NEW YORK — You don’t have to close your eyes and imagine Brandon Ingram fulfilling that long-armed potential that had many comparing him to Kevin Durant.
We’re seeing it now.
A career-high 40-point night Monday against the Brooklyn Nets — Durant’s new team — might be proof that Ingram is on stardom’s doorstep and not the tantalizing but frustrating prospect he was with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The vision, the control with which the New Orleans Pelicans’ top scorer gets to his spots on the floor — even if he takes up plenty of space sometimes, an aspect that will certainly be addressed when Zion Williamson debuts — and the hint of an edge that flares up every now and again will make Ingram an intriguing restricted free agent in July.
It’s a comeback story even though he never went away.
“I felt sh---ier than they thought I was when I came into the league. It only pushed me harder,” Ingram told Yahoo Sports following one of his best nights as a pro in a 135-125 loss to Brooklyn.
The Durant comparisons seemed to die down a bit, but even Durant himself was caught smirking a bit when Ingram glided with the ball to his spots. Ingram doesn’t hide his admiration for Durant, calling him his favorite player, and the two have spoken a few times about their connection.
Ingram, averaging 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists, is sheepish about the comparisons, but calls himself a better passer than his idol.
“I get the hypest when my teammate is going off, when I can find my teammate on the wing, and he's knocking shots down and he's feeling confident. That's when I feel good,” Ingram said. “When I play at my pace, I'm looking to shoot, but also to pass. I’m obsessed with making the right play.”
It didn’t seem like he could do much right his first couple of seasons, a barely 20-year-old dealing with so much uncertainty and immense expectations in Los Angeles.
The L.A. fans.
The L.A. media.
The brain trust that inherited Ingram as the No. 2 overall draft pick out of Duke had questions about his assertiveness and fit.
Ingram calls himself “Kinston tough,” forged through growing up in that North Carolina town and a shared kinship with former NBA player and current Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse, who is no stranger to tackling things head-on.
“I’m a believer in confrontation. Confrontation,” Ingram told Yahoo Sports. “Many words that have to be said about anything going on, it should've been said face to face.”
An already uneasy existence was evident before LeBron James pushed the limits of tampering and proclaimed his desire to play with Anthony Davis in mid-December.
“I can only imagine because it was seeping in the locker room,” said Ingram, who wasn’t with the team because of injury when news of James’ comments broke, turning a normal postgame environment into a mausoleum. “Anytime something like that happens, it's kinda disruptive. Everybody can't take that well.”
Things only got worse as the Lakers season went from underwhelming to bizarre. The Lakers’ open pursuit of a Davis trade left the locker room in shambles. Whether it was a Laker legend tacitly saying players like Ingram weren’t good enough or James sharing an agent with the player the Lakers were panting over, it didn’t feel good.
And because Ingram wasn’t producing to his expectations, that desired confrontation fell to the wayside.
“I could've said something, I could've stepped up to the plate and got some things in order,” Ingram said. “I was at a place in my career where I wasn't playing the way I wanted to play. It might've been good for somebody else, but I wasn't playing like I wanted to play, so I didn't feel like I could speak up and say, ‘Mother----er, you need to get in here, get right here.’ I fault myself for not stepping up to the plate and actually saying something.”
And to think, that was before Magic Johnson quit abruptly in the bowels of the Staples Center before the season finale. And before Ingram faced his own crisis of sorts. What was initially diagnosed as a sore right shoulder was actually a blood clot that ended his season just as he was turning a corner following the All-Star break.
And knowing the inevitability about being moved for Davis, the doubts started to creep in.
“Going through that process and never having surgery before, I always had questions like, ‘Man, when am I gonna get back? Is this arm ever gonna be strong again? Am I gonna be walking around with this arm weak as hell?’” Ingram said. “But I did [come back]. I'm a big believer in faith and kept pushing and pushing.”
No package seemed good enough for Davis, even though the Pelicans were lucky with the lottery balls to land Williamson and poached former Cavs GM David Griffin to run the franchise’s basketball operations.
It seemed like the Pelicans received more suspects than prospects from the Lakers, obtaining Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart — players viewed as solid but not game-changers.
The Pelicans didn’t even enter into serious discussions about extending Ingram, sources told Yahoo Sports, with both sides being comfortable with this being a prove-it year for him. It had been months since Ingram played five-on-five because of his shoulder injury, but it’s now hard to tell he’s missed so much time.
“We hope he costs us a s---load of money [in restricted free agency],” a team official told Yahoo Sports.
As for the trade, what Stackhouse told his young pupil was simple: “S--- happens.” Stackhouse was traded from Philadelphia to Detroit early in his career when he and Allen Iverson couldn’t mesh in the 76ers’ backcourt.
“[Stackhouse] told me I was getting traded to a good situation,” Ingram said. “That I was gonna be around really good genuine people and the city would love who they're bringing in and we're gonna be building a good basketball team and I would grow no matter where I am.”
Still, as the NBA faces a talent boon so fruitful it could entertain expansion, a player like Ingram can’t fall between the cracks. He’s too talented, too gifted, too unique to ignore in the hopes of the next big thing. (Unless it’s Anthony Davis, right?)
And Ingram, as confident as he is slender, possesses a self-awareness that makes all the sense in the world when he scores 40.
“I love the process of who I'm becoming,” Ingram said. “Hearing [criticism], maybe it's an added motivation, but I'm self-motivated. I'm gonna be really good.”
He said he plans on making the Lakers regret trading him, but feigned a little ignorance when asked about the date of the first meeting with his old team.
“Ummm …,” he said with a smile before relenting. “Nov. 27.”
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