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Brandon Ingram’s breakout season is one less important question about New Orleans Pelicans future

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If the 2019-20 regular season is prematurely finished, there remain some key questions to be answered. Ingram isn’t one of them.

Minnesota Timberwolves v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans are fast approaching a season that concludes with several areas of unfinished business. If the rumors are accurate as The Bird Writes’ own Preston Ellis recently laid out, New Orleans will be left out of appearing in meaningful basketball games even if the season were to resume, leaving us to contemplate various hypotheticals with less data. This isn’t to say that road would leave the Pelicans in some perilous situation, far from it actually, because key building blocks exist; only the path remains a little more murky than it would have been without a suspension in play.

So with that being said, we’re going to start a series that delves into what New Orleans established during the 2019-2020 season as it stands today and what remains to be determined when glancing down the road.

Established: Brandon Ingram is closing in on being considered a potential future superstar

Miami Heat v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

When Brandon Ingram arrived in New Orleans, speculation followed the former number two overall pick’s future into the 2019-2020 season. While immensely talented, injuries, inconsistency in roles in Los Angeles, and overall comfort surely impacted Ingram’s first trio of seasons in the NBA. Each season, however, Ingram would provide a stretch of basketball showing the potential tied to his draft selection, with a late winter run during the 2018-19 season serving the brightest of them all.

The 2019-20 campaign presented Ingram a fresh beginning, a return to health, and a chance to shine. Playing in a new offensive system revolving around pace and trust without a central focal point, along with a few minor shooting tweaks individually, quickly put Ingram in special company that some always believed was his destiny.

The raw stat line of 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists is most impressive, but it’s hard to mention Ingram’s fourth-year emergence without talking about the improvement in his long distance shooting. It’s not very often players make the list of leaps Ingram has in one season’s turn.

When considering Ingram’s blood clot scare and recovery wiped out most of this past offseason to work on his game, his production looks even more remarkable. Volume and consistency were two of the biggest elements standing in his way before arriving in New Orleans. In a January published article for CBS Sports, Sam Quinn said the following about Ingram:

Brandon Ingram was always a shooter. He just didn’t shoot as often (only two 3-point attempts per game as a Laker) or as effectively (32.9 percent from behind the arc in that time) as the basketball world expected when he was picked No. 2 overall in 2016. Once compared to Kevin Durant, Ingram struggled to fit alongside the ball-dominant LeBron James without a consistent jumper. That eventually pushed him into the “if only he could shoot” camp.

Ingram is no longer a member of that camp because the results are undeniable. A career 32.9% three-point shooter on the Lakers has knocked down the deep ball at a 38.7% clip with the Pelicans. In addition, he’s more than tripled his number of attempts, going from 2.0 per game in L.A. to 6.3 in New Orleans. The excuses about his range are no longer valid, and lets acknowledge that he was voted into his first All-Star game just a few months back.

Ingram, along with his teammates, worked through chemistry and familiarity imbalance as the Pelicans proceeded to slowly round into top form. He took his lumps when needed, called himself out to media postgame scrums but never pointed a finger at anyone else. When heaped with praise and career achievements, Ingram humbly gave the glory to God and credit to the rest of the locker room.

That’s what superstars very often do.

At a tender 22 years of age, Ingram is surrounded by incredible talent as well as franchise assets, and exhibits a strong work ethic — the necessary ingredients for potential greatness are wrapped around his waist. Quite frankly, players with his height, length, and skill set do not come around very often, but understand that all of this still doesn’t guarantee superstardom.

There’s work to be done defensively and physical maturation must take place for B.I. to continue his climb up into the NBA’s upper echelon. It’s also likely that road will require winning a playoff series or two soon, or some regular season awards in his early prime. However, one thing is abundantly clear from where we stand today: Ingram doesn’t need help with directions anymore. Every team with serious championship aspirations needs a couple of studs on their roster, and Ingram is well more than halfway there of securing one of those coveted spots.

Not established: Who makes for the best choice in the long-term to share the frontcourt with Zion Williamson?

NBA: JAN 26 Celtics at Pelicans Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In today’s small ball era, premiums are placed on shooting and space. Flexibility is accepted in ways size used to be. Players that may have been utility players in past eras are now leading minute getters on championship contenders. So what does that mean for the future of Zion Williamson in regards to who plays next to him?

Well part of that question was seemingly answered over nearly a three-month span as Derrick Favors saved the Pelicans season. Preston Ellis also wrote about Favorscape worthy exploits recently, one that the man himself saluted. (Check it out if you haven’t already!)

After a horrid 6-22 start in which the Pelicans were left with more questions than answers, Favors’ return spurred a 22-14 run that vaulted New Orleans right back into the thick of the playoff race with 18 games to play and the league’s easiest schedule remaining.

During the marked improvement in play, the Pelicans were most effective with Favors on the court as evidenced by a +9.9 net-rating, which qualified as ninth in the NBA. He ranked in the 92nd percentile on the season with a plus 9.2 per 100 possessions.

It’s not easy to find low maintenance players who possess the type of impact Favors provides defensively, intellectually, and on the boards. Sure, you’ll find similar players around the NBA, but how many are on troublesome contracts? How many lack the focus to stick to their role more consistently?

It may not be sexy, but when you consider the offensive sacrifices that Favors has made in New Orleans (his lowest field goal attempts per game since the 2015-16 season) alongside his production, the Pelicans have gotten their money’s worth.

Unfortunately, the one weakness Favors presents is important: a lack of shooting which can clog up driving lanes for a penetrating Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball. When you combine that with the miles of wear and tear, it’s difficult to imagine Favors as more than a short-term fix.

That brings us to Nicolo Melli, the 29-year-old rookie reserve forward from Italy. While streaky, Melli is the only big man the Pelicans have who is capable of stretching the floor respectably.

After a shaky start, Melli shot a putrid 19% from deep and 29% from the field overall in December. Nicolo had never been known for his athleticism or defensive ability, but everything feels worse when the jumper isn’t falling for a shooter.

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Some had given up on the rookie, but New Orleans openly mentioned as an organization that Melli would have a role in the rotation, especially once the injured (at the time) Williamson returned.

Slowly but surely — even before the return of Zion, Melli showed improvements in confidence and health, finishing the month of January shooting over 50 percent both from the field and behind the arc. Melli followed that up with another fine month in February, playing a season high in minutes and compiling his best efforts scoring (10.2 PTS), rebounding (5.0 REB), and defensively.

The start of March saw ice-cold shooting return for Melli, but the sample size of he and Zion together advocates a nice future.

Finally, we get to the wildcard: Jaxson Hayes, the ultra athletic, energizing bunny who the Pelicans envision next to Williamson years down the line. Hayes possesses a spring that rivals most beds, length and rim protection that brings early Tyson Chandler comparisons.

Most bigs of Hayes’ size and youth struggle with similar elements on the basketball floor including fundamentals, anticipation, physical strength and fouls. It’s a common area of improvement among gravity-defying centers whose athletic gifts almost immediately grant minutes on a number of basketball rosters.

Tyson Chandler shoots over Pat Garrity

If you compare the rookie numbers of Hayes and Chandler, their individual stats stats sit in close in proximity. What stands out to me are the rebounding numbers and fouls per game, but also take note of Hayes’ vastly superior shooting numbers. As Chandler’s career unfolded, he got stronger and learned the intricacies of the game which paved the way his improved standing in the league.

So what’s the problem if Hayes becomes only the next Tyson Chandler? A player who later became an essential part of several great playoff defensive teams, became a champion, and won the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year Award?

Miami Heat v New York Knicks - Game Three Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The main issue is, Chandler was so proficient as a rim runner and volleyball style offensive rebounder, there was never a need for him to develop an outside jumper. The game also hadn’t evolved from a space and shooting perspective as it did shortly after Chandler’s prime. Things are different in the league today though, so if Williamson doesn’t unearth greater proficiency from the outside, a Zion-Jaxson pairing in the starting lineup will not be the most ideal situation.

Now let’s get to some good news. Hayes’ jump-shot mechanics show a guy who can eventually develop with some work and time spent — yes Fred Vinson, we’re talking to you. Hayes’ former college coach Shaka Smart thinks it’s only a matter of time. NBA.com’s Chris Dortch in a 2019 article about Hayes quoted Smart as saying:

“As far as his game, he’s going to be able to make jumpers. He’s going to put the ball on the floor. The way the NBA’s going, he’ll probably eventually shoot 3’s. The kid’s just a puppy. Who knows what he’s capable of doing?”

A seasoned Jaxson Hayes with enough long range shooting ability sounds like a nightmare and the perfect match in today’s NBA. But we aren’t there yet, and likely won’t be for some time. Remember, this season was to be of the redshirt variety for Hayes — Griffin and the rest of the Pelicans knew Jaxson required a ton of developmental time.

So who fits best? A highly intelligent, unselfish, defensive glass cleaner? A floor spacing stretch four/five? Or an athletic shot-blocking interior finisher brimming with potential? The temporary placeholder should be Derrick Favors, but the long-term answer is probably some mixture of all three, and complicated if allowances need to be made. Either way, the solution isn’t obvious yet so it will need to be solved going forward.