For the 2017-18 season, Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram is driving to the basket as often as Kyrie Irving and only a shade behind LeBron James, and the 20-year-old is shooting a slightly better percentage than Irving and a respectable percentage compared to James on those drives.
He's also passing out of those drives as often as Irving and only slightly behind James in that category, as the Kinston, North Carolina native has made strides that could see him steal the annual Most Improved Player award should he continue on his current trajectory.
In his last five games, Ingram is averaging 19.8 points on 51.5 percent shooting from the field and 75 percent from the foul line, along with 5.8 rebounds, three assists and a steal per outing. He's hit double figures in scoring in nine straight games and has twice set new career-highs during that stretch, including his first 30-point performance in a 32-point outing against the world champion Golden State Warriors at Staples Center.
"He's getting better at going left," Lakers coach Luke Walton said after watching film on the narrow overtime loss to the Warriors. "Even talking to [Warriors forward] Andre (Iguodala) after the game (on Wednesday), that the first thing he said: 'He's getting good now because he's able to get to that left hand and still create in the lane. Where before, we could force him that way and we knew nothing good was going to happen.'"
Walton added, "So, that obviously a credit to him and the work he's putting in."
Ingram told NBCLA.com that he's had several players come up to him and say positive comments this season, with his main takeaway to keep working and improving his game.
Only six months earlier, a 19-year-old Ingram did not even make the All-Rookie First Team as he went into his first offseason as a professional. His work ethic had already drawn public recognition from the coaching staff and newly planted team executives during the tail-end of his rookie season, but Ingram's first NBA summer planted the seeds that are bearing fruit as the season hits its second quarter.
As an example, Walton memorably got a text message at 8:00 a.m. on the morning of Memorial Day informing him that Ingram wanted to come into the facility and lift weights.
"Well, I actually saw Andre after the game and he'd made a comment about that," Ingram told NBCLA.com about catching up with Iguodala and talking about going left after the game against the Warriors. "I've talked to him before, and I just try to make growth."
Ingram shared the message Iguodala delivered: "There're going to be ups and downs, but just enjoy the process because the end result is going to be good."
The forward contended that he could always go left, but he did admit he prefers to go right and finish. Still, he enjoys having the option and confidence to finish with his left hand because he's put the work in. And it shows.
"I could always go left," Ingram says in a confident matter-of-fact tone. "I could finish left. I could lay the basketball with my left. It's just, I had so much success going to right and laying it up with my right and dunking with my right and finishing with my right. It's the way that I like to go. Going to my left, I think I can finish the same way, drawing the contact and finishing over the top."
Using his length to finish at the rim is a part of Ingram's game that came out late in his rookie season, but his sophomore season has been defined by not only finishing but finishing through contact. The forward is getting to the foul line with greater frequency, and even that part of his game has shown improvement.
In the month of November, Ingram averaged 5.7 free throws per game and shot a lukewarm 65.0 percent from the charity stripe. Over his last three games, though, the 20-year-old has grown comfortable at the foul line and made 18 of his 21 free throws. Passing the quarter mark, Ingram is suddenly as good a bet at the foul line as any of his teammates.
"His ability to finish, understand how to use his length to wrap around guys, get to the free throw line is impressive, really impressive," teammate Larry Nance Jr. told NBCLA.com.
Nance gushed over the difference in the Ingram that ended the 2016-17 season and the player that has emerged during the 2017-18 campaign, "A new level of aggressiveness and confidence. He's been awesome attacking off the dribble."
Nance added, "It's been fun to watch."
In a season that offered only the slightest hope at the playoffs, Ingram's play has provided a great deal of the enjoyment that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka promised at the start of the season. Lakers president of basketball operations called for Ingram to be the team's leading scorer, and although the former Duke Blue Devil is currently second on the team in scoring, he's quickly rising and only trails team-leading Kyle Kuzma's 18.8 points per game by less than a point.
The smart money is on Ingram finishing his sophomore season at the leading scorer on the Lakers.
"We don't want him to come into the game of the mindset of 'Alright, let me go get 30 (points) again tonight,' he's got to continue to play the right way and play within the system that we're trying to play," Walton in the days following the Warriors' game. "The style of play we want to use, and if he can do that consistently, then, you can become that guy."
On Sunday, Ingram put in a well-rounded 18-point, nine rebound and five-assist game against the Houston Rockets. He only turned the ball over once in a 20-turnover team performance where the Lakers continued to take the season of giving a little too literally on the basketball court.
"(Ingram)'s more of a basketball player than he is just a scorer," Walton said following the game. "We're at our best when he's in the game trying to not only get to the rim to put pressure on it but also looking to play-make for his teammates when the defense collapsed."
Even the most casual of Lakers' fans can see that Ingram has improved as an overall basketball player. His points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, free throw percentage, three-point percentage and overall field goal percentage are all up from his rookie season. He already has three double-doubles on the season, while he never hit that statistical marker even once in his rookie year.
One would have a difficult time finding any player in the NBA that has improved more than the Lakers' 20-year-old starting small forward.
...Also, Brandon Ingram has REALLY long arms...he's casually grabbing net here. pic.twitter.com/ARVR5kZGGQ
— Shahan Ahmed (@shahanLA) September 29, 2017
As the Lakers embark on the coldest of road trips and face the frostiest of December schedules, Ingram's continued progress as a basketball player should help provide that bright, warm light required to look past the record when the losses inevitably start stacking up—left and right.