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The Pelicans are going where Brandon Ingram takes them

Brandon Ingram is playing the best basketball of his career, period. Can he help the Pelicans lock in a playoff spot and push into the post-season?

uring the third quarter of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 107-88 win over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night, Brandon Ingram caught the ball on the left wing, faked a three to blow by a jumping Aaron Gordon, moved toward the basket with just a few loping strides, faked another shot and then eurostepped around an advancing Thomas Bryant for the crafty one-handed finish.

It’s not one of his classic pull-up middies, nor one of his flashiest dunks or his most clutch bucket. But it’s emblematic of a player who defences have to respect as a complete offensive weapon: a three-level scorer, a finisher with strength and finesse, and a sophisticated playmaker who can power a whole offence.

Over the last eight games, Brandon Ingram is averaging 30/6/9 on 53/45/93 shooting splits, going 7-1 over that stretch to drag his Pelicans through the muck and the mire of the Western Conference play-in race from 12th to seventh, just half a game behind a guaranteed playoff spot. In that time he has the league’s third-highest plus/minus with plus-13.9.

During this run, he’s had his first and second career triple doubles, which both happened to be 30-point-one-turnover triple doubles. Now I don’t want to sound too much like [redacted basketball entertainment news organisation] but the only player to have more games like this since turnovers started being counted by the league in 1977 is Nikola Jokic (Ingram is tied for second place with a bevy of former and current superstars, plus Dejounte Murray).

If you’ve been watching Pelicans games recently, this is all entirely unsurprising. BI’s efficiency and stinginess with the rock have been unparalleled.

The league has known for a while how unstoppable his midrange shot is, using his dribble and footwork to make a modicum of space and rise above any defender in the league. But over this stretch his shot-making and finishing have become even more varied and creative: one-legged turnarounds, fading push shots, acrobatic finger rolls.

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Watch this make against Denver:

BI drives to the basket against Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, one of the league’s premiere perimeter defenders. Unable to push all the way past him, Ingram gathers for a eurostep almost at the free throw line, then rises up on one foot, eight feet from the basket, and makes the shot like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

Ingram has always had the tools to be a great playmaker – solid passer, high IQ and both patience and decisiveness with the rock – but with Zion Williamson out he once again has the full keys to the offence, with CJ McCollum taking perhaps his most supplementary role since his trade to New Orleans.

His jump in assists could as much be attributed to chemistry as individual improvement, with Ingram much more intuitively finding the team’s shooters on the perimeter out of the drive. Of Trey Murphy III’s franchise record 60 three-pointers made in March (which is crazy because me and my homies were just talking about who holds the Pelicans franchise record for most three-pointers in a month), Ingram assisted on 16 of them.

His ability to get the ball to a teammate out of the double team (unlike some MVP candidates) has been incredible, which is surely the sign of a superstar-in-waiting. Against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, Ingram threw several jaw-dropping crosscourt passes out of the double in the fourth quarter, including this phenomenal hockey assist:

(It’s also worth congratulating Trey Murphy on the fantastic touch pass here. I could write a whole article on the guy.)

To say the best of play of Ingram’s career has come at the right time for the Pelicans is an understatement. They’ve successfully pushed from below the Play-In to the eighth seed and half a game behind a guaranteed playoff spot, and their last four games of the season come against above .500 teams all fighting for good playoff seeding.

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Those last four games, that a few weeks ago looked like a death sentence, now feel very winnable. Ingram doesn’t bear sole responsibility for this – role players like Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III are playing out of their skin and the Pels have the best defensive rating since the All-Star break – but any chance of breaking out of the play-in over the last stretch does rest with Ingram keeping his hot streak going.

And what then? Is there a winnable playoff series on the table? Ingram has already been dealing with playoff defence over the stretch (see 36 points and eight assists on Kawhi Leonard and constant doubles from the Clippers in the fourth) and we saw him perform to some extent in the first-round series against the Phoenix Suns last season.

It might just not be New Orleans’ year for victory against Denver or Memphis, but Willie Green should be confident Ingram would perform against the Sacramento Kings’ defence and even hopeful his defensive lieutenants could limit the Kings’ red-hot offence.

And what if Zion Williamson is fit to play? Do the coaching staff risk disrupting Ingram’s success with the ball to get the big man some much needed playoff experience? Or is it better to let this Ingram-led Pelicans team roll on and try again next year? I don’t have an answer to this one here, but the reader needn’t be reminded of how good Zion looked when healthy this season.

There’s a bit of Jimmy Butler developing about Brandon Ingram’s career: he often starts the season slow, struggles with a couple of injuries and then gets hot during the pointy end of the season and carries it over into the playoffs. He’s got the tough shot-making, on-court leadership and unflappable attitude in the face of a deficit to match.

If he can have even a fraction of Butler’s post-season success, we’ll have a happy flock of fans at the Smoothie King Center for years to come.

Written by
Marco Holden Jeffery

Marco is one half of The JVG NBA Tribute Show, a weekly NBA podcast that can be found wherever you get your podcasts. He's also a very welcome guest on The Deep Two NBA Podcast's Four-man Weave + Marco segment, adding another well-needed dash of cautious optimism.

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