25-under-25, New Orleans Pelicans

25-under-25: Brandon Ingram at No. 14

Brandon Ingram’s game has worked well with the New Orleans Pelicans, an environment that makes the most of who he is.

The thing about Brandon Ingram is that I feel the vague connection us peons feel with famous people who grew up in areas we know really well. My parents retired quite a few years ago to a sleepy Eastern Carolina town about half an hour from where he grew up. There may some miles of highway that separate them, but they are both small, slow-moving towns where the bait shops neighbor boutiques, and the down-home feel of it is much more akin to the LA in NOLA than the one in Los Angeles.

That’s why it was good and bad for Brandon Ingram to be drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. He was in a position to learn the work and dedication it takes from one of most successful to ever do it in Kobe Bryant, but while exuding quiet confidence, LA is a loud kind of place. Shy and unassuming don’t really stand a chance in La La Land, and more than that, it was only a matter of time before the Lakers lived up to their “Showtime” billing, landed a big free agent and took the minutes that Brandon Ingram was thriving in as a primary ball-handler and point forward.

That came to fruition when L.A. got LeBron James, and their games didn’t fit just right when they were on the court together.  Ingram wasn’t the 3-point shooter he is now and definitely wasn’t the typical catch-and-shoot-type player from a stationary position. There was too much overlap of their strengths and not enough space to let them both flow. Such is the case sometimes, and with LeBron’s NBAological clock ticking at rapid flutter and his realization that 35-year-old expectant champions with nine previous Finals berths don’t have time to waste, he and the Lakers put the blitz on Anthony Davis to bring him to Los Angeles.

That meant Brandon Ingram was off to the New Orleans Pelicans, Crescent City and the “Southern hospitality, that’s we I come from” feel he’s most comfortable with. On the court with the room to operate, the ball upon which to score or facilitate with a 28 percent usage rate (up five points from his best with the Lakers) and the showcase for all the work he was putting in, Ingram has blossomed into an All-Star.

How did Brandon Ingram break out with the New Orleans Pelicans?

Though Ingram was playing the same amount of minutes with the Pelicans as his previous two seasons with the Lakers, he averaged 6.6 more points, 1.0 more rebounds and 1.2 more assists per game. The biggest difference seemed to be the confidence he has in his new stroke through work on his mechanics and straightening his feet toward the basket. Although down from 2018-19 in overall field-goal percentage, Brandon Ingram shot 18 points better from the stripe at 85 percent and had never averaged more than 2.4 3-point attempts while making that same amount last season on 39 percent shooting. He took and hit more 3s and freebies, which explained his dramatic points vs. minutes increase with the Pelicans.

Brandon Ingram had single-game career highs in almost every major statistical category last season, but most of all, he looked like he was finally comfortable with his role as a member of the Pelicans. Despite the numbers telling us this, the increased frequency of his smiles and laughter may have been an even better indicator of that truth.

For their part, the Pelicans are trying to go all-in on a winner with Ingram and fellow 25-under-25 list mate, Zion Williamson, as the centerpieces. That’s what Ingram is about. He wants to win and doesn’t necessarily seem to enjoy the extra benefits of money and fame as much as some other NBA stars do. It was said of Ingram in LA that you could only find him at the gym or his house. He also noted that he was able to get in work “…all the time…” during the COVID-19 hiatus and that “If I’m not asleep, it’s probably all basketball.”

Brandon Ingram would rather work on his craft to get better, and that will serve him well if he wants to continue rising up the ranks of the NBA’s young stars. In interviews, he always brings up work, effort and accountability, and though he is not a vocal leader, he has mentioned he will try to “get out of his comfort zone” a bit more next season. With the financial commitment the New Orleans Pelicans invested in him, Brandon Ingram will be looked at as the leader no matter what, and he seems to recognize this new responsibility.

Brandon Ingram also needs to put the same commitment on the defensive end as on offense, especially being a leader through example, and the recent moves, including the hire of new coach Stan Van Gundy, signify New Orleans’ lean in that area. Van Gundy has coached a top-10 defensive unit in nine of his 12 seasons, and all signs point to their need to improve to complement their superior offensive capabilities.

That’s also the dilemma for Brandon Ingram personally. It finally seems like he is ready to back up those early comparisons to Kevin Durant in more than just body-type. He has worked meticulously to get there though, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to progress in the weaker spots of his game. Case in point: He shot 42 percent on 300 catch-and-shoot 3s with the New Orleans Pelicans while only making 31.5 percent of 89 attempts the season before.

He has the will to be great and the drive to put in the hours necessary to get there with the full realization of the places he needs to improve in. With the newfound trust of a coach and organization believing he can be a centerpiece of a championship contender for years to come, Brandon Ingram has every reason to keep working for it, and from all indications, we know he will.

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