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Brandon Ingram Is Taking Another Leap

One of the NBA’s best scorers is quickly becoming one of its most dangerous playmakers, too. Three years removed from winning Most Improved Player, the Pelicans star is showing massive growth once again.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In its infant stage, the play-in tournament has yet to produce a team that’s good enough to overcome the odds and make a deep playoff run. But this year’s crop is at least filled with an abundance of top-shelf talent. There are six All-Stars, several first-ballot Hall of Famers, and the league’s all-time scoring leader. And right now, with a Wednesday showdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder looming, Brandon Ingram is playing as well as any of them.

In 18 games after March 1, the New Orleans Pelicans star averaged 27.4 points, 7.4 assists, and 6.1 rebounds per game. His usage rate was 31.6 with a 60.7 true shooting percentage. Known far more for his scoring prowess than for his playmaking ability, Ingram has shown more layers in his repertoire, submitting four double-digit assist games across that span—twice reaching 13 assists—and New Orleans won all four of those games. His assist rate was 34.6, over 10 percent higher than his career average since joining the Pelicans.

It seems a little excessive to say that this stretch has been evolutionary, but we might be seeing another leap for the 25-year-old, who already won Most Improved Player in 2020. After a bumpy season—during which he missed 29 straight games with a lingering toe injury that was more serious than New Orleans initially thought—Ingram’s stellar, expansive play down the stretch was essential for a stumbling team that’s still missing Zion Williamson, didn’t shoot a lot of 3s, and saw backup wing Naji Marshall finish third in total assists.

Ingram isn’t the NBA’s MVP, but he currently fills that role for the Pelicans, a scrambling, deflated team that somehow won nine of its last 12 games. And when he’s firing on all cylinders, his skill set is ideal for a play-in tournament that rewards someone who’s impervious to aggressive game plans and is able to create and make tough shots at a high rate against literally any individual defender in the league. (Lu Dort—one of the most physical, diligent, and committed on-ball hounds in the league—will have his hands full.)

In case you forgot about last year, Ingram was a play-in maestro in what were the two biggest nights of his career up until that point. He finished with 27 points, five rebounds, and five assists in a win against the Spurs before, a couple of days later in Los Angeles, posting 30-6-6 to take down the Clippers. The Clips did everything to slow him down—blitzes, switch-and-doubles, loading behind the ball. Ingram responded by pitching a near-perfect game, taking what Los Angeles gave, and trusting his teammates to make plays against a compromised defense.

He also unleashed the type of shotmaking that will make his prime shimmer. Ingram’s height, stretchy arms, and long strides make him unguardable. How many guys in the league can make these types of shots whenever necessary? Ingram gets where he wants and isn’t bothered by ball pressure or having to fire off his left foot, tilting out of bounds. Everything is effortless and graceful.

All of it’s a preview of what’s likely to come in cramped lineups that should still provide a tiny bit more spacing than last year—when Jaxson Hayes figured prominently in Willie Green’s rotation. The Pelicans’ first play-in opponent is the Thunder, and a win would set them up for a Friday showdown with the Timberwolves, a team Ingram just scored a season-high 42 points against.

Ingram will hunt relatively favorable matchups. He’ll drill the types of contested pull-ups that have a tendency of convincing entire fan bases that there are real basketball gods taking pleasure in their pain. Ingram is defended in all sorts of ways on and off the ball. He has answers for everything. After the All-Star break, he launched 6.8 field goal attempts between 8 and 16 feet per game (most in the league) and shot a sizzling 54.2 percent. He gets to his spots, rises up, and falls away. It’s an unblockable, velvety shot. Contests are mostly irrelevant.

And when he attracts an obscene amount of attention, Ingram creates opportunities for CJ McCollum, Trey Murphy III, and Herb Jones, who all shot around 40 percent from behind the arc since the All-Star break, by the way.

The Pelicans have been putting the ball in Ingram’s hands more than ever—of the 15 games with the most pick-and-rolls in Ingram’s career, five happened since March 1, according to Second Spectrum—and it’s not hyperbolic to suggest that commitment to Ingram “saved” New Orleans’s season. “Saved” is in quotes because, like, remember when people thought the Pelicans could win the title? That isn’t happening, but a remix of last year, when they positioned themselves as a scrappy upstart and pushed the heavily favored Suns—sans Devin Booker for 3.5 games—wouldn’t be the worst outcome.

Among all players who initiated at least 20 pick-and-rolls per game over the last five weeks of the regular season, only five generated more than Ingram’s 1.19 points per direct play. He can read the entire floor in ways he previously struggled to do. There have been perfect pocket passes to rolling bigs and an understanding of when he should get off the ball against rotating defenders. Look at these identical skip passes to the corner (on back-to-back possessions) in crunch time during a recent win over the Knicks. Ingram not only sees the open man but is also now consistently willing to deliver him the ball, on time and on target. (I half-jokingly wrote in my notebook “best pass of his career?” when Jones drilled that first 3.)

Earlier in that same game, Ingram drove to the rim and passed up a contested layup to kick the ball (no look!) to the weakside corner. One swing pass later, and McCollum drilled an open 3.

As a do-everything hub, Ingram’s off-ball activity makes him even tougher. Not only is he a spot-up threat with real gravity, or someone who’s at his best curling off a pin down or posting up after a cross screen. But also, once the ball is squeezed from his hands, he stays engaged—an undertaking several high-usage shot creators can’t say they’re willing to do—by relocating for an outside shot or darting into open space from the weak side.

The playmaking improvement is a by-product of his own growth, but also of a roster that’s been depleted by injury. Ingram has had to get others involved because ballhandling options that would otherwise feature more prominently in New Orleans’s rotation haven’t been available. There has been no Point Zion or Grand Theft Alvarado (who hurt his tibia and has been out since March 1). Kira Lewis Jr. hasn’t been in the rotation. Murphy and Jones are growing more comfortable off the bounce but are far more dangerous punishing a defense that’s compromised than one that’s set and prepared. McCollum is best used as a complementary scorer.

As far as the play-in is concerned, if it’s a close game, Ingram will be one of the most trustworthy options in the league. While it was only in a 19-game sample size, Ingram was magma in the clutch this season. His usage rate (40.1) was above Joel Embiid’s. His true shooting percentage (68.7) was above De’Aaron Fox’s. And his assist rate (45.8!) was above James Harden’s, Tyrese Haliburton’s, and Nikola Jokic’s. Nearly 40 percent of his points were on midrange jumpers, too. To put this efficiency in context: In 30 fewer minutes, Ingram scored two more points than Giannis Antetokounmpo in crunch time.

If you can hit impossible shots, make exceptional passes, and hardly ever get sped up by whoever’s trying to stop you, the crunch-time defensive schemes you’re facing will go bust. More broadly, as an elite talent who didn’t play enough games to be recognized for any end-of-season awards and didn’t make the All-Star team, Ingram’s play over the last month or so served as a subtle reminder of two things: (1) This is one of the most skilled players alive, and (2) he’s still getting better in areas that are absolutely critical for the depleted Pelicans, who need all he has to make the playoffs.

Zion is the franchise-elevating piece who can help New Orleans blow the doors off opponents in a deep run. But in the meantime, Ingram’s steady, irrepressible contributions can’t be overlooked. Don’t count them out in either play-in game. Because on any given night, whether he’s up against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Anthony Edwards, or LeBron James, Ingram can and may be the best player on the floor.