Work ethic led to Brandon Ingram’s vast improvements in 2019-20, first All-Star appearance

Officially, the first All-Star season of Brandon Ingram’s four-year NBA career began Oct. 22 in Toronto, when the forward scored 22 points on national TV against the defending champions, in front of a sold-out crowd. But it really began last summer in empty gyms, with zero fanfare.

While transforming himself from young talent with potential to New Orleans go-to scorer and one of the NBA’s most productive scorers and shooters, Ingram spent countless hours working on his game, resulting in a stunning improvement across the board offensively. It’s beyond a cliché in today’s NBA to say that a player is “spending more time in the lab,” or “grinding to get better,” but Ingram has some very tangible evidence to prove the work he’s put in is paying dividends. For example, his improvement in free-throw percentage this season is not only the best in the league, it’s one of the largest in NBA history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two players have ever increased their season-to-season percentage more than Ingram, who went from 67.5 percent last season with the Lakers to 86.2 with the Pelicans (minimum 250 attempts both seasons, all stats through Wednesday's games). A below-average three-point shooter in each of his three Los Angeles seasons (combined 32.9 percent), Ingram has moved up to elite status in 2019-20 beyond the arc, connecting on 40.0 percent. He’s also more than tripled the frequency of his threes, firing 6.3 per game, compared to 1.8 in the previous season. Add it up and he’s produced a rarely-seen, near-complete metamorphosis in shooting accuracy, a major reason his scoring average has jumped from 18.3 points per game to 24.9. He ranks 31st in the NBA in three-point percentage and 24th in free throw percentage

“The main thing we’re all impressed with is his work ethic and his demeanor,” Pelicans General Manager Trajan Langdon said. “He is extremely professional, comes in and does what he needs to do to get better. Then he goes over the top with it. It’s been like that since Day 1.”

“He’s clearly worked on his game,” said guard JJ Redick, himself second in the NBA in three-point percentage. “In the six months or so that I’ve gotten to know him, he’s someone who has a real desire to be great. He’s willing to put in the work to make that happen. He’s got some natural ability and natural gifts, but you don’t develop into a great shooter, a great finisher, a great ballhandler, without being in the gym. His game sort of speaks for itself in terms of the amount of work he’s put in. He’s a highly skilled player.”

After acquiring Ingram in a trade with the Lakers last summer, New Orleans expected big things from the then-21-year-old, impressed by how Ingram finished the previous season. In what turned out to be his final six games with Los Angeles, he tallied 20-plus points each night, but his ’18-19 season was cut short by blood clots in his arm. That led to a lengthy rehabilitation stint that kept him off the court for a chunk of the offseason.

“I’m incredibly happy for him,” Langdon said of Ingram’s All-Star honor, alluding to the adversity Ingram faced last year. “He’s put in the work. Coming off the injury he had and the procedure he had at the end of last (season), it was a long summer for him, getting traded to New Orleans and having to go through the rehab he had. To see him put the work in and have it pay off and be rewarded like this, it’s tremendous.”

“We had high hopes for him, to be honest,” Pelicans fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said, when asked if he was surprised Ingram so quickly became an All-Star. “Obviously the injury in L.A. slowed him a little bit, but he was playing good basketball. He had an 11-game stretch where he averaged almost 25 points, almost eight rebounds. The potential was there. We just thought if you put him in the right situation that he would flourish, and he has.”

“To God the glory for getting me back healthy and getting me the mindset to work every single day,” Ingram said. “It’s all in the work and my teammates putting me in a pretty good position to score the basketball, to be successful.”

Dating as far back as voluntary workouts, Pelicans players quickly understood that for as much potential as Ingram had shown in Los Angeles, he was an even better player than they realized. His All-Star honor may have been unexpected around the league, but teammates saw it coming months ago.

“It’s something I already knew, even at the beginning of the season, the way he can score the ball,” center Derrick Favors said. “He just took advantage of the opportunity he had. We ran our offense through him, and he’s been making plays and winning games for us all year. He deserved that All-Star selection.”

“I’m really happy for him,” Redick said. “Not to put any pressure on him, but to me this is the first of hopefully many All-Star (appearances). He’s a future All-NBA player, I think. He’s already a great player, but he has a chance to be really special.”