Erase Your Doubts About Brandon Ingram's Future Stardom

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2019

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- NOVEMBER 2: Brandon Ingram #14 of the New Orleans Pelicans handles the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder on November 2, 2019 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Brandon Ingram is having a moment, the kind of start to a season that catches even the most stubborn optimists a little off guard yet doesn't feel fluky so much as an epiphany of self. It is the sort of short-term stretch with big-picture implications, both tantalizing and costly, that calls for reevaluation, not of his trajectory alone, but the circumstances by which he got here.

Anyone looking for reasons to downplay Ingram's performance out of the gate must continue waiting, perhaps in vain, after his Monday night detonation. He put up a career-high 40 points and five assists on 17-of-24 shooting during the New Orleans Pelicans' 135-125 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, a watermark effort that stands out not because it is anomalous, but because, at the moment, it's not.

If the season ended today, Ingram would be the favorite to win Most Improved Player. It doesn't end today—Pascal Siakam is making a real case for the first MIP defense in NBA history, and Bam Adebayo's candidacy can't be overlooked—but his numbers are still worthy of such consideration.

Ingram is now averaging 25.9 points and 4.3 assists on a 64.5 true shooting percentage. The only other qualified players going for at least 25 and four with a true shooting percentage above 60: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Trae Young.

Seven games is not a lot to go on, and Ingram's rise comes on a struggling team. The Pelicans are bad in a way that Zion Williamson's return alone won't address. They are 28th in points allowed per 100 possessions, and Ingram is a contributing factor to those defensive problems.

His length can be disruptive, and he's had some interesting moments when guarding bigger and stronger players. But he's foul-happy against faster-paced offenses, and his rotations are uninspiring, though perhaps also a side effect of offensive exhaustion. 

Still, Ingram's offensive explosion is not one worthy of dismissal. He has hinted at stardom in the past. Each of his last two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers has included a mid-year tear derailed by injury.

What's happening now is something different, something more. Ingram's usage has spiked without hurting his efficiency, and he's generally under more control:

This improvement does not feel unsustainable. He's always had a game that looks the part. He was smooth off the dribble and could get to his spots while with Los Angeles. They just weren't the best spots, and he had a knack for overcomplicating his shots and paths to the basket.

That part of his game endures, except in a more decisive way. There is a distinctly Kyrie Irving-like method to the way he plays. He does not share the same off-the-dribble flair, but he similarly revels in the difficult: turnarounds, fades, contested jumpers, drawn-out touches, etc. 

The beginning of this season is not an open-ended endorsement for Ingram to indulge that side of himself all the time. It is instead a signal of his new balance. New Orleans empowers his more deliberate possessions, but he's also making quicker, more efficient decisions as part of the offense rather than the focus.

He seems more inclined to look at the rim from beyond the arc on the catch and is dribbling into fewer no-win situations. Entering Monday night, his turnover rate out of the pick-and-roll had never been lower, and he's coughing up possession on just 1.5 percent of his drives, another would-be career-best mark that leads all everyday players finishing at least five downhill attacks per game.

To what extent Ingram's play can be sustained is a matter of course. He is better. That much is inarguable. But the season remains young, and the Pelicans' circumstances will change.

Will his production hold when Zion returns? And when Jrue Holiday inevitably busts out of his slump? Will he be healthy for the entire year? Even if he is, the Pelicans are fourth in pace, according to Inpredictable. Will exhaustion set in after the All-Star break? 

Does he have any more variance in his shot selection? Can he take and make off-the-dribble treys? Can he shoot comfortably above 40 percent from deep at his current career-high three-point-attempt rate?

And most importantly: Is he, at his absolute best, a viable offensive hub? 

The Pelicans are scoring more points per 100 possessions when he's off the floor than with him on. Early-season samples are noisy, and lineup quality matters, but the question of how well he fits into a broader dynamic remains.

Zion's return, above all else, will test the merits of Ingram's growth. And yet, even if he falters, it won't spare New Orleans from what's quickly becoming an expensive dilemma.

This summer's free-agency class is thinner than ever following the onrush of rookie extensions. Depending on your view of Malik Beasley, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Dario Saric, Ingram is the lone could-be-great investment opportunity entering the restricted-free-agent ranks. His price tag has soared by default.

A four-year max for Ingram would run about $131 million. Few teams have that much projected room, but a handful of the ones that do or might are non-glamour markets almost perfectly positioned to roll the dice on a 22-year-old with cornerstone upside. Think: Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies.

It is far too early to litigate whether the Pelicans will, or should, be open to going that high. But this issue, in some form, is coming.

New Orleans will welcome it. So, too, will Lakers fans.

It is difficult not to view Ingram as a big deal.
It is difficult not to view Ingram as a big deal.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In the months between Anthony Davis requesting a trade from New Orleans last season and his actual departure, much was made of Los Angeles' best offer. It was mocked for its absence of could-be standouts.

Ingram became something of a demarcation line for the discussion at the time, even more so than Lonzo Ball. The Lakers only had the best offer insofar as the Pelicans believed in his career arc.

Los Angeles ended up sweetening the offer with first-rounders and pick swaps. Those, plus New Orleans' lottery fortunes, would make the final deal much easier for the Pelicans to stomach even if neither Ball nor Ingram developed into a star. 

In truth, the shakiness of the Lakers' offer was always overblown—by both sides. Their prospects were never duds. They also weren't stars or so obviously on the path to earning such status.

Months later, though, Ingram might be. The Pelicans should enjoy the ride—and also be prepared to pay for it. 

      

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, RealGM and Spotrac.

NBA legends turned “All The Smoke” podcast cohosts, Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, join “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss their new Showtime pod, the most misunderstood guys in the NBA (Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and LeBron James), the best and worst organizations in the league, load management, and the negative culture of social media.

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