Brandon Ingram’s head peaked over the group encircling Larry Nance Jr. as Nance praised the rookie’s first day of training camp.
“B.I. held his own,” Nance said. “I’ve been saying all along he can play. He’s the real deal.”
But when Nance saw Ingram’s face appear, grinning, he quickly reversed.
“B.I. can’t play,” Nance said, raising his voice to make sure Ingram heard. “I don’t know why — he shouldn’t have gotten picked.”
Then Ingram laughed as he sat back down, and Nance returned to his original point.
“He did really well,” Nance said.
It was the closest anyone came to uttering a negative word about Ingram’s first official day on the court with the Lakers. Lofty expectations come with being selected second overall, and the Lakers’ future depends on Ingram’s success. For now they are insistent on being patient with his development, and aren’t planning to start him at first. Still, his first day impressed his teammates and coaches.
“I think that drives me,” Ingram said. “I think if it was given it wouldn’t drive me as much to be the best player I can be. Just coming off the bench and showing that I can be one of the best players or one of the best players on the floor, I think it gives me motivation.”
Day 1 was a test of sorts.
Luke Walton used his first practice as the Lakers head coach for an unglamorous defensive tutorial. Robertson Gymnasium at UC Santa Barbara sweltered from the lack of air conditioning inside and temperatures in the mid-90s outside.
For 2 ½ hours, the team worked on fundamentals. They finished the day with a free-throw shooting competition. Center Timofey Mozgov hit the game-winner, forcing assistant coach Brian Shaw, a Santa Barbara alumnus, to do push-ups.
Ingram embraced the day’s defensive agenda.
“You can tell he’s been coached and he’s been … parented correctly,” Walton said. “He’s an incredible person. He competes. He does what you ask of him. He hasn’t complained once since he’s been here all summer.”
Ingram was the Lakers’ third consecutive lottery pick. They took forward Julius Randle seventh overall in 2014 and guard D’Angelo Russell second overall in 2015. Together they form part of a young corps whose development is expected to lift the Lakers out of their recent doldrums.
“We did take him No. 2,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. “Clearly we felt there’s a great upside there, so we have to see progress as the season moves on.”
Progress is also how Kupchak will measure the success of the season as a whole. He wants to win more. And not just “a game or two more” than the 17 the Lakers won last season.
What Kupchak won’t do is concern himself with the deadline Jim Buss, the executive vice president of basketball operations, decreed for the Lakers to return to the Western Conference championship. In 2014, Buss told The Times that if the Lakers weren’t there in “three to four years” he would step down. This season marks the third since that declaration.
“I’m not even sure what was said with certainty,” Kupchak said. “From my point of view, we’ve created a team that has a lot of young talent that can grow into, I believe, really good [players] and hopefully NBA players that can leave an imprint on this league. I think we’ve surrounded them with some older veterans that can help us win games.”
He’d like to see Ingram work on his stamina and his strength. Ingram entered the league at 6 feet 9, 190 pounds and has worked on adding weight since then.
“Of course it takes a lot of patience,” Ingram said. “I have to wait for my body to mature. I’m only 19. But I’m doing whatever I can to help.”
He knows the pace of the game will take adjustment, and the schedule will too. Those will be the organic reminders that he is a rookie.
There will also be some man-made reminders that come from the teammates who already enjoy teasing him.
“I think we have an opening night on Thursday where I have to do a little singing at that,” Ingram said.
He smiled as he spoke with a laid-back air. If he felt the pressure of expectation, it didn’t appear there.