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Andre Ingram’s NBA dreams came true after 11 years of G League excellence

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A 32-year-old is the next great story from the Lakers’ 2017-18.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers’ leading scorer Monday night was a rookie, but it wasn’t Lonzo Ball. And it wasn’t Kyle Kuzma. In fact, it was a player nearly a decade older than either of Los Angeles’ prized one-two punch.

Enter Andre Ingram, the G League mainstay who made the most of his first opportunity in the NBA. The 10-year veteran couldn’t will the Lakers to victory in their 81st game of the season, but his 19-point performance against the league-leading Rockets paced a depleted roster and gave fans another reason to cheer in a season that has jump-started Los Angeles’ rebuild.

But who is Andre Ingram? How did he make his NBA debut at 32 years old? And how the hell did he lead one of the league’s most storied franchises in scoring for one glorious night?

Ingram was an extremely under-the-radar college recruit

The dad-strength rookie’s path to the NBA was a long and winding road. His 2003 high school recruiting class featured five-star studs like LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Luol Deng. Then, way down the recruiting ranks and far from the priority lists of high-major coaches, was Ingram.

247Sports’ composite rankings pegged him as the 36th best player in his class ... in the state of Virginia. He was the nation’s No. 639 overall prospect, a two-star guard who had the shooting credentials of a Big East player but major questions to answer about his athleticism and defense.

Those caveats didn’t stop him from being American University’s top recruit; he and Linus Lekivicius made up Division I’s 261st-ranked recruiting class. 247Sports counts the Washington D.C. program as the only DI scholarship offer for either player.

American proved a soft landing spot for the high-volume high school scorer. Ingram led the team in scoring as a true freshman, earning Patriot League Freshman of the Year honors. Despite that, he wasn’t featured in mock drafts or invited to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament to showcase his talent with the rest of 2007’s red-letter seniors. He went quietly undrafted that spring.

And then Ingram became the G League’s Moses, wandering for more than a decade toward Canaan.

It took 11 years of G League work (and a handful of side jobs) to get Ingram to the NBA

Ingram’s long range shooting — he made a higher percentage from three-point range than two-point range in two of his four NCAA seasons — could have earned him a steady paycheck in one of Europe’s many basketball leagues. Instead, he jumped to the NBA’s minors and a measly $19,500 salary while playing in cities like Fort Wayne and Oshkosh.

His G League career began as a seventh-round pick of the Utah Flash, sandwiched between Clarence Sanders and Rashid Byrd. He slowly blossomed in Orem, upping his scoring average each season while developing into the team’s starting two-guard. His shooting made him difficult to defend: he’d wind up leading the league in three-point percentage twice while making at least 44 percent of his shots from long range in nine of his 10 seasons.

In the end, Ingram would remain in the league longer than the team that drafted him: the Flash folded in 2011, becoming the Delaware 87ers the following season. Ingram didn’t know it, but that would set his path to the Lakers’ locker room in motion. Rather than follow the reborn club east, he found a spot on the West Coast with the Los Angeles D-Fenders.

He’d spend six of his next seven years with the club that would become the South Bay Lakers, his only significant lapse coming in 2012 after no G League team offered him a contract that fall. In 2016, Silver Screen and Roll called him “the greatest three-point shooter you’ve never heard of.

But Ingram wasn’t just a defense-stretching shooting guard in the decade-plus that followed. He used his degree in either physics or engineering, depending on which local paper you ask, to boost his G League income by working as a math tutor. He and his wife raised two daughters, a family obligation that helped keep him stateside even though overseas offers persisted. He even scurried back from a stint in Australia after just two games with Perth Wildcats to continue his grind in America’s minor leagues.

And finally, at age 32, he got his chance.

Lots of things needed to go right for Ingram to even play Monday, let alone light up the Rockets

One look at Los Angeles’ depleted roster shows how badly it needed warm bodies before turning to Ingram. Players like Ball, Kuzma, and Ingram’s fellow class of 2003er Deng, Isaiah Thomas, and Brandon Ingram were all unavailable. Injuries had reduced the team’s starting backcourt to Josh Hart and Alex Caruso. Tyler Ennis, on his fourth team in his fourth NBA season, had played 29 minutes — and taken 18 shots — two nights earlier.

The Lakers needed a shooter. Head coach Luke Walton remembered a guy from his stint as the D-Fenders’ head coach a few years back: Andre Ingram.

Not even Ingram saw this coming. He recounted his tale of finally earning a call-up after Monday’s game on Inside the NBA on TNT.

“It was actually supposed to be an exit interview. I was prepared to go in there and talk about our D League season. And my bags were already packed ... and then Rob [Pelinka] and Magic [Johnson] walked in. I knew something was up. When Rob and Magic walked in, all the emotions you would think. I was like, this could be it.”

The video is ... whew. Watch it while cutting onions, so at least that way you’ll have an excuse.

But as inspiring as his journey was, the next step was even better. Ingram exploded for 19 points in 29 minutes, making four of his five three-pointers and proving his worth as an NBA shooting specialist. He made shots early. He made shots in the clutch. He made shots with the Staples Center crowd chanting “M-V-P” behind him.

With one game remaining in the regular season, he’s currently the Lakers’ per-game leading scorer. He’s been shouted out by NBA stars — now his peers — like Paul, Thomas, and Jeremy Lin.

Ingram spent the last decade-plus working his way toward his NBA dream, clinging to whatever roster would have him. In two games work, he’ll make $14,000 — nearly as much as he made for his entire season of work in the G League. More importantly, he’ll get the chance to prove himself as a legitimate NBA shooting guard.

That’s all he’d been waiting the last 11 years for.