On Oct. 21, 2019, a 48-word New Orleans Pelicans press release put a mammoth damper on the beginning of the new NBA season. Zion Williamson, the rookie sensation that looked even more exciting than advertised in preseason, would miss 6-8 weeks after knee surgery. Nobody with a pulse was happy with this development.
But as the old adage goes, one man’s misfortune is often another’s gain. Without Williamson, something beautiful has happened: Brandon Ingram is becoming the star he was supposed to be when he entered the league in 2016.
With Williamson out of the lineup, Ingram’s slid up a position to power forward and gobbled up the lion’s share of Williamson’s usage. The results have been spectacular, at least from Ingram’s perspective. He’s averaging more than 25 points, nearly seven rebounds, and almost four assists per game, all while dramatically upping his usage and scoring efficiency. He’s become a reliable No. 1 scorer in crunch time and is playing with a freedom and confidence he’s never displayed.
Ingram’s emergence is coming at the perfect time, considering his scary past — a blood clot in his shoulder threatened to ruin his career last year — and his lucrative future as the headline restricted free agent of next year’s weak class. Without Williamson’s injury, it’s hard to imagine this happening. Zion’s absence isn’t the only factor in Ingram’s rise, but it sure provided the platform, floor spacing, and featured role Ingram needed to maximize his game.
Williamson’s return is on the horizon, so can Ingram still be his best self when they share the court? The answer has significant implications for the Pelicans and Ingram’s own career arc.
The reality is the current on-court conditions with the Pelicans are built for Ingram to thrive. Without Williamson, coach Alvin Gentry has leaned even further into his high-tempo ethos. Sixty-eight percent of Ingram’s minutes have been at power forward this year, compared to just 18 percent last year with the Lakers. That setup is uniquely built to maximize Ingram’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses. Ingram’s offensive skill, off-the-dribble power, and shaky spot-up shooting (at least before this year) meant he needed to play with the ball in his hands. Give him time and space to build up speed, and he’s always been able to use his core strength, long arms, and point guard-like shake to thrive.
At the same time, his high center of gravity limited the efficient openings he was able to create for himself and others. Without a spread floor, Ingram-centric possessions often looked like this.
Ingram is at his best when he’s able to attack quickly and decisively without having a lot of bodies in his way. He needs teammates to space the floor so he can get downhill more easily, but also requires others to push the ball to get him a running start. On top of that, he also needed ways to go against bigger defenders that lacked his foot speed, rather than smaller wings that could dig into his legs.
That’s a tough environment to engineer while using Ingram as a more traditional wing, but it has suddenly become easier if he’s slides up a position. Without the injured Williamson, New Orleans’ base look now supplies Ingram with three perimeter players that’d be undersized even for shooting guards, plus a role-playing center to set screens and/or dive to the basket. That’s not a great lineup to use if you want to play passable defense, and the Pelicans unsurprisingly stink on that end.
It is, however, perfect for making a guy like Ingram look better. As a 4, Ingram gets the benefit of playing with ball-handlers like Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball that can initiate the offense, floor-spacers like J.J. Redick, Josh Hart, and E’Twaun Moore that suck help defenders away, and big men like Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes that can lay the wood on Ingram’s primary defender (in Favors’ case) or offer a vertical threat rolling to the rim (in Hayes’).
Those elements combine beautifully in set plays that give Ingram a head start, such as this staggered pick-and-roll.
Or this dribble-handoff sequence — which, by the way, is the exact same one the Pelicans regularly used for Williamson in the preseason.
Pelicans 21 Keep Cut 4
Pitch Action to get Zion downhill. pic.twitter.com/2mkEV2s2NR
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) October 8, 2019
Or in isolation sequences like this. Ingram’s hesitation to get to the cup is devastating, but he needs the space his teammates provide to set it up properly.
They also help when Ingram attacks in transition, something the Pelicans actively seek out whenever possible. On most missed shots, Ingram advances up a wing, either by himself or after a pitch-ahead pass from the rebounder. When there, he sees blood, attacking the retreating defense using the precious running start his game requires. In these moments, he becomes a poor man’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is plenty fearsome in its own right.
Look at how the rest of the Pelicans lurk along the three-point line.
Even if he can’t dunk, Ingram has all the space in the world to flow into New Orleans’ early offense.
The Lakers gave Ingram these opportunities, too, and the Pelicans will even after Williamson returns to the court. But with one less perimeter player to push tempo, run the wings, and/or occupy help defenders along the three-point line, Ingram will have less space to exploit. That means fewer chances to attack and more annoying help defenders nipping at his heels when he does.
Plus, Williamson’s supposedly decent at going coast-to-coast with the ball in his hands, too. The Pelicans might want to explore that skill. Just a thought.
Bottom line: while Williamson’s return is great for the franchise and the NBA, it’ll force Ingram to leave his personal Camelot. Can Williamson and Ingram both live their best lives for the next decade without bumping into each other?
One emphatic reason for optimism is Ingram’s emerging three-point shot, which has been shockingly wet this year after looking ugly in his three Lakers seasons. As of Jan. 7, Ingram is shooting over 40 percent from downtown on nearly six attempts per game, a massive improvement from his 33-percent mark on less than two attempts per contest last year. Incredibly, Ingram is shooting more than 40 percent on above-the-break threes, which puts him in the 87th percentile at his position, according to Cleaning the Glass. I knew Ingram’s jumper was improved and I still did a double take when I saw those numbers.
One must exercise caution when proclaiming a broken jumper fixed based on just half a season of data, but there’s ample evidence that Ingram’s new sharp-shooting is here to stay. He’s nailing off-the-dribble looks when defenders go under ball screens.
He’s splashing wing threes on the move.
He’s even pulling up in defenders’ faces.
His form rising up for his shot has improved dramatically. Notice all the mechanical differences between these two spot-up jumpers from the exact same spot on the left wing. Credit Ingram and the Pelicans’ player development staff for smoothing all those abnormalities out.
If his new jumper is here to stay, he can certainly find ways to score while playing off Williamson. Defenders already open up driving lanes for him by closing out too hard on his shot. He’ll get more chances to make moves like this with Williamson sucking attention away.
Still, I have concerns. Even if Ingram is a more capable spot-up shooter than he was in the past, it’s still a waste of his talent to use him that way. I worry that sliding him down a position will force him to go against more of those quicker defenders that can slide into his low center of gravity.
I also worry about the other end of the floor. Ingram’s body is not built to fight through screens and he’s too easily wedged out of the play as the primary defender on pick-and-rolls and off-ball action. Returning him to the wing will put him in more of those types of actions.
Yet there is one tantalizing possibility that could solve two problems in one: what if Williamson slides up a position so Ingram can stay as a power forward? What if that’s the Pelicans’ frontcourt, traditional center be damned?
Don’t dismiss this idea offhand. As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks noted, Williamson’s skill set could lend itself beautifully to being a small-ball center. He’d be less likely to muck up the Pelicans’ spacing that way on offense, and he did anchor one of the nation’s best defenses at Duke with his combination of speed and length. Meanwhile, Ingram may actually be better off playing more like a big man on defense instead of as a wing. His length could be one hell of an asset on the backside.
An Ingram-Williamson frontcourt with three small guards may not seem like the ideal way to fix New Orleans’ leaky defense, but it can’t get much worse than what it is now, even if Favors’ return has shored things up a bit.
Making Williamson a center to keep Ingram at his best offensive position might be too bold in the short term, but it’s worth considering in the long run. Williamson is the franchise, yet Ingram’s been too brilliant in his absence to scale back his role too much. Embracing small-ball may be the only way to ensure Williamson’s knee surgery remains a blessing in disguise instead of merely a curse.
CLOSEOUT OF THE WEEK
Three-point shooting is essential, yet there’s no good stat that credits defenders for the essential act of preventing a three-pointer from being taken. We must reward these efforts.
Fred VanVleet’s steal at the end of this sequence is nice, but the closeout before it is even more impressive. It’s not humanly possible to be any closer to a shooter without fouling.
REBOUND JOUST OF THE WEEK
Last year, I wrote about the rising trend of teammates fighting each other for defensive rebounds. These moments usually end harmlessly, but occasionally, they can cost a team. Here’s to over-aggression!
This clip is more than a week old, but screw it. Anytime there’s a THREE-MAN REBOUND JOUST, it must be celebrated.