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NBA Saturday: Brandon Ingram Showing Flashes of Star Potential

The 2016 Draft class has been underwhelming, but Brandon Ingram is showing signs of star potential.

Jesse Blancarte

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The 2016 NBA Draft class has been disappointing this season, to say the least. Joel Embiid, drafted third overall in 2014, is running away with the Rookie of the Year award despite playing with a minutes restriction and resting in the second game of back-to-backs. Ben Simmons, the first overall pick in the 2016 Draft, hurt his foot during the offseason and has yet to make his NBA debut.

With Simmons sidelined and the rest of the 2016 Draft class struggling through the first half of the season, there hasn’t been much excitement around this Rookie class. However, over the last few weeks, Brandon Ingram, picked second overall in 2016 by the Los Angeles Lakers, has started to show signs of steady improvement, development and star potential.

Ingram, age 19, played one season at Duke. In his lone college season, Ingram established himself as a top-level three-point threat, shooting 41 percent from distance on the season. Ingram also showed the ability to take the ball off the dribble, create separation for his own shot, or find an open teammate on the perimeter or around the basket.

Throughout the first 38 games of the season, we only saw flashes of Ingram’s diverse offensive skill set. However, over his last five games, Ingram has displayed a newfound confidence and aggression in his game.

In the Lakers’ game against the Miami HEAT on January 6, Ingram contributed 17 points, six rebounds and four assists while shooting 66.7 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. More important than his nice box score numbers, Ingram showed off the repertoire that made him so highly coveted as a prospect in college. Throughout the game, Ingram looked more aggressive with the ball in his hands and was more willing to attack the basket off the dribble.

In these clips below, we see Ingram in half court sets going straight into his defender, maintaining his balance and getting up relatively good looks for baskets.

Earlier in the season, Ingram looked hesitant to attack bigger, or at least stronger defenders at the rim. However, Ingram seems to finally trust his ability to use stutter steps, misdirection and the Euro step to get his defenders off balance, absorb contact and finish at the rim using his length and coordination.

This skill is particularly important for Ingram considering his ability to grab a defensive rebound and take the ball coast-to-coast in transition. Like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ingram has incredible length and solid ball handling skills, which makes his a major threat in the open court. Antetokounmpo is much more explosive than Ingram at this point and his stride is longer, but Ingram can do a pretty good imitation of Antetokounmpo when the opportunity presents itself.

Like Antetokounmpo early in his career, Ingram will need to add some muscle to his thin frame in order to shed defenders more effectively and finish through contract at the rim more consistently. But at this point, it’s just nice to know that Ingram still has the ability and confidence to at least occasionally unleash these unique and potentially devastating skills.

What is also encouraging is how coordinated Ingram is for someone who had a recent and massive growth spurt. Remember, Ingram is still just 19 years old, but already has the balance and coordination to finish impressive plays like the one in the clip below.

Ingram still runs into specific problems each game. He relies on his length a little too much, which leads him to take difficult and, oftentimes, impossible shots in traffic. However, as Ingram ages and gains more experience, he will refine his shot selection, which should increase his efficiency. He also will likely get more foul calls as he gains more experience and learns how to draw contact a bit more strategically.

Beyond Ingram’s scoring ability, he is already showing exciting potential as a playmaker. Ingram has a good handle, is a willing passer and has the timing and moves to create enough space to generate effective passing opportunities. We have seen this quite a bit in pick-and-roll situations over the last few weeks.

In both of these plays, Ingram doesn’t get a great screen, but uses a series of hesitation dribbles and timely body shifts to create some space from his defender. In doing so, Ingram draws over both defenders just enough to clear a passing lane to his teammate for an open shot at the rim. This isn’t the sort of play you see from many forwards, especially ones as tall as Ingram, but it’s a unique and potentially powerful tool for the Lakers to exploit. Often times players around Ingram’s age go full speed all the time, but it’s clear from these plays and many more that Ingram already has an advanced understanding of timing and keeping defenders off balance.

Defensively, Ingram has a ton of potential. He competes hard, plays relatively solid one-on-one defense, but isn’t great in pick-and-roll coverage, rotations or overall team execution. He also isn’t an exceptionally explosive athlete, but he knows how to leverage his length and time shots to contest them effectively.

This block may not have been as impressive as LeBron James chasing down an opponent in the open court and pinning his shot against the backboard, but it shows what kind of a defensive presence Ingram can be as a secondary shot blocker and rim protector. Stemming from last season’s playoffs, we have seen Kevin Durant being used more frequently as a strategic second line of defense at the rim when the center is drawn away from the basket. Ingram has the length and defensive competence to learn how to fill that sort of role as well, but that is something that will take time and experience to execute consistently.

Additionally, Ingram has shown a relatively consistent effort to stay close to his assigned opponent and to try and make the right rotations when necessary. However, things don’t always work out according to plan, but Ingram is, at times, able to make up for miscues with his length. We often see Ingram jumping out to contest a shooter who was left wide open and he often times is able to actually block the opponent’s jump shot, which is something only a handful of players in the league can do with any sort of frequency.

Notably, Ingram hasn’t secured a single steal over this recent hot streak, which is likely a symptom of him trying to stay within head coach Luke Walton’s defensive schemes. Jumping passing lanes recklessly to rack up steals generally isn’t helpful since it leaves the team’s defense vulnerable, but the occasional gamble would likely be beneficial for Ingram and the Lakers.

The thing to remember about Ingram is how young and inexperienced he is. It’s not realistic to expect him to play effectively and efficiently on both ends of the court each night. But, it’s encouraging to see in this recent streak that he has a diverse offensive skill set, great potential on defense and the work ethic and desire to refine those skills and make them a consistent part of his repertoire.

Ingram likely isn’t going to win Rookie of the Year, or significantly outshine his fellow rookies. But he has shown flashes of the star player he may one day become, which should be enough to excite Lakers fans.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Keldon Johnson Is Next In Line

Keldon Johnson, a prototypical 3-and-D prospect, will have plenty of franchises clamoring to get a look at Kentucky’s next 19-year-old star-in-waiting, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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The life of a potential non-lottery first-rounder is not easy, make no mistake.

And for Keldon Johnson, a wild final month may be just beginning.

Johnson, 19, is one of three players from the University of Kentucky expected to be drafted in the opening round next month — but where exactly is anybody’s guess. At 6-foot-6, Johnson is an athletically-gifted guard, above average in both the open court and from behind the arc. His overlying statistics — 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 38.1 percent from three — might not scream can’t-miss, but the freshman is ready to get after it and prove his worthiness during the springtime workouts.

“I’m fine with competing, I did it all year and I’ve been doing it all my life,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders during last week’s NBA Draft Combine. “All I gotta do is just keep working hard. I think if I keep working hard and stay in the gym, I’ll be fine.”

So far, Johnson has received strong marks — both during the collegiate season and during these most recent tests — for his passion, athleticism and effort on defense. Given his height and lengthy wingspan, it’s possible that Johnson could slot in at the small forward position at the next level too. Basically, Johnson kind of spring-loaded rotation-worthy asset that every franchise could use, whether rebuilding or as a yearly powerhouse.

Thankfully, that’s a position that Johnson finds himself settling into one month before the draft.

As is customary for the back half of the first thirty picks — the odds are high, barring a trade, that Johnson lands on a team that reached the postseason this year. In fact, the only team that didn’t have a playoff game with a current selection between Nos. 14 and 30 is Cleveland at 26. The possibilities, particularly so given Johnson’s modern skill-set, are endless.

Whenever he ends up, though, Johnson just wants to make a good impression.

“I definitely want to play my first year, but if I get in a situation where I won’t get as many minutes and they still develop me, I’ll be fine,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to play, but if that’s not the case, then I just have to keep working.”

Prestigious franchises like Boston, Golden State and San Antonio decorate Johnson’s perceived pick range, with perennial postseason contenders in Milwaukee, Portland, Oklahoma City, Utah and Philadelphia finishing out the round. Johnson, like most young prospects, will have to work at improving his deficiencies — to some, that includes his free throw percentages and playmaking — but what he could eventually offer far outweighs everything else.

A defensive-minded athlete that can stretch the floor? Check. A multi-position shooter that wears those impassioned emotions on his sleeve? Sign him up. Understandably, Johnson wants to land with a franchise that can help him hit the ground running as a rookie, both on and off the floor.

“Just having a great relationship with the whole organization,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Coming and fitting in right away, them developing me and getting me ready to play at that level.”

One look at Johnson’s stellar freshman year highlights, however, and it’s hard to see how the former Wildcat won’t fit in. For as much as things change — what with the need for floor-stretching unicorns and seven-foot point guards these days — sometimes, other matters stay exactly the same.

The desire for 3-and-D contributors in the NBA will never die and Johnson seems to fit that mold exceedingly well. And, if anything, that may just be his floor.

On seven occasions in 2018-19, Johnson tallied 20 or more points, even hitting at least one three-pointer in six of them. During a mid-season contest against Utah, Johnson went a blistering 6-for-7 from deep before notching 4-for-7 against the much tougher North Carolina a week later. If the pressure wasn’t high enough then, Johnson certainly lived up to the hype during the NCAA Tournament as well.

Although he struggled against Houston, Johnson was solid in Kentucky’s narrow loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight, tossing down 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 4-for-6 from the free throw line. Time and time again, giving the ball to Johnson resulted in wins for the eventual No. 2-seeded Kentucky.

According to Johnson, he believes he’s a more-than-capable passer too — an opinion he’s set out to cement during upcoming private one-on-one sessions.

“I really just shoot the ball — [but] I can handle the ball a lot better than what they think,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Once I go into workouts, I’ll be fine.”

Since 2010, more than 20 players from Kentucky have been chosen in the NBA Draft and their list of former superstars needs little introduction — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and John Wall to name a few — but their continued success with prospects under John Calipari cannot be understated. Just last year alone, four Wildcats were selected, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, the former of which was just named to the All-Rookie Second Team earlier this week.

But with his silky smooth stroke, Johnson’s mechanics and release have potential franchises simply excited about the type of two-way scorer he could be in the near future. Against stiff competition like LSU’s Naz Reid and teammate Tyler Herro– two other likely first-rounders in June — Johnson still finished the season as the SEC Freshman of the Year for good reason.

In a month, somehow, everything and nothing will change. Fundamentally, Johnson will be drafted to an eager team somewhere in the first round, a franchise that will want to feature his NBA-ready qualities — whether that be on the defensive end or from behind the arc. Johnson’s name may not be mentioned in the same breath as Zion Williamson or Ja Morant — two other freshman standouts — but the marathon has only just started.

With everything other than the interviews and individual workouts now officially out of his hands, Johnson’s trying not to sweat the small stuff.

“[I’m] just enjoying the process, just having a great time,” Johnson said. “I mean, really enjoying it, to be honest, don’t take it for granted and enjoy the whole thing.”

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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