The long-awaited Brandon Ingram breakout is here in earnest. So far this season, Ingram is averaging 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.3 assists, while shooting 55.2 percent from the field, 48.6 percent from three, and 74.3 percent from the free-throw line (all career highs). Ingram is not a legitimate 48 percent shooter from three, especially on five attempts a game. The dreaded regression to the mean is coming. Before this season, he had never shot 40 percent, topping out at 39 percent on 1.8 attempts a game in his sophomore season. Even with that in mind, there is reason to believe he’ll shoot better this year. Ingram’s field goal percentage has improved each season he’s been in the league and he entered the NBA with solid form and touch. The Pelicans play at a fast pace. They are currently sixth in the league in pace and increased transition opportunities should lead to more lightly-contested shots. Furthermore, when Zion returns the Pelicans will have yet another ball-handler who commands defensive attention, which could lead to more spot-up opportunities for Ingram.
Ingram looks to be making better decisions on how to attack defenses. In previous seasons he relied far too heavily on slow developing drives to the basket, which often ended in inefficient pull-up midrangers or contested flip shots and floaters. Catch-and-shoots make up 28 percent of his shots this season, up from 16.9 percent last season. Of that 28 percent, 24.8 percent of them are catch-and-shoot threes. Ingram is a ridiculous 54.8 percent (17-for-31) on catch-and-shoot threes. He’s a modest 0-for-2 on pull-up threes. The fact that he’s only taken two is smart. The pull-up three is maybe the most difficult shot in basketball. A good pull-up three-point shooting season can make or break an entire offense, if the volume is high enough. It’s often the last skill to develop for primary offensive engines. Since 2013-14 (when player tracking data became available), Kevin Durant’s highest frequency pull-up season was 2017-18, when 46.9 percent of his shots were pull-ups and only a modest 16.3 percent of his pull-ups were threes. Kevin Durant is one of the best shooters of all time. Ingram should continue to be selective about his long-range bombs.
Playing at a fast pace with other capable ball-handlers (not named LeBron James) seems to be nudging Ingram towards a more efficient shot-profile. The numbers indicate he’s taking more catch-and-shoot threes and the eye test says he’s less of a ball-stopper this season. Like plenty of wing scorers before him, Ingram liked to hold the ball and jab step his way into an advantage before making his move, but he was never good enough for teams to allow that kind of ball-stopping play. Rather than taking a catch-and-shoot three in previous seasons, Ingram would often rhythm-dribble into a pull-up long two—maybe the least efficient shot in basketball. He’s beginning to eliminate these painfully inefficient habits from his game and he’s shooting better while doing it.
Why else might Ingram be off to a great start this season? He’s fresh after his season was cut short last year due to injury. He’s likely rejuvenated after being traded away from the circus in Los Angeles. He’s highly motivated after being traded, questioned, and battling back from a blood clot during the offseason. He’ll also be a restricted free-agent this summer. This season is a golden opportunity to pad his wallet with a surprising performance.
Fantasy Insights: It’s worth it to consider selling high on Ingram. Selling high on a player is less about their ability and more about the exploitability of the other owners in your league. If someone is willing to significantly overpay for Ingram, there’s little chance you lose the deal. As I mentioned before, Ingram’s three-point shooting will regress. His usage should also tick down once Jrue Holiday finds his footing and Zion Williamson returns. Ingram has his own injury concerns. However, Ingram’s always had a high floor. He averaged 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists a game last season. The raw numbers have always been there to some degree, the question is whether or not he can sustain this relative level of efficiency. Consider the offers you receive, but make sure you don’t outsmart yourself by trading a breakout player that you stole in the draft for equal or lesser value.
Lonzo Ball’s shot is legitimately improved. The eye test and the numbers back that up. Ball is shooting 38.6 percent from three this season, a drastic improvement from the 32.9 percent he shot last year. His shot looks fluid and he’s been able to consistently repeat his new mechanics, especially off the catch. He still dips back into his old shooting form on the occasional pull-up, but that’s to be expected. The change is significant, but not a complete overhaul, which makes you wonder what the Los Angeles Lakers coaching staff was doing?
Ball is a fun, unique, yet limited player. If your team wants to play at a fast pace, he’s your man. If you sprint the floor in transition he’ll get you the rock. Ball might be the king of the hit-ahead pass. When I watch him play, I’m reminded of a Mike D’Antoni quote, “The ball has energy.” Ball is a rigorous practitioner of that philosophy. I’m also reminded of an often-repeated Gregg Popovich quote, “Play away from the crowd.” With the defense scrambling and players potentially out of the play altogether, transition is the first opportunity an offense gets to “play away from the crowd.” Lonzo Ball knows this like a great writer knows the contours of a metaphor. Like a great poet understands the cognitive distance of a line break. These sage basketball philosophies from revolutionary coaches roil inside Ball’s bones like some sort of comic book magic potion. Ball is an eager and proficient open court passer and, if you overplay the pass, he’s capable of racing down the lane for a thunderous dunk. He’s able to put pressure on the defense in transition without being a legitimate three-level scoring threat because the defense is scrambled and fissures are harder to shore up. He’s fast, a good leaper, and has great positional size at 6’6’’. His length and leaping ability help him as an on-ball defender and as a weak side shot blocker. He loves to dig down on drives and jump into passing lanes for steals. The Jason Kidd comparisons were unfair, but not completely baseless. Peak Lonzo Ball might be Jason Kidd light for the three-point era.
Lonzo Ball has very clear limitations, however. Even ignoring his injury concerns, there are enough issues to make you question how high his ceiling could be. First order of business for Ball should be becoming a lights-out spot-up shooter. He’s already on his way in that regard, as he’s shooting 40 percent on catch-and-shoot threes this season. Ball is best employed alongside a more dynamic pick-and-roll ball-handler. Improving his shooting off the catch gives him a clear archetype to aspire to—6’6’’ Patrick Beverley. Beverley is a career 37.6 percent three-point shooter. Shooting the three around that rate would open up Lonzo’s driving game, when opposing players sellout to take away his three-point shot. Ball isn’t a great finisher at the rim, but you would hope at 6’6’’ with decent athleticism he could improve that ability.
Ball continues to take pull-up threes—arguably a necessary weapon to be an elite offensive point guard—and shoot them poorly. He’s shooting 33 percent on pull-up threes this season and shooting them 16 percent of the time. It makes sense that he wants to hone this skill. It’s the most natural progression of his game. Ball has been taking deep step-back threes since high school and, if he can improve his efficiency on this shot, it will immediately become his best off-the-dribble weapon. Luka Doncic has gifts Lonzo doesn’t have—size, strength, experience, a mid-range and deadly pivot game in the lane—but Luka was a monster from day one in large part because he could get a step-back three off at almost any time and make it at a high enough rate to keep defenses honest. The step-back three opens up so many other facets of a player’s game. Without this shot, Ball will be stuck in the Patrick Beverley, Ricky Rubio echelon of NBA players—positive, strong role players, but not exactly what you’re hoping for from a former second overall pick.
Ball’s greatest strengths are somewhat neutered in the half-court. He’s not a typical pick-and-roll point guard. He lacks the shake and off-the-bounce creativity to take full advantage of this action. He does his best passing work in transition or during random scramble situations in the half-court. Ball likes to straight line drive to the rim, but if there is any resistance in the lane he isn’t very creative euro-stepping or finishing around or through contact in the air. Ball’s lack of pick-and-roll creativity and off-the-dribble dynamism puts a ceiling on his offensive production. Any improvements he makes in these areas are likely to be limited rather than drastic. Creativity, elusiveness, and the ability to get where you want to go on the floor are rarely skills players drastically improve upon once they get in the NBA, especially point guards. Ball needs to continue refining the subtle nuances of his offensive game. Think about the differences in the games of Lonzo Ball and Trae Young. Young’s effectiveness is greatly buoyed by his efficient floater game. Lonzo has almost no in-between game to speak of. He needs to develop a reliable floater and/or mid-range jump shot to approach effectiveness in all three levels (behind the arch, midrange, and at the rim).
Final Thoughts: If Ball’s new shooting stroke is real, he’ll be a more than capable off-ball player and therefore should be in the league for a long time. He’s got plenty of achievable ground to cover as a cutter off the ball, where he can use his speed and athleticism to get in the lane and beat shot-blockers to the backboard. I’m willing to say I think Ball is an effective player in the regular season right now, shooting concerns and all. His combination of switchable defense, transition and scramble situation passing, and basketball IQ paper over many of his weakness, especially when he’s surrounded by better players. Shooting struggles are magnified in the post-season. Teams are ruthless about scheming flawed players off the floor. Ball’s effectiveness in that environment remains to be seen. I don’t know if Ball will ever achieve super-stardom, but his trade to New Orleans and subsequent improvements to his shot should give his fans and believers hope that his ceiling is higher than his first two seasons in the league suggested.
Josh Hart was a four-year college player under Jay Wright at Villanova. He came into the NBA a stronger and more mature player than his two former Los Angeles running mates and it showed almost immediately. Hart took home Summer League MVP honors before his rookie season, followed that up with a solid rookie year and was too good for summer league in year two. He regressed a bit in his second season, but looks to be hitting his stride in New Orleans.
Hart has a thick frame for a guard and marries that strength with above average lateral quickness and top end speed. It’s amazing the Rockets didn’t snatch him up given their monopoly on mobile bowling balls like Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker, both players who play up a position routinely. Hart is playing a similar role for the Pelicans this season. He’s guarded all across the positional spectrum, hounding James Harden into a moment of giftastic frustration, as well as banging in the post with Kristaps Porzingis. Hart makes a lot of sense in New Orleans. The eye tests suggest they are pretty comfortable switching on defense and a quick rundown of their players makes it clear why. Josh Hart is 6’5’’ and sturdy. Lonzo Ball is 6’6’’, capable of guarding point guards or shooting guards as well as holding his own for a possession in the post. Jrue Holiday is 6’4” and was the team’s best wing defender in previous seasons. Holiday often uses his quick hands to poke the ball away from bigger players when they try to back him down in the post. Brandon Ingram is 6’7” and has arms for days. What he lacks in strength he might be able to make up in wingspan. Zion Williamson is 6’7” with a 6’10” wingspan and 280 pounds of body to throw around. Williamson should be able to guard small forwards, power forwards and even centers in the right matchup. The NBA’s next destructive switch everything defense appears to be emerging in New Orleans, maybe. (They’ve been really bad on defense so far this season.)
Hart is a career 36.3 percent three-point shooter and is shooting 38.1 percent from three this season. I think his shot is real and if his improved defense is here to stay he’ll be in the NBA for a long time. Basically, every basketball team on the planet needs wing-sized players who are capable of knocking down a catch-and-shoot three and attacking a closeout with simple straight-line drives.
Context matters in life and in the NBA. All of these players look rejuvenated in New Orleans. They’re playing fast and showing improvements in their games. When you add Anthony Davis like the Lakers did, you’re more than satisfied with that trade, but I don’t think the Pelicans are going to be asking for take-backs anytime soon either.