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Carrying weight of Lakers’ future, lithe prospect Brandon Ingram rounding into form

Carrying weight of Lakers’ future, lithe prospect Brandon Ingram rounding into form

NEW YORK – Brandon Ingram knows what you want to talk about. It’s what reporters everywhere have asked about. It’s what teammates know he’s riffing about. Sitting on the scorer’s table on Tuesday, an interview was briefly interrupted by teammate Corey Brewer walking by, flexing. Later, Lonzo Ball sat next to Ingram, wrapping a hand around his biceps.

Ingram’s physique — and his ability to reshape it — has become as critical to his narrative as his skill set. A sinewy 6-foot-9 swingman, Ingram has the talent that recalls a young Kevin Durant. At a (listed) 190 pounds, he has the body of someone different.

Strength was an issue for Ingram last season. He was moved around by bigger defenders on the offensive end and overpowered by opponents defensively. Inconsistent play led to flat-lining confidence.

“There were just a lot of expectations,” Ingram told Yahoo Sports. “Coming to L.A., being the No. 2 pick. I always try to stay within myself. I think last year I kind of lost myself. I lost a little bit of confidence. I wasn’t comfortable until the last two months of the season. It was just a whirlwind. Going on the road, playing at home — it was crazy. Having a chance to come back in my second year, knowing what it’s all about, it’s been easier.”

Ingram will never look like Dwight Howard. He may never be as big as Durant, a lanky teenager himself when he was drafted in 2007. But Ingram entered last offseason determined to get stronger. He attacked his lower body. Deadlifts. Weighted carries. Weighted lunges. Weighted step-ups. His base became his project.

Eating took on new importance. Ingram has always had a fast metabolism — “Ridiculously fast,” Ingram said, laughing — so he decided to test it. “Lot of red meat,” Ingram said. “Lot of food, period. I just tried to find myself eating as much as possible. Filling up on energy. I wasn’t overeating, but eating where I felt I was doing something.”

Ingram first noticed results late in the summer, during one-on-one games. The Lakers noticed soon after. Suddenly, Ingram wasn’t getting moved around quite as much. His ability to finish at the rim improved. Consider: Last season, Ingram took 228 shots at the rim, connecting on 56.1 percent of them. This season Ingram has already attempted 178 — and has made 56.7 percent of them.

“He’s able to take more contact than he was last year,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “Which is huge for him because he is so good at getting those angles and getting to the rim with his length. The stronger you get, obviously, you can absorb that contact and still be on balance to finish those plays.”

Said Ingram: “[The strength] has helped my confidence. Driving to the rim I feel like I can take the physicality, the bumps. Getting to my spots is easier. Of course, I can get a lot stronger, but the jump that I made from last year has really helped.”

Opponents have noticed, too. Durant — who has become something of a mentor to Ingram — has lavished praise on him. Nick Young — a Lakers teammate last season — remarked that Ingram looked willing to go right at anybody after a matchup early this season. Walton has empowered Ingram offensively while Brian Keefe, a Lakers assistant who worked with Durant in Oklahoma City, works daily with the young forward.

“I’m feeling [much] different,” Ingram said. “In that first year, you learn so much. You really don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what you are getting yourself into. Going into this offseason, I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew what I had to work on. What I had to do to get better. I started lifting and kept lifting every single day.”

As the Lakers rebuild, finding a primary scorer is paramount. Early in his second season, Ingram looks the part. He’s averaging 15.8 points, and his field-goal percentage has jumped to 44.3 percent. He struggled against the Knicks in an overtime loss Tuesday (five points on 2-of-12 shooting), but scouts love his aggressiveness. And he’s making smart plays. Late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers trailing by three, Ingram caught a pass in the corner. Rather than shooting a contested shot, Ingram swung the ball to Kyle Kuzma, who buried a game-tying three.

Ingram’s play has excited the Lakers, and there is so much more to come. His defense is a work in progress. He is still not a 3-point shooter (31 percent) and there is more muscle for him to gain. Coaches say he is a fixture in the weight room, and the Lakers’ training staff closely monitors Ingram’s weight during the season. Walton says he gets a report if Ingram’s weight fluctuates too much — but that hasn’t been a problem this season. Ingram says he doesn’t try to put on weight in season, but does whatever he can to maintain the weight he has.

“Just keep lifting, keep eating, keep building strength,” Ingram said.

Ingram smiles as he speaks. He felt some of this coming last season, when he averaged double figures over the final three months. His skills improved, and now his body has with it. The nervous teenager unsure of his surroundings is gone. The early stages of a basketball killer has begun.

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