LOS ANGELES — A platinum chain with diamonds linked to form the words “HUMBLE BEAST” hung from Brandon Ingram’s neck and glistened as he spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game. The shiny, sparkling spectacle felt almost contradictory to what’s known about Ingram — a quiet, unassuming talent whose game and personality are mostly devoid of flash. Ingram had the chain made because he feels those two words, if not the blinding diamonds, capture his attitude toward basketball.
“That’s what I try to label myself as, being humble and not taking anything for granted,” Ingram told Yahoo Sports. “Doing the right things, knowing that I’m a great basketball player, but I don’t have to show it off my mouth. I can show it off my actions. But also having a swagger to myself to go out there, be myself and try to be a beast.”
In his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Ingram would prefer to reveal more of his beast side than experience the humbling situations that came to define a rookie campaign in which he averaged 9.4 points, four rebounds and 2.1 assists. Ingram arrived in Los Angeles under some immense pressure as the second overall pick. The Lakers gave Ingram the same locker-room stall that Kobe Bryant used to win five rings and earn two retired jerseys, and pitched him as the future of an organization that has historically been more accustomed to winning championships than undergoing rebuilding efforts.
Though his rookie season left plenty to be desired, Ingram still caught the attention of executives around the league who were looking to steal the prospect from the Lakers’ new front-office brass. Those who expressed interest quickly found out that president of basketball operations Magic Johnson considered untouchable the wiry swingman whose tattoo total might exceed the number that shows up when he steps on the scale. No way could Johnson give up on the player who was always working on his game whenever Johnson looked down from his office at the Lakers’ practice facility.
The Lakers’ commitment and Johnson’s effusive public praise of Ingram have only increased the young forward’s desire to validate their faith in him. Johnson declared that Ingram should average 20 points per game. But when it appeared that Johnson’s assessment would take more time to develop, Ingram began to play as if the joy was gone. Johnson has since eased up on the hype machine and demanded only that Ingram have fun.
In need of a pick-me-up following a preseason performance that fell short of expectations, Ingram glanced down at his cellphone and peeped a text message from his former AAU coach turned mentor turned “uncle.” Jerry Stackhouse, the former NBA star who hails from the same small North Carolina town, routinely checks in on his protégée but tries not to bombard Ingram with more advice than he already gets. On this night, Stackhouse sent a simple reminder to get Ingram, 20, to relax.
“My thing, was just, ‘You’re from Kinston. We ain’t never had no problem getting no buckets,’ ” Stackhouse told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “I’m like, ‘Stop thinking about it. Clear your mind, go play basketball, do what you’ve done before. Stay off that social media stuff, stop reading that [expletive], and you’ll be good.’ These kids are dealing with a lot at 20. Getting used to having a pocket full of money when you ain’t never had none. He’s on social media, reading all the nonsense that comes with this job. … What if they had that in ’95? I’m glad I ain’t playing now.”
Stackhouse, an 18-year veteran who led Toronto’s development-league affiliate, Raptors 905, to a title last spring has always been around to chime in with encouraging words. But other veterans around the league, such as a fellow slender No. 2 overall pick Kevin Durant — a player with whom Ingram was compared before the draft — have also passed along some wisdom. “[Durant] is always sending me motivational things. Though some things may need to be censored,” Ingram told Yahoo Sports. “He sees a lot in me. He actually told me to block out everything and be the killer that I am. To get a lot of guys around this league that see what I can be, it does nothing but make me want to work harder.”
Ingram is also attempting to overcome an apparent draft position hex. Since Durant went second overall in 2007, no player selected in that spot has developed into an All-Star and two are currently out of the league. The Lakers have selected the past three No. 2 picks, including much-hyped rookie Lonzo Ball and the since-traded D’Angelo Russell. Much of the attention has shifted to Ball, whose loudmouth father, LaVar, has generated so much excitement and so many headlines that Ingram won’t be subject to the same level of scrutiny as last season. But Ingram hasn’t exactly dodged the pressure. “It’s only pressure if you put it on yourself a lot. From the year of experience, I realized I’m not playing for anybody but right here with my team,” Ingram told Yahoo Sports. “We trust in each other, they trust in me. For me, I just try to keep a level head, knowing that if I fail, it’s because everything is not easy. I know with the position I’m in, I’m going to struggle and I’m going to do a lot of things, and it’s going to help me in the long run because I put in a lot of work.”
Ingram wound up being overwhelmed by all that came his way as a rookie — the grind of traveling and playing back-to-back games; trying to separate himself on a team with two other lottery picks and no clear hierarchy for the team’s best player; coming off the bench behind Luol Deng; and having to find his way in a second unit that featured three “get mine” scorers in Lou Williams, Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson. Too light to provide much resistance to the storm, Ingram flapped along helplessly like a flimsy flagpole. “I kind of lost sight how to play basketball a little bit as a rookie. It took a few months to realize how to affect the game,” Ingram told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t think I played as well as I could’ve played or should’ve played in my rookie year. I kind of lost confidence along the way. I wasn’t comfortable. All in all, I had to be in it, to learn from it.”
The Lakers are better constructed for Ingram to break out, with the unselfish Ball embracing the role of setup man on a team that will give the former UCLA point guard every opportunity to find his way or flop. Ingram doesn’t believe too much is being asked of him, even from Johnson. “I don’t think five points a quarter is too much to ask for, at all. With the skill that I have and the ability to score and everything I can do once I get my rhythm back, I think that’s not hard at all,” Ingram told Yahoo Sports. “But I want to be a stat-line guy. Fill in the stat sheet, whether it’s rebounding the basketball, whether it’s deflections, whether it’s steals, whether it’s assists, whether it’s scoring the basketball, just trying to fill that stat line. Just doing everything on the floor that I can to help my team be effective and win.”
Coach Luke Walton is high on Ingram but knows the beast won’t emerge without some humility. As Ingram spoke to a reporter, Walton interrupted to remind him about his struggles with turnovers: “They’re doing ball-handling drills down there, if you want to jump in. Once that gets tight again … ”
“It’s over. I got it,” Ingram said with a laugh.
Stackhouse will also be there to provide the support and the reality checks. “Now it’s just a matter of you locking in, focusing, understanding, respecting and getting the job done. Or someone else is going do it, just like that,” Stackhouse told Yahoo Sports. “We talk real around our way.”
For anyone misinterpreting Ingram’s new bling as a symbol of someone who wants the shine without going through the adversity that produces diamonds, how he left Staples Center should provide some insight. After completing his interview, Ingram slipped on a hoodie — and zipped it all the way up to his neck. The chain will hang freely, comfortably and uncovered once the beast has been unleashed.
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