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With LeBron James and Rajon Rondo out, it might be time for Lakers’ Brandon Ingram to make his mark

With LeBron James and Rajon Rondo out, it might be time for Lakers’ Brandon Ingram to make his mark
Lakers' LeBron James, left, Brandon Ingram (center) and Rajon Rondo (right) watch the game against the Clippers from the bench in the second quarter Friday night at Staples Center. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Brandon Ingram has a moment.

The Lakers can say that this is more about the team, more about everyone doing a little more in a lot of different areas than it is about one or two players doing a whole lot more. It’s the right message to send.

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But with Rajon Rondo out for at least a month and with LeBron James officially being called “day-to-day” with the kind of injury that can usually keep a player sidelined “week-to-week,” there’s an opportunity for Ingram to have a moment.

There haven’t been many this year — the third-year player’s projections, which have always been debated in NBA circles, are as murky as ever.

“I’m as confused as anyone else,” one NBA executive said when asked about Ingram.

Ingram had some moments in the Lakers’ 118-107 loss Friday to the Clippers — the team still looking for its first win since it learned they’d be without James because of a groin strain.

He scored 17 points, had seven rebounds, and a handful of caveats.

The 17 points came with six missed free throws. The seven rebounds were good, but he couldn’t manage an assist on a night when the Lakers were in real need of playmaking.

Without James and without Rondo, there’s a moment to be had. And we’re still waiting.

“It’s an opportunity,” Ingram said before the Lakers lost in Sacramento on Thursday. “It’s an opportunity for me to go out there and play my game a little bit more.”

The implication there is that 36 games through this season, Ingram hasn’t really been able to play his game. The obvious culprit could be an uneasy partnership with James, a player who shares some offensive qualities with Ingram.

Like James, Ingram is a better ballhandler and passer than players his size. And like James, Ingram can get into the paint and finish around the basket (though James does it with force and Ingram with string-bean-armed finesse).

But with James, a team wouldn’t want Ingram to do any of that stuff because James does it all so much better. Add Rondo with the second unit and Lonzo Ball, and there aren’t a lot of minutes on the court for Ingram to be a primary playmaker.

And maybe that’s OK.

Before Friday’s game, Lakers coach Luke Walton said he thought Ingram has had a good season despite missing time because of a suspension and because of an ankle injury — the sum of which cost him 11 games.

“It’s been unfortunate with suspensions and an ankle surgery,” Walton said, “and not just him, but the whole team, has been in and out of continuity trying to play together… I think he’s been good. With [James and Rondo] getting injured, his role now changes again. To me, it’s more of a lack of time together than anything else.”

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But maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s about the inability to clearly define what the Lakers want, need and can expect from Ingram.

Walton said the best version of Ingram is as a pure basketball player — someone who can touch a game a lot of different ways without dominating one of them.

“It’s not going out and trying to score 20 every night. It’s playing the game,” Walton said.

“…He’s got the ability to play-make. He’s got the ability to put the ball down and get to the rim. He can shoot the mid-range and his three-point shot had been getting better and will get better the more he can stay on the court. It’s just going out and playing basketball.”

But playing with James and playing without him are two different things.

With him, Ingram hasn’t looked comfortable, floating through offensive possessions when he doesn’t have the ball, unable to stretch defenses that don’t respect his 30.4% shooting from three-point range.

And for the second game with James sidelined, Ingram hasn’t looked like an alpha, the player Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson once deemed untradeable. That guy is looking more like Kyle Kuzma, who has been the better player this season and the more aggressive offensive weapon since James went out.

Kuzma knows who he is and what he’s supposed to do — be a scorer. Josh Hart knows his role is to knock down shots on one end and defend like crazy on the other. The Clippers, a team full of role players, are winning because people like Montrezl Harrell are starring within defined roles.

Maybe, when it’s with a force like James, the purest of basketball players, it’s too hard to try and fit in when your game is more about versatility than it is about specialization.

Maybe that’s why we’ve seen Ingram and Ball struggle to find consistency.

Maybe it’s too hard if you’re not a shooter, or a defensive specialist or a rebounder — maybe it doesn’t work if you do similar things as James, but you don’t do them as well.

Or maybe it’s just young players still learning how to win in the NBA, now doing it while sharing a uniform with an all-time great.

The answers won’t come while James is away, but the opportunity, the moment, for Ingram is here.

And the Lakers, like so many other scouts and executives in the league, are waiting to see whether Ingram can seize it.

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