Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Is Brandon Ingram actually breaking out?

Brandon Ingram’s box score stats are scraping career-highs. But are all his points really helping the New Orleans Pelicans?

Somehow, Brandon Ingram is only 22 years old. The shine of the Hollywood spotlight was unrelenting throughout the former second overall draft pick’s first three seasons in the NBA, allowing the burgeoning basketball populous insight into every move being made by the man tasked with ushering in the Lakers’ post-Kobe era. It was a seemingly impossible task that he took on admirably, but one that he was ultimately not given a chance to see through. Ingram accompanied Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and a party bus of draft capital to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis trade to play out the final year of his rookie contract. In the first ten games of his Pelicans tenure, he’s come out with a bang.

Ingram’s box score production has increased across the board, with many game averages including points (25.4), rebounds (7.3), assists (4) and field goal percentage (52.2 percent) sitting at career highs through November 20. However, no improvement may be more jarring than that of his 3-point percentage, which has climbed up to 44.4 percent from a previous high of 39 percent.

As more teams doubled down on their attempts to optimize floor spacing by launching an unprecedented number of 3-point shots, Ingram’s long-distance deficiencies appeared to be the most obtrusive obstacle in his ascent to stardom. He averaged 3 attempts from deep per 36 minutes during his rookie season, but that dropped to 1.9 for each of the next two seasons. His three-year Lakers career included 386 3-point attempts, the same total taken by Joe Harris and Bojan Bogdanovic last season alone, each of whom finished tied for 51st in attempts league-wide. Making matters worse was Ingram’s 32.9 percent success rate, a mark that was last considered league average or better during the 1990-91 season, during which Ingram was seven years away from being born and Michael Adams was launching the most long-distance bombs.

Not only is Ingram making more 3s in a Pelicans uniform, but he’s taking way more of them as well. His increase in efficiency has corresponded with an even more drastic uptick in volume from deep. All of a sudden he’s doubled his career-high in attempts per 36 minutes from three to six. It’s still not a prolific rate, ranking 137th in the league through Nov. 20, but players like Marvin Williams, Kent Bazemore and Terence Davis, who share that ranking, are far from slouches on the perimeter. Roughly a half-dozen attempts and a success rate over 40 percent is likely more than the Pelicans bargained for right out of the gate. This must mean he’s finally starting to make that star turn, right?

Not so fast, Eager McBeaver.

His per-game slashline of 25.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4 assists and his 52.2/44.4/74.1 shooting splits are unquestionably aesthetically pleasing. But even if the improvement he’s shown thus far proves to be the real deal beyond this season’s 10-game sample, some advanced metrics remain unconvinced that his overall production is all that valuable. According to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, Ingram has been worth just .2 wins above replacement so far, which is the seventh-best mark by a Pelicans player despite Ingram having played the fourth-most minutes on the team. Over the course of a full season, that would equate to roughly 1.6 wins above replacement, which is estimated to be worth about $7 million against the cap.

At this point, you’re probably expecting a spiel about how Ingram’s defensive contributions, or lack thereof, are dragging down his overall value. While that is true, and one will certainly come in due time, his relatively weak offensive measurements (compared to his impressive raw numbers) are in more urgent need of exploring.

Ingram has contributed 1.3 points per 100 offensive possessions according to RAPTOR, which is third behind Frank Jackson (1.4) and E’Twaun Moore (1.7), who have combined for 20.5 points per game. How can this be? In addition to accounting for traditional box score stats, RAPTOR also considers other measurements that have never had a home in a newspaper, like the number of field goals that have been assisted, time of possession and how much space is being created, as well as, to a slightly lesser degree, how both a player’s individual teammates and their team as a whole perform with them off of the court compared to them being on it.

Each of Ingram’s 24 made 3s this season has come off of an assist, with Jrue Holiday alone accounting for a third of that total, per PBP Stats. That 49 of his 54 long-ranged attempts are of the catch-and-shoot variety makes clear that he and the Pelicans have consciously employed this strategy to get his shot going, which is not an inherently bad one, especially given the early returns. It is the shots he’s taking inside the arc that continue to cripple his efficiency.

A career-high 29.7 percent of Ingram’s total field goal attempts have been of the 3-point variety this season per Basketball Reference, up from 12.9 percent last year, but 9.3 of those 16.8 additional percentage points came at the expense of his shots at the rim, which currently accounts for 24.7 percent of his shots as opposed to 34 percent last year. Not helping matters is the fact that he’s only shooting 62.2 percent at the rim compared to his career average of 65.6 percent. The boost in 3-point rate is a net positive in terms of shot selection, but it would have been an even more pronounced one had more of those points come from between three feet and the 3-point line, where Ingram is still taking nearly half of his shots (45.6 percent). Slight decreases from mid-range are steps in the right direction, but without more drastic ones, an increase in 3-point proficiency can only amount to so much added value.

RAPTOR deems Ingram’s offense to be good but not great and his defense to be below average. His defensive rebound, block and steal rates have slightly bested his career averages by 7.6, 0.9 percent and 0.3 percentage points respectively, which is better than no improvement, of course, but it’s not enough to flip him into positive territory.

It is worth noting that two of the three lineups Ingram has taken the floor with most frequently have, due to injury, featured Ingram as the de facto power forward, a role that seemed to match neither his physicality nor his style. Now that Kenrich Williams has been inserted into the starting lineup, Ingram will likely be on a leveler defensive playing field for the near future and could stand to see a slight increase in effectiveness. However, these circumstances do not excuse some of his statistics from scrutiny.

His length has often been identified as an asset on this end of the floor, but between his apparent inability to use it to consistently contest shots and force turnovers severely limits his potential to produce in any meaningful way on that end of the floor.

Ingram’s box scores this season have provided some much-needed flash to what has been, until very recently, an abysmal start to the Pelicans season. Watching him put up these numbers can be just as thrilling as checking the stats afterward thanks to his distinct style and a clear sense of who he is and what he can do as a basketball player. It may be premature to claim that he’s “breaking out” at this point in time, but even at 22 years old after all, he’s shown signs of legitimate improvement. More progress will be needed in certain areas beyond the box score to warrant actually kick-starting the star turn conversation, but depending on how the rest of this season plays out, that may be sooner rather than later.

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