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Brandon Ingram is turning potential into production for the Pelicans

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The former Laker is starring for the Pelicans without Zion Williamson.

Brandon Ingram attempts a jump shot for the Pelicans.
Brandon Ingram is taking his game to new heights in 2019-2020.

Can Brandon Ingram become an NBA superstar? It’s the question the New Orleans Pelicans had to ask themselves before succumbing to the pressure to deal Anthony Davis over the summer. And it’s one the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t figure out after drafting him No. 2 overall.

For his first few seasons, fans could talk themselves into Brandon Ingram, top NBA prospect. He’s skinny, but look at that wingspan! That shooting form isn’t pretty, but look at the threes he hit at Duke. He doesn’t have an alpha mentality, but he kinda looks like Kevin Durant, right? But three seasons in, he never looked the part of a star like draftmate Ben Simmons.

The 2019-20 season has been a different story for BI so far. Three games in, he’s flipping his label from top prospect to top player. He peaked on Saturday night when the Pels lost a close game to the title-contending Houston Rockets. Tying a career-high with 35 points on 14-of-22 shooting, he was the best player on a court that included two MVPs in James Harden and Russell Westbrook. He had 15 rebounds and five assists to three turnovers, too.

It’s an extremely small sample, but Ingram’s averaging 27 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 53 percent shooting from the field and from distance. He looks no different. He’s still just 22 years old and rail-thin. But he’s finally learning to use the tools that made him a great college basketball player four years ago.

Ingram’s finding ways to overcome his slender body

As a 6’9 forward with a 7’3 wingspan, there aren’t many like Ingram. That comes with a downside. He’s damn skinny. He gets comps to Jack Skellington, and they’re fair. He weighs all of 190 pounds (that’s maybe 10 more pounds than an in-his-prime Steve Nash), and as a Laker, he’d get knocked around the paint and stripped on his way to the bucket.

This isn’t a story of a small player hitting the weight room excessively, though. Instead, he’s flexing his brain muscles. He’s been smarter with how he uses what he does have. Ingram’s dribble are tighter to his frame and less likely to be poked free. And he’s keeping the ball up and away, making full use of the extension his wingspan allows.

As Ingram drives from the top of the arc, he uses his steps to keep the ball out rather than up. His reach makes it hard for any defender to tap the ball out of his hands, and if they do, they’re likely to foul him in the act. Then he’s able to see over the top and either shoot a runner or pass out to a shooter.

Maybe he’ll never out-physical his way through the lane like LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo. But he can score in ways that are effective for Brandon Ingram.

Ingram is shooting well, too

Shooting was always the biggest question mark for Ingram’s career. He’s a below-average shooter from the free throw line and has woeful tendencies to post up and heave contested mid-range shots a la Kawhi Leonard, but to much worse results. Last year, more than one-third of Ingram’s shot attempts came between the 10-foot mark and a step inside the three-point line. He shot just 39 percent from 10-16 feet away from the hoop and 44 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line.

The tl;dr: Ingram’s shot selection was brutal and his talents weren’t enough to justify the looks he was taking.

In New Orleans, Ingram’s comfortably operating his own offense. He’s still taking shots he shouldn’t, but much less of them. And finally, he’s moving to the three-point line. In three games, he’s taken 19 and made 10 of them. In the entire 2018-19 season he took 94 and made 31.

The more frequently Ingram shoots from the outside, the more the defense has to honor him. And the further stretched out the defense becomes, the easier it’ll be for him to use his incredible size to get to the hoop.

What about Ingram’s fit with Zion?

The more time Ingram has to find his way through NBA defenses, the better for his personal development. But what about his team’s?

The Pelicans have puzzle pieces. Ingram and Lonzo Ball are major ones on tight deadlines as each are set to become restricted free agents. The main question for Ingram will be his fit next to Zion Williamson.

Zion’s the key to making New Orleans special. He’ll demand more touches as the heir to Anthony Davis’s throne. Will Ingram help him get there? After not signing an extension at the deadline, is Ingram even in the Pelicans’ long-term plans?

It’s too soon to say. He’s a better passer, but not a great one. He’s an improving shooter, but still doesn’t stretch defenses out to the arc. He’ll need to shoot consistently to help keep the lane open for himself, and for Zion, who also isn’t great from range. Ingram needs to keep his current level of play up for the two months it takes Zion to recover from his meniscus surgery.

In the meantime, with Williamson out, Ingram launching into stardom is the next-best thing New Orleans could hope for. He’s finally outgrowing his label of top prospect and becoming a top player in the league.