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Brandon Ingram 49-point game vs. Jazz another highlight in breakout season

Lonzo Ball often comes across as a man of few words, preferring to let his actions speak for themselves. Even on social media, the point guard has only sent two tweets in the entire month of January – but the second of those delivered a very important message.

“Yeah it’s right after the game and I know I never do this,” Ball typed at 10:01 p.m. Thursday, moments after New Orleans outlasted Utah 138-132 in overtime, “but BRANDON INGRAM is an All-Star!”

It’s doubtful anyone who attended Thursday’s dramatic OT win over Utah would disagree. The fourth-year pro, now a teammate of Ball’s for each of the past three seasons, compiled one of the best offensive games by any player in the NBA this season, racking up a career-high 49 points. Ingram did it in exceptionally efficient fashion as well, going 15/25 from the field and 16/20 at the foul line. The 22-year-old joined Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in NBA history to score at least 49 points on 25 or fewer shots prior to their 23rd birthday. Talk about exclusive company.

Ingram’s performance certainly was an eye-opener for many of the 16,000-plus fans in the Smoothie King Center, but for the forward’s coaches and teammates, it seemed more like something that was bound to happen. In his first season with the Pelicans (16-26, but 10-4 since Dec. 23), Ingram has constantly produced big offensive nights, including a 40-point game at Brooklyn and seven other games of 30-plus points. Ten days earlier against the same Utah team, the Duke University product had 35 points.

“I’m not really impressed, to be honest,” Ball said, emphasizing his sky-high expectations for Ingram this season. “I’ve been with him the last three years. I knew the type of talent he has and see the work he puts in every day. I knew his time was coming.”

“I’m not surprised,” said center Derrick Favors, who also benefited from several of Ingram’s six assists vs. Utah. “I see how he worked in the offseason and how he was playing when I got here, in training camp and preseason. I think he’s just taking advantage of the situation he’s in, and he’s playing incredible right now.”

Indeed, Ingram has moved up to No. 12 among the NBA’s scoring leaders at 25.8 ppg by going on what’s seemed like a season-long tear. In January, he is now averaging 27.9 points, the most productive non-abbreviated month of his career. Ingram has scored at least 20 points in 32 of his 37 appearances this season, never held under 20 points in consecutive games.

“Basically he’s our offense right now,” Favors said. “We’ve got to do a good job of continuing to get him open and get him good looks at the rim.”

In addition to his Pelicans teammates making a push for Ingram to be named a Western Conference All-Star – Jrue Holiday tweeted “RETWEET! RETWEET! RETWEET!” in response to Ball’s aforementioned message – Ingram is also a top candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Ball says improvement has always been a staple of Ingram’s pro career.

“He’s just always in the gym, honestly,” Ball said. “I know he’s focused a lot on being efficient. If you look at his numbers, he gets better every year.”

“He’s very coachable,” Pelicans fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said. “He’s really worked on his game and wants to take the next step. I think you can see that he’s well on his way to doing that.”

“I’m thankful for being healthy and just try to progress every single game,” Ingram said after his 49-point outburst. “I know every night is not going to be like this, but I continue to try to respond and fight through every challenge, and put us in a really good position to win ballgames.”

If there was any downside to Ingram’s night Thursday, it was that a New Orleans foul on an inbound pass with 0.2 seconds remaining in regulation denied him of a game-winning basket, after his jumper gave the Pelicans a 122-121 lead. Instead, Ingram used the OT session to tack on five more points and three assists to his already gaudy stat line.

“We thought he had the game-winner, but turned out we had five more minutes to play,” Ball said. “He took it home for us in overtime.”

Ingram smiled when his game-winner-that-wasn’t was mentioned in the postgame locker room, minutes after he had been drenched by water during a raucous celebration with teammates.

“I would’ve loved to have that game-winner in my book,” he said, “but I feel like another one is coming.”

“The only thing that’s slowed him down is injuries, in my opinion,” said Ball, alluding to Ingram being sidelined for portions of his three Lakers seasons. “This is his fourth year, and he’s come into his own. It’s Brandon Ingram’s time now.”

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