They didn’t try to be too smart. They didn’t try to be too cool. They didn’t outthink it, overthink it or give in to the inviting temptation to trade it.
This time, the Lakers didn’t get fancy. This time, they simply got it right.
With the second pick in the NBA draft Thursday, the Lakers selected the best player in the NBA draft, officially beginning the post-Kobe Bryant era with a guy who could eventually remind people of Kevin Durant.
His name is Brandon Ingram, he’s only 18 years old, he weighs about 100 pounds, but he’s 6 feet 9 with arms that stretch forever and a shot that does something very specific the Lakers desperately need.
In his first and only season at Duke, the kid shot 46% on two-pointers, 41% on three-pointers, both figures which would have led all Lakers playmakers last season. Throw in the kind of defensive havoc that a 7-foot-3 wingspan can cause and you’ll understand how even cool hand Luke Walton got excited.
“We got the player I wanted in the draft,” said Walton at a buzzing Lakers training facility. “I don’t know if he’s the best or not, but we got the player I wanted, for sure.”
Oh, he’s the best. The majority of scouts who follow these things agreed. The sly smile on General Manager Mitch Kupchak’s face agreed. The perception was even shared by the crowd of Lakers season-ticket holders sitting on folding chairs watching a giant TV on the facility’s gym floor, as they cheered loudly before Ingram was even picked.
They were cheering because the Philadelphia 76ers, picking first, went for the glitz selection of Louisiana State’s Ben Simmons. Many of them then erupted in a standing ovation when the obvious pick of Ingram was next.
“We felt we’d be very lucky to get Brandon into this organization,” said Kupchak.
The celebratory mood was in contrast to the defensiveness that permeated the organization last June when the Lakers shrugged off the natural No. 2 pick of Jahlil Okafor and instead reached for D’Angelo Russell. In some ways, they’re still reaching for Russell, trying to connect with him, and this pick of Ingram may lead them to eventually trade him for a stabilizing veteran if they feel a core of Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle is their future.
“We’re going to stress competition here, and we’re going to compete,” said Walton. “And if that means a young guy we’re developing isn’t playing the way he should be, then he’s got to come out of the game.”
Or out of the organization? Stay tuned. For now, the Lakers are thrilled to add a player who, unlike Russell last year, played bigger as the games became bigger, growing from an early benching to playing 119 out of a possible 120 minutes in three NCAA tournament games, averaging 23 points, six rebounds and three assists.
“We’re picking a player that played at, some might say, a very established college basketball program,” said Kupchak with a grin, the former North Carolina star taking his usual draft-day shot at Duke. “And he played big minutes in an excellent league with excellent competition.”
“You need leadership, you need cohesiveness, you need energy, and everything I’ve heard about this kid, he brings all those to the table along with his skill set,” said Walton.
The biggest hindrance is his weight, which is officially 190 pounds, which unofficially makes him look downright reed-like even though he’s reportedly gained nearly 30 pounds in the last year. He’s always been thin, and the target of jokes because of it. When he was growing up in Kinston, a town of about 22,000 in eastern North Carolina, he was so thin he could barely wear his souvenir Duke jersey. Even today, he hears it all the time, including immediately after being drafted when his first interviewer called him “Skinny.”
“I think it just gives me motivation to show these guys that the skinny part doesn’t matter,” said the quiet Ingram in a conference call with Los Angeles reporters. “It got me here today … and being skinny didn’t mean nothing when I was battling with each and every guy, each and every night.”
This growth must soon be imitated by a Lakers organization flush with money and salary-cap space. The celebration over the addition of Ingram will soon end as the search for free agents begins.
Now that the kids are all in place, it’s time to pay some grown-ups.