Our writers answer some of the most interesting questions of the young NBA season, including Brandon Ingram‘s finishing and more.
1. More surprising — Brandon Ingram shooting 48.6 percent on 3s or Brandon Ingram shooting 66 percent on drives?
Louis Zatzman (@LouisZatzman): A hot, early-season shooting percentage is like a monogamous relationship; it takes forever to stabilize, and it can fall apart at any moment. Players can improve at shooting, but it’s usually in fits and starts. You don’t really become the best shooter in the NBA over one season. However, Ingram has always had incredible length and great balance on his drives. Adding core strength and tighter footwork isn’t a huge ask. Plus, people can shoot 66 percent on drives. Nobody can shoot 48.6 percent from deep on five attempts a game, not over a full season. That he’s done it thus far is impressive, unsustainable, and clearly the more surprising of the two numbers.
Brandon Jefferson (@Jefferson_Hoops): The more surprising Brandon Ingram statistic is that he is shooting 66 percent on drives. Ingram came into the league rail-thin, the long-running joke was that his arms looked like Chipotle bags. It’s not like he suddenly put on so much muscle and mass over time, honestly, he still looks as skinny as he did when he first entered the league. Yet, this year he’s been able to get to the rim and finish at a high rate. The difference can be particularly seen when he attacks from the baseline. In previous seasons he’s had issues finishing or driving strong off when he’s run off the 3-point line in the corner. Now, he’s made this attack a staple of his game with New Orleans. As a tall and lanky wing, he’s hard to guard as most players as quick as he is aren’t tall enough to affect his shot, but players as tall as him aren’t able to guard him away from the paint.
Trevor Magnotti (@Illegalscreens): Shooting was never Ingram’s issue, even if his percentages were very bad in his first three seasons. He was shy to take them, but the form was there, and his shooting from midrange (over 43 percent each of the last three years, which is excellent) was predictive of eventual success from beyond the arc. He was going to get there eventually, especially playing in New Orleans, where Alvin Gentry’s encouragement for trigger-happiness from wings is infectious. It’s much more impressive that Ingram has finally started to improve his body control on drives, the biggest compensatory tool for thinner players. He has done a much better job of changing shot angles against contact while in the air this year, and that’s perhaps even more promising to unlocking his long-term future as a scoring wing.
Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet): Both are legitimately surprising, since Ingram’s 48.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc is also coming on a whopping 5.0 attempts per game. Before this season, his only efficient year from 3-point range came on a measly 1.8 attempts a night. However, since he’s still built like Gumby, the 66 percent on drives is more surprising. That takes a fair amount of ball-handling, body control and strength for a 22-year-old who, just last year, probably had to run around in the shower to get wet.
Ben Ladner (@bladner_): I don’t think either is sustainable, but I think the drive figure is more surprising given a) how thin Ingram is and b) how little he got to the basket prior to this season. He’s still taking a pretty low share of his shots at the rim, which leads me to believe 66 percent will look more like 50-55 percent in a couple of weeks. That’s still a perfectly fine place to be, but it’s a clear dropoff from the incandescent level at which Ingram has played through seven games.
2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is thriving next to Chris Paul. How long does that partnership pay positive dividends?
Zatzman: That partnership will probably pay positive dividends as long as it exists. In the new, skillful NBA, it’s not a faux-pas to start two point guards, and Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander both have two-way chops to play either guard spot. Young prodigies and aging Hall of Famers have a lot to give each other. However, it probably won’t exist past the trade deadline. Chris Paul is neither as washed nor as injured as previously believed, and he should be able to fetch a positive asset. Unless the Thunder somehow find themselves contending for a playoff spot, don’t expect Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander to stay together for long.
Jefferson: I feel that the circumstances in Oklahoma City have changed. What once looked like a sure teardown and rebuild situation has developed into something completely different. Chris Paul is not the washed player we thought he was and his experience, talent and knowledge are helping Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s development on the court. With the Western Conference still being a dog fight for playoff spots and the change to lottery odds, the Thunder don’t necessarily need to have a horrible record to get a high lottery pick at season’s end. As long as SGA and CP3 coexist smoothly together, the partnership is worth keeping together.
Magnotti: As fun as shockingly competent Oklahoma City is…….Feb. 7, 2020 is the date that is going to upend the good vibes here, even if the Thunder continue to look like a 35-win team or so. No one wants to pay Chris Paul $84 million for two years, but that probably includes the Thunder too, and if he looks this good, someone is going to come after him in the title hunt. Throw in the fact that Gallo is healthy and an expiring, and it’s easy to see this good half-season for the Thunder turn into selling high on their two best players and trying to turn that into more picks and players who fit SGA’s development timeline.
Bourguet: When’s the 2020 NBA Trade Deadline again? Because Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will continue to work together until the Oklahoma City Thunder are able to move CP3’s deal, and at some point, there will be more urgency to do so before injury strikes again. OKC has extra draft picks out the wazoo, so as much as Sam Presti would be hesitant to add an asset just to dump a surly Chris Paul somewhere, when the losses start piling up and playoffs feel further and further away, it’ll become all the more prudent to get him off the books and fully cede control of the franchise to SGA.
Ladner: I agree with Louis. Paul is still really good and SGA has the kind of skill set that pairs well with a smaller lead guard. I don’t think Gilgeous-Alexander has the chops to be a primary option quite yet, so Paul helps take some of that pressure off of him. I’m most interested to see if SGA’s 3-point accuracy sustains over the course of the season; he hit a decent percentage on a really low volume as a rookie, but if he can remain in the high 30s on four attempts per game, that changes the way I feel about him. Even if the regresses, though, Gilgeous-Alexander is a crafty enough player to find other ways of keeping defenses honest.
3. Let’s say the Wizards are contracted today and their players are distributed to the rest of the league in a draft format. Who’s the second pick after Bradley Beal?
Zatzman: I’d take Troy Brown Jr. He’s young, has size, and there’s plenty in the package that could one day pop. He’s not yet a great shooter, rebounder, passer, or defender, but maybe one day he could be! Plus the Wizards don’t really have a boat after Beal, so there’s nothing left but the mystery box.
Jefferson: I might be alone in this, but give me Isaiah Thomas. First off, it’s great to see him back on an NBA court and just playing basketball. Smartly, the Washington Wizards have placed him in their starting lineup and it should pay dividends in the long-term. I’m still a sucker for watching him skirt around picks and rise up to sink 25-plus foot jumpers and I think in the right situation he could still be a helpful player to an NBA team. The Orlando Magic’s offense has been very bad, adding someone like Thomas as a sparkplug could be the addition that rights the ship there. Blame nostalgia (and a lack of belief in the future of Rui Hachimure) but give me IT.
Magnotti: Davis Bertans. Every NBA team could use the quality defensive decision-making and capable off-ball offense Bertans provides. He’s the type of player who can’t really make a team like this much better, but he can make a playoff team much better as a quality seventh man. And when you factor in contracts, there’s an argument he might even go first depending on which team is picking if they’re strapped for cap room.
Bourguet: Thomas Bryant. He already impressed last year during his first stint playing extended minutes, and so far this season, he’s built on that nicely, posting 13.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He’s still only 22 years old, making him only seven months older than Rui Hachimura, and still has upside left to be tapped.
Ladner: I think it’s Bertans, though Bryant could also help a contender in need of floor spacing in the frontcourt. Bertans is a little more established and reliable from deep, though, and is better on defense. He’d be really useful on a team like the Spurs — just for example. (Hachimura could also be a candidate here if the team drafting him isn’t in the playoff mix.)
4. Put Malcolm Brogdon back on the Bucks and send the Pacers Eric Bledsoe instead. How much better are the Bucks? How much worse are the Pacers?
Zatzman: This may be a controversial opinion, but I don’t think Brogdon is as important for the Bucks as he has been for the Pacers. Of course, the Bucks would be better with Brogdon instead of Bledsoe, but it’s probably more a marginal improvement than a matter of jumping tiers. Bledsoe is better than people think, which is really just evidence that public opinion can swing rapidly. Brogdon is fantastic, but the Bucks wouldn’t give him the same leash that he enjoys in Indiana. Maybe the Bucks jump to first in the East instead of second, but they wouldn’t have a clear advantage over Philadelphia or whoever comes out of the West. Meanwhile, Indiana would plummet without Brogdon.
Jefferson: The Milwaukee Bucks become the clear-cut Eastern Conference title favorites in this mock exchange of point guards. Outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee lacks a player who can consistently get to the basket and put pressure on a defense. Getting someone as good as Brogdon back would be a big positive for the Bucks. Meanwhile, Eric Bledsoe forgot how inbound plays work on a nationally televised game on Wednesday night.
Magnotti: Indiana’s clearly worse. Bledsoe’s inability to consistently provide good effort on defense, especially in non-optimal basketball situations, is his most noticeable flaw. But perhaps more importantly for Indiana, Bledsoe isn’t a quick processor of the game. He doesn’t make great decisions with the ball, and even when he does, he doesn’t do it as quickly as Brogdon does, and this Indiana team doesn’t have the spacing to compensate for that. It’s a safe bet that Bledsoe would be far more turnover prone in Indiana as well. Meanwhile, I don’t really think Brogdon improves Milwaukee that much? This evolution of his this year likely has to do a lot with Indiana’s system allowing him more freedom to dictate in halfcourt sets, something Milwaukee (rightly) will never do with Giannis around. He’s a good player and was a good fit for the Bucks, but he probably isn’t THIS if he stayed on the Bucks.
Bourguet: The Bucks would only be slightly better, and the Pacers would be screwed until Victor Oladipo came back. While Brogdon’s hounding defense, elite shooting (remember how he joined the 50-40-90 club last year) and decision-making with the rock make him far more useful in Mike Budenholzer’s system than Bledsoe, he wouldn’t have become this if he were still in Milwaukee. Playing for an Indiana team that’s been missing Dipo and both Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis at times has placed a much larger responsibility on his shoulders than the Bucks would’ve given him, even if he had replaced Bledsoe outright. Bled compensates for his defensive lapses and poor 3-point shooting with athleticism and bullish strength, and an engaged Bledsoe would be terrifying next to Oladipo, but as has been the case throughout his career, getting that level of play out him on a consistent basis remains elusive.
Ladner: This hypothetical hurts the Pacers more than it helps the Bucks, mostly because Brogdon has had more room to blossom in Indiana, so his impact on that team is greater than it would have been in a lesser role with Milwaukee. The Bucks are probably slightly worse defensively but basically unguardable on offense, while the Pacers are, like Gerald said, basically sunk until Oladipo returns. A player with Brogdon’s decision-making and shooting ability just scales up to a larger role better than Bledsoe would. For both of their sakes, I’m kind of glad they ended up where they did.
5. What happens when Deandre Ayton returns from his suspension and finds out Aron Baynes turned into Superman?
Zatzman: Does Ayton finally get to play power forward? But competition for minutes is usually a good thing, as long as promising young stars are competing with good players, and Baynes is actually quite good. He’s solid at the little things, though Ayton ought to be better than that. Ayton earning his minutes, on a competitive roster, alongside competent players is a good thing for a team that wants to win basketball games.
Jefferson: Another suspension (*insert rimshot here*).
Magnotti: That’s the beauty of Aron Baynes. While it’s funny to imagine that this blows up Phoenix’s good vibes and would cause a major rift, Baynes is versatile enough that he should still thrive in a reduced role, just like he did at Boston. Nothing Baynes is doing is that different than he has in the past — make the right plays on offense, fill space, be a monster at the rim on defense — but adding the 3-point shot on volume has turned him into an absolute force. There’s no reason to not believe that he will continue to provide the same threat playing 15 minutes a game instead of 25, and having a skilled rim protector who can also provide a shooting threat is a cheat code for bench units.
Bourguet: I’ve always been of the opinion that Batman was a better hero than Superman, and in this scenario, the return of Batman puts Superman into a bench role again. Wait, Devin Booker is already Batman. So does that make Ayton Robin? But Robin isn’t better than Superman. Is he Wonder Woman? To be honest, the rest of the Justice League kinda sucks outside of Batman and Superman. The point is, Aron Baynes has been phenomenal in the starting role, spreading the floor, leveling people with the brick walls he calls screens and providing all those defensive intangibles that coaches rave about.
With that being said, he’s drastically out-performing what should reasonably be expected from him over a full season. Baynes raises Phoenix’s floor in the here and now; Ayton raises its ceiling for this season and beyond. The No. 1 overall pick won’t shoot near 50 percent from 3 like “Bangers,” but his touch around the basket and improved defensive focus — should it extend beyond a promising season opener — will provide an upgrade that allows Baynes to dominate in his bench role again. A 5-2 start shouldn’t overshadow the fact that if the Suns want to be contenders in the near future, Ayton’s progress toward becoming a nightly double-double and a replacement-level rim protector is paramount.
Ladner: They probably have to start Ayton, but Baynes is the better option at this point, mostly for his screening and defense. I could actually see Ayton becoming a pretty dynamic complement to Devin Booker by the end of the season, but for the time being Baynes’ competence and subtle contributions are a pretty huge part of why Phoenix has started the way it has.