This preseason, the rebooted post–Anthony Davis Pelicans looked like a team that might contend for a playoff spot in the Western Conference if things broke right, but in the early days of the 2019-20 NBA season, everything’s broken down instead. After a senses-shattering preseason, spring-heeled savior Zion Williamson suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee that will likely keep the 2019 draft’s no. 1 pick on ice through the season’s first two months. Veterans Jrue Holiday (left knee sprain) and Derrick Favors (right knee soreness) have joined Williamson on the sideline, too. And the Pelicans have stumbled to an 0-4 start behind a dreadful defense.
There’s a silver lining, though. It’s the dude who resembles an artfully decorated praying mantis, and who can’t seem to stop scoring.
Brandon Ingram is off to the best start of his NBA career, averaging 27.3 points per game on 50/50/73 shooting splits to go with 9.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.3 blocks in 34 minutes per contest. With Zion unavailable, Holiday slow to get off the starting line before spraining his knee, and the Pelicans generally scrambling to establish some consistency and normalcy after such massive roster turnover in the summer, Ingram has stepped into the void. Despite squaring off against some tough defenders thus far, with the likes of P.J. Tucker, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Draymond Green all taking their turns on him, Ingram has opened the season looking like the kind of top scoring threat many expected him to be coming out of Duke.
Through the first week of the new season, only nine players have used more than 29 percent of their team’s offensive possessions while posting a true shooting percentage of 60 percent or better. That list includes multi-time All-Stars (Karl-Anthony Towns, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Derrick Rose), a pair tipped by many to make their first All-Star appearances this season (Siakam, Trae Young), and a low-wattage but high-efficiency forward on a Utah team with title aspirations (Bojan Bogdanovic). It also includes Ingram, the no. 2 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, who alternately tantalized and frustrated during his three seasons in Los Angeles, entered his first season with New Orleans as a massive boom-or-bust question mark, and immediately demonstrated his intent to seize his second chance to establish himself as a person of interest in the NBA.
The biggest change for Ingram thus far has been his willingness to fire away from 3-point range. As a Laker, Ingram never seemed totally at ease bombing from long distance, preferring to use his 7-foot-3 wingspan to take midrange jumpers over the top of smaller defenders. When he did let it fly from 3, he wasn’t a reliable marksman, knocking down just 32.9 percent of his long-range tries on 386 attempts across three seasons. That combination of aversion and inconsistency made him an awkward fit next to LeBron James for much of last season, and raised questions about both how effective he could be as a complementary offensive option and how high his ceiling could be as a featured player.
Since arriving in New Orleans as part of this summer’s Anthony Davis trade, though, Ingram has appeared more willing to alter his shot profile. He’s still a midrange monster, but a slightly less voracious one, taking a smaller share of his shots between the paint and arc—41 percent of his total attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass, down from 45 percent last season. At the same time, he’s nearly tripled his 3-point rate. He had attempted five or more 3-pointers in a game just 10 times through his first three NBA seasons; he’s done it in all four outings as a Pelican, drilling them at a crisp 50 percent clip.
That ball movement crazyyy pic.twitter.com/KJTYP2swNG— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) October 27, 2019
That look from Ingram—a catch-and-shoot try created by free-flowing ball movement—is exactly what coach Alvin Gentry wants. The Pelicans have increased their total number of passes thrown per game in every season since Gentry took over, and they lead the league thus far; they also routinely play at one of the NBA’s fastest paces and rank sixth in average number of seconds per possession this season, according to Inpredictable. For that to work, the ball can’t stick; you’ve got to commit to either catching it and shooting, catching it and driving, or catching it and moving it along.
In L.A., Ingram sometimes looked like a player who liked to meander through possessions, probing and overdribbling in search of a cleaner isolation look or a better playmaking angle. So far, though, he seems to be making an effort to get with the Pelicans’ program. He’s averaging 46.8 passes per game, up from 39 per game last season, according to NBA.com’s Second Spectrum tracking data. Ingram’s getting the ball out of his hands more quickly, too, averaging 2.09 dribbles and 3.09 seconds per touch this season, down from 2.82 dribbles and 3.82 seconds last season; more than two-thirds of his shots have come after two or fewer dribbles, compared with barely half last season.
Less pounding the rock means more quick decisions, which means a higher likelihood of getting an open look or catching a defense off-balance. Ingram has been capitalizing on that, posting a scorching 77.8 percent effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot looks. More success from distance will force defenders to worry about Ingram on the perimeter, which should open things up for his off-the-bounce game; he’s averaging 10 points per game on drives to the basket, by far the most of his career.
A more varied scoring attack can make Ingram a complete offensive player; he’s already proved to be a solid facilitator during stints as an ostensible point forward with the Lakers brought on by injuries to James and Lonzo Ball. He’s flashed those talents in the early going in New Orleans, too, delivering 19 assists against 10 turnovers through four games. All 19 dimes have led to shots directly at the rim or from 3-point land, according to pbpstats.com, as Ingram has used his size, pace, patience, vision, and touch to put his teammates in positions to knock down the most valuable shots in the game:
Pressed into duty as a top option flanked by shooters—New Orleans is tied for second in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game, and ranks first in makes and 10th in accuracy—Ingram has looked as comfortable as he has in years. He’s sloughing off the uncertainty of living in the shadow of LeBron and the AD trade—not to mention concerns about the deep vein thrombosis that ended his 2018-19 season and threatened to derail his career—and flourishing in his new context. “I would say this is a better environment,” Ingram told Mark Medina of USA Today.
The big question, of course, is whether it’ll stay that way. Williamson will come back, and while he appears to be the sort of egalitarian superstar who can get you 20 points per game just off random cuts, hit-aheads in transition, and offensive rebounds rather than needing a ton of stuff run for him, the Pelicans offense will start to tilt his way, just by dint of his presence as the sort of gravitational force that draws everything toward him. It’ll be interesting to see how Ingram responds when that happens; he posted a higher usage rate than Zion during the preseason, but produced less efficiently than he has thus far this season (and way less efficiently than Zion did). Can he replicate his early-season effectiveness in a lower-usage role? An awful lot depends on Ingram’s remaining willing to let it rip from long range, and knocking them down at a high enough clip to keep defenses honest. (The one worrisome aspect of Ingram’s early-season offensive redistribution: He’s taking a career-low percentage of his shots at the rim and, perhaps as a result, drawing shooting fouls less often than ever. If his jumper starts to wobble, his newfound offensive effectiveness could shake with it.)
How well Ingram readjusts to his new normal after finding his rhythm so quickly could have a major impact on the Pelicans’ chances of shaking off their early stumbles and competing for a lower-tier playoff spot in the crowded West. It could also go a long way toward determining what his own longer-term future looks like.
After not coming to an agreement with the Pelicans on an extension of his rookie contract before the October 21 deadline for members of the 2016 draft class to do so, Ingram will head to restricted free agency this summer. Many prospective members of the 2020 free-agent class are already off the board after signing extensions, and the lone superstar in the bunch, Davis, is considered likely to re-sign with the Lakers. A 6-foot-7 point forward with a bankable outside shot who can defend damn near every position seems like a player who’d draw an awful lot of interest, especially in a depressed market.
If Ingram keeps this up, he could become the belle of the free-agent ball, eliciting significant offers from either a Pelicans team eager to keep an exciting young core together, or the few teams with major cap space who might like to fill it with a 22-year-old potential star in the making.
July’s a long way off, though, and you wouldn’t blame Ingram for wanting to stay focused on the present. After three seasons marked by injury, doubt, and struggle, Ingram has stepped into the spotlight. To finally get the breaks rolling their way again, the Pelicans will need him to stay there.