Extending a player’s rookie contract is one of the biggest gambles an NBA team can make. Given how young many players are when they are drafted, it’s often hard to come to firm conclusions after only three seasons in the league. As such, the risks and potential rewards are high. The Timberwolves gave Andrew Wiggins a max contract extension based on potential and are now saddled with one of the worst deals in the NBA. The Hornets rolled the dice on Kemba Walker before he was a proven commodity and wound up with an incredible bargain.
There are still a few 2016 draft members who could land extensions before the October 21 deadline, and none is more interesting than Brandon Ingram. The Pelicans traded for Ingram, a former no. 2 pick, as part of the Anthony Davis deal in June. Three months later, they must now decide whether to lock him up after three up-and-down seasons with the Lakers or let him hit restricted free agency next summer.
Ingram’s time in Los Angeles doesn’t provide much clarity. His last season in particular was nothing but twists and turns. It started slowly, as he struggled to adjust to a complementary role playing off LeBron James. The two didn’t figure out how to play with each other until February, when LeBron returned from the groin injury he suffered on Christmas Day. The good times didn’t last long. In March, just as Ingram had turned the corner, he was diagnosed with a blood clot in his right arm. Ingram had surgery a few weeks later and missed the rest of the season. Not much information has come out about his condition since.
Even if Ingram returns at 100 percent, it’s unclear exactly what the Pelicans have in him. Ingram still has plenty of upside; he just turned 22 and checks most of the boxes that NBA teams look for in a star wing:
Freakish length: At 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Ingram towers over the vast majority of perimeter players and can score over them as if they aren’t even there. He’s a gifted isolation scorer who can get to the rim and draw fouls (5.6 free throw attempts per game) and is coming off career highs in points (18.3) and field goal percentage (49.7).
Playmaking ability: Ingram is the rare supersize wing who can also create shots for his teammates. He has a positive career ratio of assists (2.9 per game) to turnovers (2.1) and has shown the ability to run point with the Lakers. Ingram is a smart player who can pass out of the pick-and-roll and find the open man when the defense collapses on his drives.
Defensive versatility: Los Angeles shifted Ingram all over the floor on defense. He can guard all types of perimeter players, from the smallest point guards to the biggest wings, while also being able to switch screens and compete on the glass (career average of 4.7 rebounds per game).
The downside to Ingram is that he doesn’t check the one box that overshadows all the others in the modern NBA: outside shooting. He’s most comfortable in the midrange. He was a good shooter from behind the shorter college 3-point line (41.0 percent on 5.4 attempts per game) in one season at Duke, but he has never shown much interest in extending his range in the NBA. His below-average free throw shooting raises doubts about whether he even could:
Not Feeling at Home From Long Range
There is no one in the NBA quite like Ingram. While he shares some similarities with poor-shooting point forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons, he doesn’t have their otherworldly athleticism. He relies on length to score instead of quickness or strength. Instead of putting his head down and bullying his way to the rim, he raises up and shoots. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, 30.6 percent of Ingram’s shots last season were off-the-dribble jumpers, compared with 12.5 percent for Giannis, and 6.1 percent for Simmons.
The best way to think of Ingram is as a supersize DeMar DeRozan with more defensive ability. Like DeRozan, he doesn’t necessarily have to be a good outside shooter to be effective. Ingram improved as an off-ball player last season, going from the 51st percentile of scorers leaguewide on cuts in 2017-18 to the 86th percentile in 2018-19, and his defensive versatility allows him to affect the game even when he isn’t featured on offense.
But the best version of Ingram still comes when he can dominate the ball in lineups with enough 3-point shooting to spread the floor for him. If the Pelicans are going to sign him to an extension that pays him like he’s an All-Star, they will have to put him in a situation where he can play like one. The holes in his game mean that his success in New Orleans next season will come down to three questions:
1. How much will Ingram be featured on offense?
Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has said that Jrue Holiday, an All-Star-caliber point guard coming off a career season, will be the team’s centerpiece in the first season of the post–Anthony Davis era. But the pecking order behind Holiday is unsettled. Ingram is one of the candidates to have offense run through him, along with fellow recent top-three picks Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson. There’s also JJ Redick, who is coming off a career-high season in points (18.1 per game) in Philadelphia, and Derrick Favors, a skilled big man playing for a new contract. New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry has a lot of talent to work with, but he also has a lot of mouths to feed.
The good news for Ingram is that those other players could thrive in smaller offensive roles. Redick is an all-time great shooter who doesn’t need to hold the ball to score, while Favors can affect the game as a rim runner and offensive rebounder. Lonzo is a pass-first point guard, and Zion put up huge numbers at Duke while playing off RJ Barrett. Gentry also loves to play fast—New Orleans was no. 2 in the league in pace last season and no. 1 two seasons ago—and the extra possessions that style produces will create more opportunities for everyone to score.
2. How much space will Ingram play in?
The bigger issue in New Orleans won’t be sharing the ball; its best players are all good passers. The problem is that not many are good outside shooters. A frontcourt of Ingram (career 32.9 percent from 3 on 2.0 attempts per game), Zion (33.8 percent from 3 on 2.2 attempts per game at Duke last season), and Favors (career 21.0 percent from 3 on 0.3 attempts per game) will struggle to space the floor. And while the Pelicans have good shooters coming off their bench—E’Twaun Moore, Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Nicolò Melli—they also have two nonshooting reserves who will harm their floor spacing: Lonzo, whose streaky jumper has held him back in his first two seasons, and Jaxson Hayes, a center with limited shooting range whom they took with the no. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Ball and Ingram never clicked in Los Angeles. Ingram’s best stretch with the Lakers came two seasons ago, when he took over at point guard after Lonzo injured his knee. And he was far more effective last season when Lonzo wasn’t on the court (a true shooting percentage of 59.0 in 1,005 minutes) than when he was (50.6 in 756 minutes). The same thing happened to Lonzo’s numbers without Ingram—his true shooting percentage jumped from 46.6 in 756 minutes with Ingram to 51.1 in 667 minutes without him. It’s hard to play two nonshooting perimeter players at the same time. Playing both with a nonshooter like Zion at power forward could make that issue even worse.
3. How much small ball will the Pelicans play?
The easiest way for Gentry to create more space for Ingram would be to move Zion to the 5. At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Williamson is more than big enough to hold his own in the paint, and at Duke he showed he could protect the rim (1.8 blocks per game) and make plays (2.1 steals) as the backline of the defense. But the Pelicans may want the 19-year-old to play most of his minutes at the 4 to ease him into the NBA and keep some wear and tear off his body.
The Pelicans have invested a lot of resources in traditional big men. Favors ($16.9 million) is their second-highest-paid player, and he will not want to be relegated to part-time status with free agency looming. He’s only 28 despite heading into his 10th season. He could secure one more long-term contract for himself if he has a bounceback season now that he’s no longer in the shadow of Rudy Gobert in Utah.
The bigger long-term issue for Ingram in New Orleans is Hayes. Drafting Hayes, a rim-running center in the Clint Capela mold, over a stretch big man like Goga Bitadze may indicate that the Pelicans won’t prioritize creating space for Ingram.
It’s hard to know how much the Pelicans value Ingram. Their top aim in trading Davis was to acquire as many assets as possible; they may be more interested in flipping Ingram for a cheaper young player who fits better next to Zion, or a more established veteran who can better complement Holiday. Griffin has given his team a lot of options.
Ingram and Zion could also be great together: A one-two punch of high-level scorers and passers with high basketball IQs who can defend multiple positions well. The key would be putting them in pick-and-rolls with three shooters spacing the floor. But that’s the problem with building around Ingram: His poor shooting limits the types of players who make sense next to him. Committing to him pushes other nonshooters like Lonzo and Hayes into smaller roles.
The way out of that dilemma is for Ingram to become a consistent 3-point shooter. It’s definitely possible—he’s still younger than many of this year’s rookies, and he’s further along than a nonshooter like Simmons. But it’s also hard to rely on that development in contract talks. If the Pelicans want to lock up Ingram now instead of letting him hit restricted free agency next summer, they have to pay him for what he is and not what he could be.
Ingram will have to make some tough decisions over the next few weeks too. The free agent class of 2020 is so weak that he should get a huge offer, assuming he stays healthy. That’s an awfully big assumption, though. He has missed 53 games in the past two seasons, and it’s unclear how the blood clot will affect his future—a similar issue ended Chris Bosh’s career. Ingram might have a hard time passing up a ton of guaranteed money, even if it is less than he would receive on the open market.
If he can stay healthy, Ingram is too talented to be forever stuck in a complementary role. The Pelicans have enough other options that they don’t have to commit to him. But if they won’t, someone else should.