Joe Ingles has never had a future in the NBA. He’s only had a present. Since joining the NBA, no one has ever said, “Imagine how good Ingles will be when he hits his prime.” He debuted in the NBA at 27 years old having played nine professional seasons in Australia, Israel and Spain. In a league full of prospects, Ingles has only ever been perceived as what he is in the here and now.
That might have something to do with the dad-vibes that accompany his general appearance, but more importantly, he was never assigned a ceiling. Or perhaps he was assigned one, and it’s just that it was always about an inch above his head. He went from “does he even belong in the NBA?” to “Yes, he does” without any real discussion of his natural improvement, the same kind of natural improvement that much more regarded prospects rely on to become what we want them to be.
The skill and athleticism of NBA players is so high that you rarely see a featured player who wasn’t at some point projected to have outrageously high potential. The NBA is full of starters who are projected to get better than they already are, because something about them suggests they can be great. It’s a “shoot for the moon, land in the stars” sort of philosophy. You draft Trae Young with the hope that he’ll become Steph Curry while willing to accept him becoming an All-NBA Second team player instead.
To not hold tremendous potential in the NBA means you are already a superstar or it has been decided that you serve an extremely specific role on the basketball court. Ingles has never been either of those things, but you could make the argument that his abilities put him closer to the former category than the latter. At no point did anyone really bother to project his improvement, but in all likelihood, the 31-year-old has improved every year since he was 18.
So if Ingles was robbed of a projected ceiling (which, honestly, would probably be a benefit to the psyche of most professional athletes) then we shouldn’t fail to appreciate the prime of his career, which snuck up on literally everyone. Of the young players we spend all season gushing about, some will become better than Ingles and some won’t, but that’s not really the point. In 2018, he is better than all but a very select few of them.
Take Jayson Tatum, for example. He shined against LeBron James on an enormous stage at 20 years old, so it’s nearly impossible not to consider what he could be at 28 years old. Tatum’s future makes his present that much more relevant.
You can’t put any one season in a vacuum and disregard the future, but that doesn’t mean we have to constantly perceive current skill level as nothing but an indicator for development. If the Celtics needed to win a championship this season, they might be better served having Ingles on their roster than Tatum. As of the writing of this, Ingles has taken 31 less shots than Tatum and scored just 30 less points than him. He has an effective field goal percentage of .565 compared to Tatum’s .478. They’ve both been asked to defend elite scorers and Ingles has been more successful.
Before, the Jazz played the Mavericks last season, Rick Carlisle proclaimed, “Joe Ingles is the best three-point shooter in the league.”
Ingles’ game is extreme skill combined with elite decision-making. He doesn’t take shots he isn’t going to make. He believes in the value of his passing ability, the abilities of his teammates and the effectiveness of the Utah system. Those are rare values to default to for such a lights out shooter. Even a brief look at his game log, shows that Ingles either refrains from taking many shots or scores a lot of points. In 14 games, he’s taken 12 or more shots eight times. He made at least half of those shots in six of those eight games.
This year Carlisle characterized Ingles as a “great system player” before clarifying that he meant that as a very high compliment. He then went on to break down the things he’s especially good at. By the time he was finished, there weren’t many things you can do on a basketball court that he hadn’t listed in regard to Ingles.
We’re not always conscious of how much potential informs who we talk about in the NBA. We’d like to think that personality and performance in big stages are just as important. But Ingles has plenty of personality. He showed it last season when he was the single biggest factor in eliminating the Thunder from the playoffs last season. He’s already risen to big moments this season including a 27-point performance almost taking down a then-healthy and full-strength Warriors team.
A player drafted next summer might be assigned a certain ceiling. After a handful of years, he might live up to that projection and reach that ceiling. He might be as good as Joe Ingles is right now. No one suggested that Ingles would great so no one really knows how to talk about him now that he’s really, really good.