Coming out of a timeout, the New Orleans Pelicans trailed 121-120 to the Utah Jazz with a little over five seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. After a pick set by Derrick Favors, Brandon Ingram drilled an off-balanced fadeaway jumper over two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, Rudy Gobert, to put the Pelicans ahead by one.
Although an ill-advised foul sent the game into overtime, the Pelicans held on for a 138-132 victory over the Jazz, as Ingram logged a career-high 49 points in the win. He shot 16-for-34 (47%) inside the Smoothie King Center, but more impressively, connected on seven of his 15 shots (46.6%) from behind the arc.
In addition to his scoring, it was an all-round performance for the first-time All-Star (2020) with eight rebounds and six assists, as the Pelicans cooled off the streaking Jazz — a team that came into New Orleans riding a 10 game win streak, including coming away victorious in 15 of their last 16 games.
Ingram’s performance against Utah — his second 40-point game of the season — was a testament to how far the 22-year-old prodigy from Duke has come in his career, and one that should solidify his case as the league’s Most Improved Player in 2020.
This year’s race for MIP is a close one with the likes of Bam Adebayo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Devonte’ Graham. But their season does not compare to the burden nor challenges Ingram faced while helping the Pelicans come within striking distance for the eighth seed of the playoffs in the Western Conference.
In his first season in New Orleans, Ingram scratched the surface of the player that made him the No. 2 overall pick by the Lakers in 2016. He kept the Pelicans afloat as they waited for the return of Zion Williamson, by stepping up as New Orleans’ frontman and living up to his draft-day player comparison of Kevin Durant.
In comparison to the previous season (2019), Ingram increased his scoring margin by six (18.3 ppg), averaging a career-best 24.3 points across 56 games. Although his field goal percentage has taken a slight dip from 2019 (49.7%), Ingram’s minor decline is due to a higher number of shot attempts as the Pelicans’ leading scorer shooting 46.6% from the floor.
After shooting 32.9% through his first three seasons, Ingram’s enhanced 3-point shot has made him nearly unstoppable to defend in the eyes of his contemporaries.
In a 132-126 loss to the Houston Rockets on Oct. 26, Ingram lit up the Toyota Center coming one point shy of his then career-high 35 points (14-22 FG) on the night. It took a triple-double performance from Russell Westbrook for Houston to hold off the Pelicans, but Ingram’s growth caught the eye of Rockets’ head coach, Mike D’Antoni, after shooting 57.1% from deep in the loss.
“He [Brandon Ingram] has improved his 3-point shooting a lot, which makes him a lot more dangerous,” D’Antoni said following the game. “Before, you could play off him a little bit, but he is a scorer and does a great job.”
In the same game, Ingram proved his fourth-year improvements went beyond his scoring, as the lanky forward recorded 15 rebounds and dished five assists in Houston. Coming into his own as an all-around player, Ingram posted nine double-doubles on the year averaging a career-high 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.
Ingram’s most noted improvement in 2020 has been his growth as a free-throw shooter. While in Los Angeles, his ability to knock down shots from the charity stripe was an Achilles heel, as he shot 66.2% from the foul line to begin his career. His lack of confidence as a free throw shooter caused Ingram to be passive when attacking the basket in hopes of avoiding a foul.
This season, Ingram is much more aggressive and looks to draw contact when attacking the basket — now that he has improved his free-throw shooting percentage to 85.9%.
A lot of what Ingram has been able to accomplish this season is what was expected from him for a rebuilding franchise in Los Angeles, but the lack of leadership as a rookie, a life-threatening illness and trade rumors made it nearly unmanageable for Ingram to reach his full potential as a member of the Lakers.
One calendar year later, Ingram has established himself as one of the most promising young players in the league, on the verge of his first significant payday heading into free agency this offseason.
With the remainder of the NBA season in jeopardy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pelicans’ quest for the playoffs will be one of several unanswered questions should the league decide to cancel come June or July. However, despite having 18 games remaining in the regular season, there is enough evidence to crown Ingram the league’s Most Improved Player to add some closure to the 2019-20 season.
(Photo Credit: Barry Gossage- NBAE)
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