Can we trust Brandon Ingram’s spectacular start to the season? And what does it mean for his role on the Pelicans moving forward?
Four games into the New Orleans Pelicans‘ season, Brandon Ingram‘s hot start is the biggest non-Zion Williamson-related story. Zion’s knee injury is the single most important thing to the team’s future right now, but Ingram’s development and whether or not he fits alongside Williamson might be just behind that.
The Pellies declined to offer Ingram an extension this offseason, and it was a decision that made sense for them. Ingram was coming off an extended absence due to DVT (deep vein thrombosis, which has reportedly been rectified), and he had been effective in only fits and starts throughout his three years with the Lakers. More than that, though, it was entirely unclear how his game would mesh with that of Williamson. And that’s why I’m not sure what to make of Ingram’s spectacular start.
And let’s be clear: he has indeed been spectacular through four games. (Offensively, at least.) Ingram’s carrying averages of 27.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in 34 minutes per game, with a 50-50-73 shooting line. And unlike in previous seasons, Ingram’s volume is through the roof. His usage rate is 29 percent, in line with the game’s best scoring. He’s averaging 21 shots and four free-throw attempts per game, and perhaps most important, Ingram’s hoisting 7.0 3-point attempts a night. With the exception of the Raptors on opening night, the Pelicans have not played against particularly imposing defenses, but Ingram has looked the part of a No. 1 option so far.
But there’s just no way he’ll be asked to be a No. 1 option once Williamson returns. At least not on anything resembling a full-time basis. Alvin Gentry can stagger the minutes so that Ingram gets the opportunity to be the lead guy on the floor for extended stretches, but when Zion’s in the game, he’s almost certainly going to be The Guy. And as good as he’s been, we’re still not sure how well any of what Ingram is doing translates to a secondary role.
It’s notable that the best stretch of Ingram’s career prior to this season was the 23 games he played from Jan. 2 through Mar. 2 of last year, before he was shut down for the year with DVT. Also notable: LeBron James was out for 15 of those 23 games.
So what are we to make of that 23-game stretch where he averaged 20.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game? If we merely tack it onto what he’s doing this year, it looks like a guy making The Leap. (And when you account for the enormous uptick on 3-point volume this season, it becomes even more notable because he’ll absolutely need that volume to work in a frontcourt alongside Williamson.) It’s just difficult to know what that Leap means because it appears to have come while working in a role that neither his old team nor his new team was likely to use him in beyond that given stretch.
Williamson will be out a while longer and during that time Ingram will get more and more opportunity to stretch himself. That’s a good thing for both him and the Pelicans. Having multiple player capable of creating for both themselves and others is important for the health of any offense.
How those creators interact and play off of each other, and whether they accentuate or mitigate each other’s strengths and weaknesses, though, is even more important. And we won’t be getting that answer about Williamson and Ingram for a while. That only makes the Pelicans’ upcoming decision regarding Ingram’s restricted free agency even more difficult. Even 82 games is a relatively short period of time in which to evaluate whether two young players will (or can) fit well together. But every game Zion sits is one less game for which they share the floor, and that only reduces the amount of information the Pelicans will be working with when they make one of the most important decisions for the future of their team.