How Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram can continue climb toward superstardom with a few minor improvements

Things are looking up for Brandon Ingram, who took a major step forward in his first season with the New Orleans Pelicans. After three solid yet underwhelming campaigns in Los Angeles with the Lakers, Ingram was traded to New Orleans in the blockbuster deal that landed Anthony Davis in L.A. last offseason. It’s safe to say Ingram has made the most of the new opportunity. 

In New Orleans, Ingram has boosted his scoring average from 18.3 points per game last season to 24.3. In turn, he’s developed into the Pelicans’ main offensive option and go-to guy — a role he shared with Zion Williamson once the rookie sensation joined the team’s active rotation in January. Ingram, who was named to his first All-Star Game in February, has seen his rebounding and assists numbers rise as well, and as a result, is considered a top candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player Award.

The biggest improvement in Ingram’s game, though, is his shooting — both from the foul line and long range. During his last season with the Lakers, Ingram shot 67 percent on free throws (5.6 attempts per game). This season, while the attempts were about the same (5.9), he connected from the foul line at a rate of 85 percent. In other words he turned from the guy who teams would look to foul intentionally in crunch time to the one they definitely wouldn’t want heading to the stripe with the game on the line. In fact, Ingram’s improvement from the line is historic, as it represents the third-biggest single-season improvement of all time. Similarly, Ingram shot 33 percent from long distance during the 2018-19 season — a number that jumped to 38 percent this season — on substantially more attempts per game (6.3 compared to 1.8). 

In other words, Ingram clearly appears to be trending in the right direction as a player. It took time, but he’s certainly living up to the hype that surrounded him when the Lakers made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. That’s not to say that there isn’t still room from improvement, however, because there always is. With Ingram set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, the Pelicans will be looking for continued improvement from the young forward if they make a major financial investment in him. 

In Ingram’s case, slight improvement in a couple of areas could help him continue his ascent among the NBA‘s elite. Given Ingram’s vast improvement from the foul line, he could stand to get there a bit more often. He averaged 5.9 free throw attempts over the course of the ’19-20 season, which was only 0.3 more attempts per game than he averaged the previous season. Since he’s elevated himself to well above an 80 percent shooter from the stripe, you’d like to see him get there eight or nine times a game. In order to get to that number of attempts, Ingram will have to get a little more comfortable with contact.

At times, it seems as though Ingram intentionally avoids contact on shot attempts near the basket. This makes the initial attempt tougher, and also denies him an opportunity at the line. Here’s an example of such a situation: 

In the above play, Ingram beats his defender to the cup, but once there he pulls up short and tries to loft a shot in order to avoid contact instead of going into the chest of the back defender, Daniel Theis. Ingram does something similar in the play below, too:

Ingram again gets into the paint with ease, but once the contact comes from the second defender, Ingram slightly backs away from it instead of leaning into it. Had Ingram leaned into the contact on either play, he would have potentially been rewarded with a whistle. Instead, he missed both shots and didn’t get an opportunity at the line either time. Moving forward, Ingram could stand to put more pressure on opposing defenses — and referees — by not only accepting contact, but also creating it. Like he did on this play: 

Given his size, length and athleticism, Ingram could also improve as a rebounder. While he has averaged career highs in rebounds per game (6.3) and total rebound percentage (9.6) this season, those numbers could be higher. Similar to getting to the foul line, improvement in this area will have a lot to do with Ingram growing increasingly comfortable with contact. Rebounding requires a lot of physicality and body banging, which obviously isn’t Ingram’s area of expertise. Plus, he is often pushed out of position by bigger defenders due to his slight frame. Bulking up a bit in the weight room — something that has been suggested of him since he entered the league — should help here. Additionally, he has to embrace contact from a mental perspective: Know that it’s coming and accept it. If he is able to do those two things, he should be able to improve as a rebounder, and as a foul shooter. 

Lastly, Ingram could cut down on his turnovers, as he’s giving away the ball a career high 3.1 times per game this season. Dropping that number down considerably would be ideal. In order to do this, he needs to be a bit stronger with the ball. At times he can be overpowered by opposing defenders who force him into turnovers. The Boston Celtics exploited this weakness during a Janurary matchup:

Like with the other aspects of Ingram’s game, increasing his overall strength should help here. If he is ultimately able to make the aforementioned improvements to his game, the sky is the limit for him as a player.  The good news for the Pelicans is that Ingram has a strong work ethic and is willing to put in the work necessary in order to improve — a trait that impressed members of the Pelicans organization. 

“The main thing we’re all impressed with is his work ethic and his demeanor,” Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon said of Ingram earlier this year. “He is extremely professional, comes in and does what he needs to do to get better. Then he goes over the top with it.” 

“He’s someone who has a real desire to be great,” Pelicans guard JJ Redick added. “He’s willing to put in the work to make that happen. He’s got some natural ability and natural gifts, but you don’t develop into a great shooter, a great finisher, a great ball-handler, without being in the gym. His game sort of speaks for itself in terms of the amount of work he’s put in … He’s a future All-NBA player, I think. He’s already a great player, but he has a chance to be really special.”

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