Walton turns to youth to start; Lakers beat Knicks, 121-107

Brandon Ingram casually sauntered through a tunnel made up of teammates as the public address announcer at Madison Square Garden called his name before the game.No matter to the rookie that this was an important moment in his young career, that he was taking...

Walton turns to youth to start; Lakers beat Knicks, 121-107

Brandon Ingram casually sauntered through a tunnel made up of teammates as the public address announcer at Madison Square Garden called his name before the game.

No matter to the rookie that this was an important moment in his young career, that he was taking this step in one of the NBA’s most iconic buildings. Before the game, he betrayed none of the nervous energy surely fluttering within him.

That came later.

The Lakers (18-36) are turning toward their future. In their 121-107 win over the New York Knicks, Lakers Coach Luke Walton sat the team’s two marquee free agents, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, starting Ingram at small forward for Deng and Tarik Black at center for Mozgov. Together the two benched players have contracts worth $136 million.

Walton stressed he guarantees nothing for this young starting lineup, but Ingram, Black, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young are the Lakers starters until further notice. Ingram played 32 minutes and scored 14 points with seven rebounds and two assists. Black scored nine points with 10 rebounds and Lou Williams led the Lakers with 22 points off the bench. Carmelo Anthony had a game-high 26 points for the Knicks.

“It always comes back to what I think is best for the team,” Walton said. “Not only right at this moment, but the future of the team. We try to make our decisions based on that, not on the salaries.”

Before pulling the trigger on the change, Walton had conversations with Lakers executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak. Under their guidance, the Lakers signed Mozgov to a four-year, $64 million contract this offseason and Deng to a four-year, $72 million contract, and also drafted Ingram second overall.

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Walton said both men were supportive of the decision.

“It’s getting later in the season,” said Walton, whose team is 18-36. “We want to try some different lineups together obviously. We’ll continue to increase the role and the responsibility as part of their development. So we felt like even though we’re happy with the way the team’s playing right now, we haven’t been winning games. It’s as good a chance now to start some new lineups, try some new lineups together, see how it works.”

At shootaround on Monday morning, he shared the news with his players.

Ingram didn’t change his routine to match the moment. It was his 15th start of the season.

“It’s different,” Ingram said of this one. “But of course, just try to take it as any other starting position, I know before it was starting at a point guard when someone was hurt, but just try to make the best, try to take advantage of it and try to be aggressive and be great on the defensive end.”

The first hint of any trepidation from the 19-year-old rookie came after the game started. He missed the first free throw he attempted. He airballed the next one, and the crowd at Madison Square Garden jeered.

That atmosphere was part of the test Walton wanted Ingram to experience.

“Throw the young man out there,” Walton said. “Throw him in the fire, see how he holds up.”

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Ingram shook off the early nerves quickly. His first score was a three-pointer. His second was another, and it came after he fought for a difficult defensive rebound, found teammate Nick Young open for a three Young missed, then got the ball back later in the possession.

The Lakers moved the ball better than they sometimes did, and played with energy. The Knicks trailed by as many as 27 points in the first half before the Lakers took a 61-45 lead into halftime. Ivica Zubac, the first center off the Lakers bench, had a career high four blocks by halftime.

Deng replaced Ingram with five minutes and four seconds remaining in the first quarter. He played 23 minutes in all. Mozgov did not play at all.

tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli

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