The black-and-gold sign in the corner of Staples Center where the 2019-20 NBA championship banner eventually will hang says “Stay tuned, Lakers family.”
Before the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis, they had been telling their fans to “stay tuned” for years. That’s the nature of rebuilds, lottery after lottery with young player after young player being celebrated as the next piece that will get your team one step closer to a title.
It’s impossible to know what would’ve happened if general manager Rob Pelinka and the Lakers had decided to stay tuned with their young players, had they tried to continue to develop Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart instead of trading them.
While the banner-to-come at Staples Center is proof that the Lakers made the right decision flipping their future for Davis, Ingram, in particular, is a special piece for another team trying to find its own championship glory.
While the uniform is different, the look is exactly the same: the noodle arms that are no thicker than any of his braids, the headband and long legs gliding around Staples Center like it’s 2018 all over again.
But the version of Ingram who took the court with the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night is a vastly different player than the one who left, the potential being realized at alarming rates as he tries to build off an All-Star season that ended with him winning the most-improved-player award.
“He’s a very, very hard worker, highly committed to becoming a really good player, really coachable, great teammate. Comes and works his butt off everyday,” new Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said Friday on a pregame videoconference. “There’s been no surprise. It’s all been good. He’s been as good as advertised, which was very good.”
Last season, Ingram’s breakout was fueled by a monster season from three-point range, the 6-foot-8 forward morphing into a high-volume threat from deep who made nearly 40% after three years of being a reluctant three-point shooter with the Lakers.
While those numbers have dropped early this season, his playmaking and rebounding have increased as he’s shown the offensive skills that led the Lakers to take him No. 2 in the 2016 draft.
It was all on display early Friday, with Ingram hitting eight of nine shots in the first half, including a silky, spinning, mid-range jumper over Kyle Kuzma — the kind of move that seemingly justified the five-year, $158-million extension he signed with the Pelicans in November.
Ingram made just one of six shots in the second half to finish with 20 points, and the Lakers pulled away for a 112-95 win. But, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said before the game, “Their team is better than their [4-6] record suggests.”
Alongside 20-year-old Zion Williamson, the No. 1 pick of 2019 who exposed some of the Lakers’ interior holes created by JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard leaving in the offseason, the 23-year-old Ingram gives the Pelicans their core for life without Davis. Ball, out with knee soreness, didn’t play Friday, with Hart in the starting lineup.
“He progressively got better and better,” Lakers guard Alex Caruso said of his former teammate Ingram. “Even that last year, he started to take a stride right before he left L.A. … And I know the worker he is because I’d see him work every day pre-practice and post-practice, and I’m sure he does the same thing in the offseason. He seems like one of those guys that just has that drive and that love for getting better and being in the gym and working on his craft.
“I’m not surprised that he’s there. Maybe surprised at how quickly he got there, but that’s probably just a testament to how hard he’s worked.”
The Lakers got what they wanted when they traded Ingram to New Orleans, and the soon-to-be-hung golden banner at Staples Center is the proof.
But it came at a price — and Ingram enjoyed reminding the Lakers just what they had to pay to make that championship happen.
Three takeaways from the Lakers’ win
After struggling to get into the Pelicans, the Lakers’ defensive intensity skyrocketed in the second half, helping them blow out New Orleans.
Alex Caruso’s impact extended beyond the box score, but one measurable, his shooting, continues to impress. He hit all three of his shots from deep.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.