25-under-25: Brandon Ingram at No. 10

25-under-25, New Orleans Pelicans

 

Brandon Ingram is just five years into his NBA career but once again finds himself in the unfortunate position of being defined by his relationship to others.

Brandon Ingram has established a healthy NBA resume. He’s averaged 23.8 points per game for two consecutive seasons. He’s made an All-Star team and won Most Improved Player. He’s played more than 300 NBA games and scored nearly 6,000 career points. He’s played enough basketball and produced enough to be judged entirely on his own merits. And yet, he seems to be in a perpetual state of definition by comparison.

He did enough in his lone season at Duke to make himself the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but he was the second-leading scorer on that team — outscored and overshadowed by the game and chaos of Grayson Allen. Throughout the pre-draft process, his 6-foot-9, 190-pound frame and smooth jumper drew comparisons to Kevin Durant, a pairing that would almost inevitably frame him as a disappointment.

Ingram struggled as a rookie, averaging just 9.4 points per game and shooting under 30 percent from the free-throw line. He improved, somewhat steadily, but by his third season LeBron James had arrived and what mattered most about Ingram was what he was not. He was not an experienced All-Star ready to help LeBron compete for a title. He was not an elite spot-up shooter to help space the floor around him. And, most importantly, he was not Anthony Davis.

Ingram was theoretically the centerpiece of the deal that brought Davis to Los Angeles but he arrived to the New Orleans Pelicans at the same time as Zion Williamson. He won Most Improved Player in Zion’s injury-shortened rookie season but even that accomplishment was overshadowed by Zion’s 24 games. And now, with an apparent rift growing between Zion and the Pelicans’ front office, Ingram is 24 years old and defined mostly by his potential to fit with another superstar teammate, to keep him happy.

Can Brandon Ingram make himself an indispensable part of the New Orleans Pelicans?

Put in a vacuum, what Ingram did last season was incredibly impressive — 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game on a 58.4 true shooting percentage. He ranked in the 76th percentile in scoring efficiency in the pick-and-roll. He’s become an elite catch-and-shoot threat from beyond the arc. He’s even developed on defense to the point of being a net positive, if not elite defender.

But he also played more than 60 percent of his minutes next to Zion. The Pelicans outscored opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, a somewhat discouraging mark for minutes with the team’s two best players on the floor. Replicated across next season, that probably wouldn’t be enough to get the Pelicans into the playoffs unless they were winning the rest of their minutes by a considerably larger margin.

Brandon Ingram is not Kevin Durant, but he is legitimately good and, at this point, he might actually go No. 1 if the 2016 NBA Draft were done over. He can create his own shot and score efficiently, hold up on the defensive end of the floor and bend a defense with his gravity off the ball. He can facilitate and create for others, logging more assists than Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward or Goran Dragic over the past three seasons.

But, again, he is in the fortunate position of finding those facts largely irrelevant. Is he good enough to help the Pelicans overcome their other limitations and make a playoff run? Is he good enough to convince Zion Williamson that pairing together for the long term is the best thing for his career? Those are the only things that really matter this season and they are all collective outcomes. As an individual, one-of-five, he only has so much control over how they work out and how the ramifications shape his future.

Maybe things go south and he’s shopped at the trade deadline in a quest to keep Zion happy. Maybe Zion’s foot doesn’t heal right or he forces the Pelicans hand in the other direction and Ingram gets a chance to take over primacy. Or maybe it all works as intended, he and Zion build their chemistry and the Pelicans actually make a move in the direction they want to go. And maybe then we can get a chance to appreciate Brandon Ingram just for what he is instead of wringing our hands over what he is not.

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