The 2023 FIBA World Cup did not turn out the way Team USA players and fans had envisioned. After losing to Canada in the Bronze Medal game, many fans are left with questions about what went wrong. A huge amount of discussion buzzed around New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram.
When Head Coach Steve Kerr benched Ingram for Josh Hart, people theorized that it was because of poor play from Ingram, but I do not believe that is what happened. I think we can frame his struggles during the World Cup by exploring an important basketball concept. I propose that what went wrong for Ingram was not a result of a lack of ability, but a lack of shiftability.
What is shiftability?
According to Thinking Basketball’s Cody Houdek, “Shiftability is how well a player can increase or decrease their offensive role within a team context while retaining their creation/scoring efficacy.”
Or, in layman’s terms, can a player who is typically the first option still remain effective as a second or third option with fewer touches? Can a player who is traditionally the second or third option become “the guy” with increased assists, efficiency, and/or scoring?
In 2022-23, Ingram put in an All-NBA level performance, being more productive with the ball than he has been his entire career, ending the year with 24.7 points, 5.8 assists, and 5.5 boards, and doing all of this while shooting 39% from deep. He did this while being extremely efficient with the ball, but this was due to necessity. The Pelicans were decimated by injury, and Ingram elevated his play to an elite level to support his team.
Contrast this role with what he was asked to do for Team USA, which was “to play the Carmelo Anthony/Kevin Durant role, which is that stretch-4 guy who creates matchup problems because of your size…” In that role, he averaged 5.7 points, shot 3-of-11 from three, and only attempted two free throws the entire tournament. This is an entirely different playstyle than Ingram is used to playing, one that I argue is incongruent with his skill set.
As J.J. Reddick said when discussing Ingram in the context of his World Cup teammates, “All of these guys have had to shapeshift roles in the NBA.” and “Brandon Ingram is a primary scorer that is now being asked to not be a primary scorer.” Shiftability is not a small ask to make, and many players struggle when trying to be shiftable, especially star players like Ingram, who literally grew up with the ball in their hands.
Why does shiftability matter?
In the playoffs, or in any high-leverage basketball situations, like the World Cup, the goal of a team is to have their best players on the court as much as possible. In his original article, Houdek discussed shifting “upwards” from a tertiary or secondary to a primary creator, like Ingram has done on the Pelicans to elevate the roster. But it is harder to “shift down” or “compact” your role or skill set. The Dunker Spot’s Steve Jones Jr. alludes to this concept in the tweets below.
Ingram has struggled with this problem for years, even going back to his Los Angeles Lakers days. To the point where Hart thrived in Ingram’s stead in Los Angeles, just like in the tournament (though that was partially due to injury). Ingram’s issues with shiftability have been a recurring theme throughout his career.
“This is totally different than what I am used to,” Ingram told The Athletic’s Joe Vardon. “The team is winning right now, so I can’t be selfish thinking about myself. But it’s a little frustrating right now for me, and I’m just trying to figure out ways I can be effective.”
What to do moving forward?
I want to highlight this concept as a tool for Ingram and the Pelicans staff to hone in on with Ingram this year, helping him to increase his shiftability, as it is what I think will allow Ingram to shine in those high-leverage moments in the future. In my opinion, shiftability is a skill, or at least the confluence of many skills.
Without naming it specifically, Gilbert Arenas brought up some of the component skills of shiftability on the August 30th episode of his show (1:09:01). Likening how the FIBA game operates more like college basketball, and players like Ingram, who thrive on one-on-one isolation plays, often struggle when playing international basketball. He also provided insight on how Ingram can shift into a different role while maintaining his effectiveness. Arenas mentioned the importance of speed/basketball IQ, which is exactly where I believe Ingram can look to improve.
Ingram is quicker than any big defenses will put on him and bigger than any wing or guard they can put on him. His physical tools mean that he can create mismatches anywhere on the court. I think the key moving forward for Ingram is to utilize his tools to make quicker passes and embrace being a more mobile decision maker, especially as a passer on the move.
For the Pelicans this year, Ingram needs to be at his best when next to Zion Williamson and CJ McCollum, and one of the ways I think he can increase his shiftability is by improving his passing. Ingram is quietly one of the better passing forwards in the league. But, a majority of his passes come on ball after he’s been able to have a few dribbles to contemplate.
He has continued to improve his passing, and I think he has another level he can get to as a playmaker. He can reach that level by taking his exceptional vision and adding more motion to it (like Arenas highlighted).
Ingram showed incredible maturity through a tough tournament, and I think this maturity is what will facilitate growth in his game. Through focusing on his off-ball motion and passing on the move, I think Ingram will soon find an end to his shiftability issues, in addition to thriving more next to Williamson and McCollum next season.