Brandon Ingram blooming ahead of restricted free agency

Brandon Ingram
Abbie Parr/Getty Images
0 Comments

Was Brandon Ingram even open to signing a contract extension worth less than the max last offseason?

“Absolutely not,” Ingram said.

And that’s about as far as negotiations went with the Pelicans.

It was a daring stance from Ingram. He missed the end of last season with a blood-clot issue, drawing comparisons to Chris Bosh’s career-ending situation. Ingram had an up-and-down first three seasons with the Lakers. And he was joining a new team in New Orleans, where No. 1 pick Zion Williamson was the main draw. Considering Ingram’s uneven fit with LeBron James, questions swirled about how Ingram would complement Williamson.

“I have expectations for myself that are a little bit higher than everybody else’s,” Ingram said.

Good thing he didn’t settle.

Having an unprecedentedly strong season for someone entering restricted free agency, Ingram will almost certainly get a max contract this summer – maybe even a super-max.

Modern restricted free agency began with the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which set a standard timeline for first-round picks:

  • Sign four-year rookie-scale contract
  • Play first three seasons
  • Negotiate contract extension
  • If no extension is signed, enter restricted free agency after fourth season

For second-round picks and undrafted players whose contracts end, they can be made restricted – meaning their prior team has the right to match any offer sheet – after each of their first three seasons.

Most successful first-round picks get an extension after their third season. Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray and Pascal Siakam signed max rookie-scale extensions last offseason.

Now, Ingram is proving he belongs on that level.

Ingram’s 24.9 points per game this season are the most – by far – by someone entering modern restricted free agency:

Brandon Ingram

That alone would probably fetch Ingram a max contract – which projects to be worth $167 million over five years from New Orleans or $124 million over four years on an offer sheet elsewhere. Points draw attention on the market.

Ingram isn’t just a volume scorer, though. He has made major strides in his all-around game, becoming a Most Improved Player candidate and an All-Star.

The only players to make an All-Star team entering modern restricted free agency:

Ingram could do even better by making an All-NBA team, which would make him the first super-max-eligible restricted free agent. (Drummond also made an All-NBA team in 2016, but that was when different super-max criteria existed.) A super-max contract projects to be worth $200 million over five years.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard look like All-NBA locks. That leaves two openings.

Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Khris Middleton and Jayson Tatum are also All-Star forwards. Fellow All-Stars Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis are bigs who play some forward. Paul George will be in the mix if he’s healthier the rest of the season. Jaylen Brown could also get consideration at either forward or guard.

So, the odds are against Ingram in a crowded field. But even putting himself in the race is such an achievement.

This breakout year comes just as outside expectations were beginning to fade.

Ingram was a highly rated recruit who drew Kevin Durant comparisons. Ingram starred at Duke, one of college basketball’s most prestigious programs. One of the NBA’s most prestigious franchises, the Lakers drafted him No. 2. The hype grew and grew.

But the production didn’t quite match.

Ingram’s lankiness resembled Durant’s. The shooting ability wasn’t close. Ingram showed flashes on the ball, a role he could rarely fill with LeBron in Los Angeles. Then, Anthony Davis requested a trade, and the Pelicans hired David Griffin, who – working as a TV analyst – had effusively praised Ingram.

“I knew I was going to be in the center of everything,” Ingram said.

The Lakers sent Ingram to New Orleans in the Davis deal. Suddenly, Ingram was on a new team just as his extension window was opening.

But his blood-clot issue loomed over talks.

“I understood everything that went on with the contract and everything, because they wanted to know if I was going to be extremely healthy, if something was going to come back,” Ingram said. “Once I figured out the reason why they didn’t want to do the extension, we didn’t go any further with it. I knew it was not going to be the number we wanted.”

It can be unnerving to play without long-term security. But Griffin’s prior comments reassured Ingram. A report of the Pelicans’ sustained commitment to re-signing the forward has only added more belief.

Ingram has spent most of the season looking like a franchise player.

“My success is bigger than this year,” Ingram said before All-Stars were named. “I look forward in trying to be an All-Star, trying to be a superstar, trying to be a leader of the team, trying to be the best teammate, trying to be everything I can to be the best basketball player that I can be.”

Of course, New Orleans had another franchise player – Williamson – waiting in the wings. Now, the Pelicans have two players who’d each be the envy of many teams around the league.

If William and Ingram can flourish together.

It’s too early to make any sweeping conclusions. The teams to pair an All-Star with a No. 1 pick rookie in the last 20 years:

  • 2020 Pelicans: Brandon Ingram & Zion Williamson
  • 2018 76ers: Joel Embiid & Markelle Fultz
  • 2014 Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving & Anthony Bennett
  • 2008 Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy & Greg Oden
  • 2007 Raptors: Chris Bosh & Andrea Bargnani
  • 2005 Magic: Grant Hill & Dwight Howard
  • 2003 Rockets: Steve Francis & Yao Ming
  • 2002 Wizards: Michael Jordan & Kwame Brown
  • 2001 Nets: Stephon Marbury & Kenyon Martin

None of those duos won even a single playoff series together.

But Williamson is so tantalizing, and Ingram is just 22. Their shared future appears bright.

Williamson has been particularly dangerous at center, where he gets more spacing around him. Ingram hasn’t played much in those lineups. But he looks like a ready fit – which wasn’t the case entering the season.

Ingram is shooting 40% on 3-pointers, up from 33% in prior years. That outside shooting might be unsustainable. This still isn’t a large sample. But Ingram is also shooting 86% on free throws, up from 66% in prior years. That suggests a genuine improvement in his shooting stroke. There’s room for Ingram to regress from beyond the arc and still spread the floor.

Another factor working in Ingram’s favor: His confidence. He says that never waned, even when he didn’t get his desired extension.

“You go out and play the game the right way and you just go out just and playing and just playing with your teammates and having fun, winning basketball games and putting up the numbers or whatever,” Ingram said, “everything takes care of itself.”