes to become an impact player on a team that needs him to grow in ways that go beyond adding muscle to his 6-foot-9, 190-pound frame.
“I think since he’s been starting, he gets into a rhythm quicker,” Walton said. “Getting into a rhythm coming off the bench is tough. It’s a skill you have to learn. Some players have mastered it, like Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams, guys like that. But with him starting, he normally finds his rhythm pretty early on out there.”
Ingram seems to be a quick learner. The biggest lessons he has absorbed so far, he said, are not about positioning or defensive schemes. “Just about time management and putting important things first, the way that this is your job coming in day in, day out, night in, night out,” said Ingram, who has his older brother Donovan living with him to help him navigate the freeways and get him to places on time. “I’m learning how I’ve got to take care of my body to get through this process.”
He was ill late in the Lakers’ most recent trip, so Walton said it wouldn’t be fair yet to grade his recent performances as a starter. Ingram had 14 points at Detroit and 15 at New York before scoring two in Milwaukee; he was averaging 8.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game before he had six points, five rebounds and four assists against Sacramento on Tuesday and displayed only some of the liveliness Walton had hoped to see.
Next on Ingram’s list of goals is to become more consistent. That’s often the toughest hurdle for rookies because they’re not accustomed to extensive travel and a hectic NBA schedule — and his schedule will include a trip to New Orleans with Russell to play in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend. Being steadier is a point he brought up the other day when Brian Keefe, a Lakers assistant coach, asked what he intended to focus on the rest of this season.
“I told him I want to work on consistency, trying to stay efficient. I think that’s been a big part of this year, just trying to stay consistent, stay efficient in my game,” Ingram said. “But of course, it comes with time and I know that, so I just try to keep getting better each and every day.”
Staying in the starting lineup is his best path to get there and to get the Lakers back among the league’s elite. “I know when this thing turns around it’s just going to be amazing,” he said. “I just want to be a big part of it.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen