Their actual point guard, D’Angelo Russell, wasn’t playing in the Lakers’ final game of summer league, so the coaching staff decided to see just how much responsibility their rookie could take.
They gave some ball-handling duties to Brandon Ingram just to see what would happen.
“The passes that he saw, the plays that he saw, and the way he was able to get his teammates the ball was the way that you see point guards do it,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said of Ingram. “They can still attack the rim while they’re surveying what’s happening and find whether it’s a simple pass or a more challenging pass. You don’t see a lot of non-point guards being able to do that type of stuff.”
That’s what Ingram was considered entering the NBA this season — a non-point guard.
But his vision and ball-handling skills have given the Lakers a versatile player whom they aren’t afraid to use in that position. Ingram has started three games at point guard this season, and he plays that role on the team’s second unit as well.
It’s an odd sight for some because Ingram is 6 feet 9 and was a forward in college. But it’s actually not so bizarre. Ingram, after all, is as tall as legendary Lakers point guard Magic Johnson. More relevantly, he’s really been a point guard his whole life.
“I played [point guard in] youth basketball, AAU basketball,” Ingram said. “When I was in high school I played point guard. Since high school I didn’t play point guard until I got here. When I started growing I still used my guard skills a lot. . . . My college coaches [at Duke], they always put me at the right position to continue to use my guard skills as I grew taller, and it helped me in the long run.”
In the NBA, Ingram’s height isn’t outlandish, but back at Kinston High in North Carolina, it was unusual. He was 6 feet 3 as a freshman, then shot up three inches the next year, two more the year after that and then another inch as a senior.
As he grew, he developed new skills to match his height. To his high school coach Perry Tyndall’s delight, as he expanded his repertoire, Ingram never lost the qualities that made him a successful point guard earlier in life. His court vision, his understanding of spacing, his feel for when to attack remained with him.
By his senior year, Ingram was handling the ball for his high school team 60% or 70% of the time, sometimes playing with a 5-foot-5 guard who would throw alley oops to Ingram in set plays.
“They’d say, ‘Dang, how do you have a 6-9 point guard? How do you have that in high school?’” Tyndall recalls. “He enabled us to do a lot of different things. He’s position-less really.”
His versatility makes Ingram a great fit for Walton, who doesn’t believe much in traditional positions. This is the coach who once trotted out a starting lineup that included four forwards and a center. That was one of the three times Ingram started at point guard.
Another came Saturday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It might have been his best game yet as a pro. Walton had never seen him so confident and vocal.
“I could actually hear him,” Walton said, in a nod to Ingram’s soft-spoken nature. Earlier in the season his teammates sometimes had trouble hearing Ingram. That he grew louder was a function of his growing comfort.
Against Cleveland, Ingram, 19, nearly had a triple-double, scoring nine points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out nine assists. Had he done it, Ingram would have been the youngest player ever to notch a triple-double, topping LeBron James’ existing feat.
“It’ll happen again,” Ingram said. “If it happened once, I can do it again.”
He has more than 200 days left to become the youngest player to do it.
After the game Saturday, Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson teased that if he knew how close Ingram was, he might have tried to help him some. Ingram joked with teammates Nick Young and Timofey Mozgov about shots they missed that could have cost him assists.
“The one where Timo missed that wide open dunk, [Ingram] actually took it where you had all the hands in the pocket pass area, trying to get deflections,” Walton said. “He took it around the help-side defender, which is not easy to do. But he’s done that a couple times this season. I’m pretty sure I saw him do that in the summer league game, too.”
When he saw it that day in Las Vegas in July, Walton didn’t know Ingram had ever played point guard before.
Not coaching that day, Walton watched from the sideline, sitting next to associate head coach Brian Shaw.
“That’s nice,” he said, turning to Shaw, no doubt already thinking about what it could mean.
Up next for Lakers
When: 4 p.m. PST Tuesday.
Where: Spectrum Center.
On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, Spectrum Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.
Records: Lakers 11-19, Hornets 15-13.
Record vs. Hornets (2015-16): 0-2.
Update: The Hornets lead the Southeast Division, most recently with a victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Kemba Walker each scored more than 15 points, but they also got 19 points off the bench from Marco Belinelli. That game concluded a trip in which the Hornets were 1-4.