We are seeing another level for Brandon Ingram, and he can still get better

With the New Orleans Pelicans clinging to a 3-point lead with 2.6 seconds left and Brandon Ingram at the free throw line to put the game away with one more shot, he already knew what was about to happen.

He looked to the side and television cameras captured Ingram telling someone, “This one’s over. It’s over. It’s over.”

One more free throw and the game was indeed over, as Ingram iced the 120-116 win over the Toronto Raptors with his 11th free throw make of the night.

The week was also over, putting an end to a wild ride for the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week.

It started with a 28-point, 11-rebound performance on Sunday in a win against the San Antonio Spurs before the Pelicans suffered a disappointing blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns on national television Tuesday.

Ingram followed that up with getting ejected in the third quarter because of an iffy-at-best Flagrant 2 call on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder on New Year Eve Thursday, and then his 31-point effort on Saturday closed things out.

This week — and this season so far — has been a showcase of Ingram’s talent and of how the Pelicans plan to use him.

The Pelicans signed Ingram to a maximum contract extension just before the season started. It’s a five-year deal with no option. The plan going forward is for him to be a franchise cornerstone alongside Zion Williamson.

And while the 20-year-old Williamson has been phenomenal offensively at times, New Orleans is leaning on Ingram early to be the team’s closer.

“I feel very comfortable,” Ingram said of the closing role. “I know my teammates look to me to make plays at the end of the basketball game. It’s on me to deliver.”

The problem so far this season, however, is that Ingram hasn’t been able to deliver in the way he has wanted to. Through Saturday’s games, Ingram is 6-of-21 (28.6%) in the fourth quarter and he’s yet to make a fourth-quarter 3-pointer on six attempts. He’s 8-of-11 from the line and that’s mostly due to his 7-of-9 shooting on Saturday.

Among 70 players with at least 15 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, his shooting percentage is tied for 68th.

How does that compare to Ingram in the first three quarters? Before the fourth quarter, Ingram is shooting 51.2% overall and 50.0% (16-of-32) on 3-pointers.

Of his 21 fourth-quarter field goal attempts this season, 19 have been jumpers. Of those 19 jumpers, 18 have been contested according to data collected by Second Spectrum. He’s forcing himself into these shots as he tries to be the leader, and slowly but surely, the Pelicans are looking to him as such.

“Brandon has been playing great overall,” Williamson said. “He always steps up for us. When we need him, he’s there for us.”

Just a season ago, Ingram shot 46% overall and 41% from deep in the fourth quarter. He averaged 5.8 points in the final 12 minutes, second on the team to only trailing Williamson’s 6.5 average (and he played in only 24 games).

For the leap he made last season, Ingram was named the league’s Most Improved Player. For some, it was a jump that Ingram had been expected to make ever since he was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers.

But injuries and inconsistent play, and a year in which trade rumors swirled around him in Los Angeles, never allowed Ingram to start to fully tap into his potential until he reached New Orleans.

Now, he’s started to take another leap. Overall, his scoring, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, rebounds and assists per game are all up from a season ago. His fouling is down. His turnovers are down. And he’s doing it all going from a team that played the fourth-fastest pace in the league last season to the third-slowest in the early part of this young season:

BI continues to improve

2018-19 | 2019-20 | 2020-21
FTA/game: 5.6 | 5.9 | 6.7
Rebounds/game: 5.1 | 6.1 | 6.8
Assists/game: 3.0 | 4.2 | 5.3
Personal fouls/game: 2.9 | 2.9 | 1.2
3%: 33.0 | 39.1 | 42.1
— > Traded from Los Angeles to New Orleans in June 2019

Ingram is still taking the steps needed to become that franchise cornerstone the Pelicans envision him being alongside Williamson.

“I know it’s early,” Bledsoe said of Ingram’s ability to close out the game, “but all I can say is MVP.”

Bledsoe and the 750 or so fans in attendance at the Smoothie King Center on Saturday who started some MVP chants late in the game might have those aspirations for Ingram. Right now, Ingram is just trying to get better.

“I have to hold myself to a high standard,” Ingram said. “I have to make the right plays at the end of the game, still play loose but just knowing that taking care of the basketball and knowing the right shot to take and making plays down the stretch, it means if they put trust in me like that, I have to trust myself to make those plays.”

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