Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram and sustainable efficiency

Brandon Ingram is on fire in his first season as a Pelican. His high level numbers have him 9th in scoring at 26.1 points per game. All of his shooting numbers are up. He is hitting 50.6 percent from the field overall, 52.6 percent from two, and 45.9 percent from distance. His advanced shooting numbers look fantastic: 57.5 eFG percent and 60.9 true shooting percent. As you may suspect, all of these numbers are up, significantly, from his career averages.

FG% 2P% 3P% eFG% TS%
Career Avg. 46.3% 48.9% 35.0% 49.6% 53.2%
2019-2020 50.6% 52.6% 45.9% 57.5% 60.9%
In his fourth season, Ingram looks like the second pick of the draft. This is not the first good stretch of his career; however, it is his best start to a season, and given the change in uniform the hot start narrative writes itself. But is there substance behind the narrative? Is what Ingram doing sustainable, has he turned a corner in his development, or is it merely a good stretch?

Unsustainable

Looking through Ingram’s data, a lot jumps out as unsustainable. As outlined above, Ingram is nearly 12 percentage points above his career three-point average. While it’s possible he has improved this area of his game, there’s more warning signs this is just a flash in the pan.

The volume alone to this point should lead any rational actor to be skeptical this three-point marksmanship will continue. Ingram’s 45.9 percent from three is coming on 74 attempts. On his 386 attempts prior to this season, Ingram shot 32.9 percent from distance. Ingram did shoot 41 percent from three in college on 195 attempts, but let’s keep in mind two things. First, as we all know, the college line is closer. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Ingram’s free throw percentage has stayed consistent over his past five seasons of basketball. He shot 68.2 percent from the line at Duke, and is at 67.2 percent for his NBA career. A player’s college free throw percentage has proven to be a better indicator of NBA three-point accuracy than college three-point accuracy.

His uptick at the line this season is an incredible example of sample sample size. Last year, Ingram shot 67.5 percent from the line on 5.6 attempts per game, making 3.8 of them. This year he is taking 5.5 free throw attempts per game. However, his percentage is up nearly 10 points, to 77.5 percent. Odds are, over a larger sample, Ingram will regress towards his norm, but this is a real improvement.

Of course, none of this is ground breaking. The best bet is over time any player will revert back towards their average. That’s why it’s their average. The point with Ingram is that much of this is potentially unsustainable.

Let’s examine his increase in two point percentage. So far this season, Ingram has decreased the amount of shots he is taking at the rim. 23.5 percent of his shots are coming within three feet of the basket this year, which is substantially less than his career mark of 32.2 percent. In concert with the decrease in attempts, his field goal percentage at the rim is down as well. The drop from 65.6 percent for his career to 62.1 percent this season isn’t enormous, but it helps underscore how bizarre it is that he has a massive spike in field goal percentage from inside the arc.

So what is buoying the uptick? Mid-range shooting.

Ingram is canning 55.8 percent of his shots from 10-16 feet from the basket. For context, mid-range deity Chris Paul has a career shooting mark of 47.6 percent. Paul’s highest mark from that range over a single season is 52.7 percent.

Ingram has simply been scorching from this distance. In fact, his first made basket of the season foreshadowed his hot start.

And Ingram was just straight cooking against the Nets.

Sustainable

Volume is the name of the game for Ingram. His usage will fall when Zion enters the lineup, but until then, Ingram needs to maintain his current levels in certain areas. We touched upon how his shots at the rim have decreased and Ingram is draining mid-rangers. Interestingly enough, he hasn’t traded his shots at the basket for more mid-range shots. No, instead Ingram is firing away from three-point range.

30 percent of Ingram’s shots are coming from long distance this season, up from his 19 percent career average. He has also cut down on the longest twos. 10.5 percent of his shots from coming from 16 feet out to the arc, below his career norm of 16.1 percent. He has increased his shots from floater range, and you’d like to see a bounce back in shots at the rim. Still Ingram needs to continue launching threes at this increased rate.

What’s more, Ingram has been one of the most effective drivers in the league this season. On 12.9 drives per game, he is shooting 50 percent and scoring 8.8 points per game on the play type. He is scoring 68.5 percent of the time on drives. Among those take are driving at least 10 times per game, Ingram ranks 17th in field goal percent and 5th in points percentage.

One simple reason why Ingram should shoot more at the rim is his length. His go-go-gadget arms allow him to evade contests and put the ball out of reach of the nearest defender.

One other career high Ingram is setting right now is his assist rate. Right now it sits at 21.7 percent, up from a career average of 14.1 percent. Ingram has shown mixed results in this area throughout his career. Thrust into more a playmaking role in his second season due to injuries on the roster, he responded with a 7.2 percent spike in his assist rate over his rookie year. The number came back down in 2018-19 in his final season with the Lakers.

His assist rate at Duke is more inline with his professional seasons on the lower end of his spectrum. However, Ingram has shown passing chops during his time in the NBA.

New Orleans’ Ingram decision

The Pelicans got lucky in their ability to transition the focus of the franchise from Anthony Davis to Zion Williamson. Part of why they lost Davis in the first place was a series of short-sighted roster maneuvers that limited the organization’s flexibility.

New Orleans’ best opportunity to surround Zion with a competitive roster will come while Zion is still on his rookie deal. At odds with this window of opportunity is part of the return the Pelicans received for Anthony Davis. More specifically, the contract situations of Ingram and Lonzo Ball.

With New Orleans and Ingram not reaching an extension by the deadline, Ingram will hit restricted free agency this coming summer. It’s hard to imagine the front office letting one of the center pieces of the Davis trade walk after one year in town, especially if Ingram does manage to maintain this level of performance throughout the entire season.

What makes Ingram’s start that much more impressive is when you consider all these increases in efficiency that directly coincide with a huge upswing in usage. Ingram’s usage rate this season is 30.1 percent, up from a career average of 21.1 percent. And still, all of his shooting numbers across the board are up significantly. There is a fair chance Ingram is simply blossoming into the potential he exhibited as the second pick of his draft. It’s not as if he never displayed the tools as a professional either.

Ingram career grades

According to our grades, for his career Ingram has an A- on one on one and finishing (he really should shoot at the rim more). He has a B- or better in 6 of the 7 offensive categories we grade. The 7th, perimeter shooting, is showing signs of life so far this year, though it’s longevity is questionable. If Ingram can be even a high 30’s three-point shooter, the Pelicans really have an offensive weapon on their hands.

But how much is that worth? According to our PIPM projections, Ingram’s value over the next 4-5 seasons projects as follows:

Ingram projected value

The projections would increase should Ingram keep this up all season. In the meantime, his hot 13 game start doesn’t offset his much lower level of performance through his first three years.

These numbers don’t bode well for New Orleans extracting surplus value on Ingram’s next contract. Basketball-Index’s Eric Griffith looked as some extension candidates, one of which was Jaylen Brown. Our PIPM projections put Brown’s value at $119 million over the same five year period as shown above. Brown ended up with a four year deal with up to $115 million with incentives. It guarantees $103 million.

Brown was paid nearly his five year projected value over the course of four seasons. Again, Ingram’s hot start should regress back to average at least somewhat, but his first 9 games blow Brown’s 2018-19 season out of the water. It doesn’t help, for New Orleans cap sheet, that Ingram was drafted ahead of Brown in 2016 on top of the fact you cannot conclude one has been significantly better than the other over the past two seasons.

Given the state of the NBA market, the Pelicans are likely looking at needing to give Ingram at least $100 million over four years. As of now, that would be an overpay of $30.4 million during the life of the contract by our math.

Does New Orleans have the appetite to already lock in the roster around Zion? Do they have the stomach to let Ingram walk as a one year rental from the Davis trade? The treasure trove of picks the team got from Los Angeles will help with future flexibility. However, the front office is already on the clock for how to manage their cap situation while Williamson is as cheap as he will ever be.

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