Lakers' Brandon Ingram talks sophomore hurdles, playing point guard, the Ball family

LOS ANGELES -- The player I'd picked in the preseason to become the most improved player in the NBA was sprawled on a white leather couch, a platter of meat and cheese and fruit sitting untouched in front of him.

Brandon Ingram, 20 years old and looking noticeably more muscular than the last time I saw him in person during his one-and-done season at Duke, is not a particularly expressive person. I've heard him called shy and reticent. While there's never been airs of arrogance about him, or a feeling that the sports media was his enemy, I've always gotten the sense that he has a bit of discomfort with the very public role that a basketball star takes on in this country. When he was taken No. 2 overall in the 2016 draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA's most prominent franchise in the city that values celebrity more than any other, I worried about him. How would the shy kid from small-town North Carolina cope with being one of the most promising basketball players in one of the nation's most unforgiving cities?

As Ingram struggled through his rookie year season, and as the Lakers struggled through only a modest nine-win improvement since the worst season in franchise history, I worried more.

Needless to say, he has coped just fine.

Ingram has seen massive improvement since a season ago. He's gone from averaging 9.4 points per game to 16.2 points per game. He's getting to the rim more, averaging nearly double the free-throw attempts and scoring more efficiently, with an effective field goal percentage that's risen from 44.3 percent to 48.7 percent. His 3-point shooting was a massive disappointment during his rookie season when he shot below 30 percent from beyond the arc. This season he's turned into an above average 3-point shooter at 38 percent. He could well become an elite 3-point shooter and overall great scorer someday -- a mini-Kevin Durant, which was the billing on him when he was drafted in 2016.

Most surprising has been this: In Ingram's 13 games since Lonzo Ball went out with an injury in mid-January, Ingram has stepped up even more, playing some point guard and becoming one of this team's go-to guys. Over the past month he's scoring 16.5 points per game with elite 44 percent shooting from three, and he's increased his assists to nearly five a game while limiting turnovers. The biggest difference with Ingram this season, though, has been neither his improved 3-point shooting or his more muscular physique. It's been his confidence.

More than one NBA person I spoke with this weekend told me they still believe Ingram will end up the better NBA player than the man drafted ahead of him, the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons.

I caught up with Ingram for a bit over All-Star Weekend. He was lounging under a tent in a parking lot a block away from Staples Center. It was part of Mtn Dew Kickstart Courtside Studios event, where Ingram hung amongst some of Hollywood's (and basketball's) biggest names: Kevin Hart, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving.

So are you mentally done with this stuff yet? It must be exhausting for you, doing the publicity side of this All-Star weekend.

Ingram: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it's fun. I actually get a chance to come through L.A. and see some of the fans, see all the fan support. I don't ever get out so much in L.A. where I get to see all the fans, see them walk around and walk around with them. I plan to walk around a little bit today so I can hang with some fans.

L.A. is the city of fame. You've always come across as a fairly shy person. How do you cope with this level of fame at this young of an age?

Ingram: I know I have to carry myself a different way. I know I have to always keep an eye on my back. But it's fun, just always knowing that you're being watched, that you're being evaluated at all times.

Year 2 it seems like things have clicked for you. Is it as simple as the game slowing down?

Ingram: Yeah, definitely. I think I've just put more into my game. I've really tried to change my mentality, my aggressiveness. I've really had to focus on my confidence, and my confidence has gone sky-high with the work I've put in this summer. I'm enjoying my teammates. My teammates are putting me in a good position to play my game, and my coaches are too. It's been really fun.

Where do you go to get that confidence? It's obvious to everyone that you just look more confident out there.

Ingram: It's from the work I'm putting in. I put so many repetitions on the shots that I take in a game, I just try to let it be muscle memory. I just try to be as aggressive and as confident as I can, and not being afraid to fail. Just going in every single night and trying to be who I am.

What's it been like playing point guard?

Ingram: It's been fun. It gets me back to my high school and AAU days when I used to play point guard a little bit. It's been fun. The guys have responded really well to it. The coaches like it. So I'm enjoying it.

How did that play out? Did Luke come up to you and say, "Let's give this a try?" Or was this you pushing for it?

Ingram: When Luke gave me his vision, he just told me he wanted me to be aggressive, always, whether it's driving to the basket for myself or creating for my teammates. He just wanted me to try to push the pace and be who I am. I just tried to take all of that and put it into my game. And it's worked out. It's worked out for my teammates.

You think that's long term for you, playing point?

Ingram: I'm not sure. It's up to the coaches. I feel like any position that needs help on my team, I'll go to it. But if the spot is filled and I feel like somebody is doing a good job, I'm fine with the three position, the two position, wherever I'm helping my team the most.

If you and Lonzo are sharing point guard duties when he comes back, how would you envision that working?

Ingram: At the point guard position we basically do the same thing. I may be more aggressive to the rim sometimes, but at the point guard position, we're both just pushing the pace. Trying to push the fast break, rebound the ball and try to push it. We don't really have offense where we try to get in half-court sets. We just try to push the ball. If he's running the wing, I can kick it ahead to him. If I'm running the wing, he can do it for me. It'll work out. Even if the coaches don't tell us to run point guard, we'll probably do it anyway.

Can't let you out of here without one question on LaVar Ball. We pay so much attention to him in the media, but how much does LaVar Ball actually affect your life and this team's dynamic?

Ingram: I don't think he affects it at all. He's in Lithuania with his other two boys. I don't really pay any mind to it. The guys laugh and joke about it sometimes. But it doesn't affect my spot on the team. And it doesn't affect this team. It's cool.

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