In his sixth season, Brandon Ingram got to experience the playoff stage for the first time in his NBA career.
In play-in tournament wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, Ingram scored 27 and 30 points, respectively. Then in a hard-fought first-round series against the Phoenix Suns, Ingram averaged 27.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists.
“I thought it was great, man,” two-time NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse said. “It felt like for the first time, he looked relaxed.”
Stackhouse, who saw Games 3 and 4 in person at Smoothie King Center, has mentored Ingram since he was in middle school. Stackhouse and Ingram are from Kinston, North Carolina, a city that has developed a reputation for producing professional basketball players despite a population of a little more than 20,000.
“I think he finally settled down and played basketball,” said Stackhouse, who is entering his fourth season as the men’s basketball coach at Vanderbilt. “I think everyone got to see Brandon Ingram for the first time. What kind of person he is. What kind of leader he is. What kind of competitor he is. It was fun to watch.”
At 24 years old, Ingram already has learned how cut-throat the NBA can be. He was teammates for one season with LeBron James before he was traded to the Pelicans as part of a package deal for Anthony Davis.
Ingram has had three different head coaches in three years since coming to New Orleans. The Pelicans finally found a keeper in Willie Green. Together, Green and Ingram helped the Pelicans crawl out of a 1-12 hole and make the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Stackhouse has known Green for years because of their Detroit ties. In 2000, Stackhouse earned the first All-Star appearance of his career while with the Pistons. Green was a freshman at Detroit Mercy at the time. They sometimes played in the same pickup games.
“I used to go down there and play with them and bang up on him a little bit,” Stackhouse said. “Willie was a talented player. He’s always been super smart, a cerebral player about the game. He was a competitor.”
Stackhouse and Green became teammates in the NBA for one season. In 2011-12, they played for the Atlanta Hawks in what was the second-to-last season of Stackhouse’s 18-year career.
“You can go back and look at Willie Green as a player,” Stackhouse said. “He had that same stoic, cool approach on the court, but when he caught that ball, he was trying to go get a bucket. I think that’s the perfect analogy with what I see with Willie on the sideline.”
Green was a gym rat. So is Ingram. Stackhouse is not surprised they clicked.
“He likes hoopers,” Stackhouse said. “Any coach wants a hooper. That’s what he’s got. He got a guy that just wants to hoop. He loves basketball. Loves to work out. He’s selfless. He makes the right plays. He gets off it. He’s aggressive when they want to play him one-on-one. What coach wouldn’t want that?”
Green and Ingram communicated frequently throughout the season. After the Pelicans’ Game 1 loss to the Suns, Ingram said he texted Green a little after midnight while reviewing game film. Ingram was surprised when Green texted back so late at night.
Their working relationship, Stackhouse said, was one of the factors that contributed to Ingram’s comfortability.
“He was enjoying it,” Stackhouse said. “It wasn’t about proving that you can play early on in his career. It wasn’t about trying to separate yourself from a big class of guys. It wasn’t about trying to play with LeBron. It wasn’t trying to see who won the trade. It wasn’t about trying to compete with anyone on their current roster. It wasn’t about a contract. It wasn’t about being an All-Star. He’s done that. I think he finally settled down and played basketball.”
Ingram has dealt with so much year-to-year change since the Lakers drafted him No. 2 overall in 2016. Next season, the Pelicans’ roster should not look drastically different than it does now. The team has 14 players under contract. With Green in charge, they plan to keep building.
“I think his personality and exuding confidence to those guys and letting them know he believed in them, that allowed them to go out and play,” Stackhouse said. “In the most important moments of the game, you usually don’t see three rookies out there. But I think that’s the trust and the confidence he put in them. I’m excited what they’re going to look like next year and beyond.”