Brandon Ingram, the second overall pick of the 2016 draft, will be coming off the bench for the Lakers to start the season. Head coach Luke Walton hinted that was going to be his decision, but it wasn't confirmed until Wednesday, when Ingram himself spoke about his role.
"If it was given, it wouldn't drive me as much to be the best player that I can be," Ingram told ESPN. "Just coming off the bench and showing that I can be one of the best players on the floor, I think it just gives me motivation to work hard each and every day."
General manager Mitch Kupchak also sounded happy with the decision, despite Ingram being the reward for the worst season in franchise history.
"I don't anticipate that [Ingram] would start," Kupchak said. "It's not something that I think has to happen, even though he's the No. 2 pick."
Everyone is saying the right things so far, but typically top picks get the nod to start and play heavy minutes right away unless something is wrong. It harkens back to when then-coach Byron Scott relegated last year's No. 2 pick, D'Angelo Russell, to the bench for a big part of last season.
So are the Lakers mishandling Ingram's rookie year like they did Russell's? No.
The Lakers were in a difficult situation last season. They had incentive to be terrible to keep their top-three protected draft pick, so going young and letting Russell work on the job even if he struggled made sense. The problem was that Kobe Bryant was still around, so Scott was retained to help usher him to retirement. Scott's authoritarian style, combined with the need to give Kobe minutes and touches, wasn’t conducive with fully developing the young core.
As a result, the Lakers were one of the worst teams in the league and missed some opportunities to give their young players as much time together as they could. Instead of starting Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle, only Clarkson got the nod for the entire year, while the others saw their roles change throughout the season. Meanwhile, veterans who are no longer on the roster (Brandon Bass, Roy Hibbert) or don’t figure to be a part of Los Angeles' future (Nick Young, Lou Williams) got heavy minutes.
Everything is different this year. The Lakers added quality veterans such as Luol Deng that deserve playing time and signed Luke Walton to be their head coach. Their playbook should be more modern and the morale higher. It's unlikely they make the playoffs, but they should be more competitive night in and night out.
The idea is to start developing a winning culture. Under those circumstances, it's better to have Ingram learn from high-character veterans like Deng and earn his playing time rather than force feed him minutes.
Ingram and Russell are also entering the league under different circumstances. Russell might have lacked some strength, but he had prototypical point guard size. He was physically ready to play in the league. There was also no other point guard on the roster that was significantly better than Russell at the time or in the team's plans for the future, which made Scott's decision to have him come off the bench and occasionally not even finish games even more baffling.
This season, on the other hand, the Lakers have Deng, a solid player who is on the books for the next four years, to play ahead of Ingram. They can afford to have Deng teach Ingram the ropes while the rookie adds much-needed strength to his slight 190-pound frame. Then, when he's ready to start and finish games, they can move Deng to the bench or to power forward, depending on how Julius Randle develops.
Is it always a good idea to give top prospects a permanent spot in the starting lineup right away?
It depends on the circumstances. Last season, it made little sense to keep Russell from starting and getting a sizable role. The Lakers were going to be terrible anyway and didn't really have a better option. In addition, Russell was physically ready to play in the NBA.
But the same isn't true this season. The Lakers have a veteran option in Deng and need Ingram to grow into his body. That’s why bringing Ingram along slowly is a wise decision.
As long as the talented rookie gets enough minutes with the rest of the young core and has the opportunity to finish some games, he will get a chance to develop despite coming off the bench for the beginning of his career.