Career-best 40-point eruption part of Brandon Ingram’s superb start to 2019-20 for Pelicans

BROOKLYN – Early in his tenure as a New Orleans teammate of Brandon Ingram, forward Nicolo Melli sometimes does a double-take when he looks at the stat sheet, because the numbers next to Ingram’s name occasionally seem inaccurate. Offense comes so naturally to the talented and long-armed 6-foot-9, 190-pounder, that it’s not always evident how much damage he’s done on the court.

“How easily he scores,” Melli said, when asked what he’s most noticed about Ingram’s play early in 2019-20. “He doesn’t hold the ball that much, but you look up at the scoreboard and he has 30 points.”

By the end of the night, anyone who scanned the Barclays Center boards on Monday saw a ‘40’ next to Ingram’s name, marking a career high in points for the fourth-year NBA veteran. As has often been the case during a superb individual start to the season for the 22-year-old, he piled up the points in methodical fashion, dribbling into a mid-range shot or purposefully driving through the paint for a layup or finger roll, while relying on crafty fakes and footwork. Ingram’s 40 points came on 17/24 shooting, not only the most baskets he’s tallied in an NBA game, but also the second-highest percentage he’s shot from the field (71 percent) while firing 20-plus attempts.

“BI’s always had that,” said guard Jrue Holiday, when asked about Ingram’s scoring prowess to open ’19-20. “We’ve seen it in years past. If he gets it anywhere in the post, anywhere in the mid-range, that’s pretty much automatic. He’s damn near 7 feet tall, so he’s a very, very tough guard. Tough to handle in the post, having smaller guys on him. If he’s out on the perimeter, he usually has bigger guys on him (who are not as quick and mobile). So he’s definitely an advantage always.”

It’s been a frustrating 1-6 start so far for the Pelicans, but Ingram is producing the best basketball of his career, ranking 13th in the NBA in scoring through Monday’s games. The North Carolina native is averaging 25.9 points per game, while doing so on elite efficiency, highlighted by a shooting percentage of 55.2 from the field. Among the league’s top 15 scorers, only reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is producing at a better percentage (61.2). A below-average three-point shooter with the Lakers (32.9 percent over three seasons), Ingram’s numbers have also been boosted by his 48.6 percent rate from beyond the arc. He credits Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson for the bump in three-point accuracy.

“Fred has been a big confidence-builder every single day, both for me and Lonzo (Ball),” Ingram said of his three-year NBA teammate, who also came to New Orleans in a summer trade. “Coming in trying to find the proper way to shoot the basketball and the way that’s comfortable for us.”

Speaking of comfort, Ingram has been a snug fit in the Pelicans’ fast-paced attack, making at least half of his shots in five of seven games, while also averaging a career high in assists (4.3). Keep in mind, Ingram’s per-game stats were hurt by a seven-point, one-assist game vs. Oklahoma City that was cut short by injury, after only 13 minutes. Ingram’s been most pleased with his improved playmaking skills.

“The ability to show how I can pass the ball, getting into the lane and trying to see things before they happen,” he said, when asked what area he thinks he’s shown the most strides with New Orleans. “Looking for my teammates. There are a lot of unselfish attitudes and unselfish players here. I like to get everybody involved.”

Having faced Ingram as a Lakers opponent over the previous three seasons, Holiday sees a player who is reaching a new level of comfort with the Pelicans.

“He has a little bit more freedom,” Holiday said. “Maybe even a little more clarity while playing. It seems like here he is more relaxed and can play the game he wants to play.”

“I get to create a little bit more,” Ingram said of the Pelicans’ system. “I get to show a little bit more.”

Indeed, though his style of play isn’t always flashy – and he’s often very soft-spoken off the court – there’s no doubt that fans and media across the NBA are starting to notice how effective Ingram has been through the first two-plus weeks of the season.

“Early in this season, even as the Pelicans struggle with their health once again, Ingram has been more than impressive,” The Athletic’s Zach Harper wrote, hours before Ingram’s 40-point eruption.

CBSSports.com was more succinct: “Brandon Ingram is having a breakout year.”