How two Duke basketball products copped top dollar in free agency

Two Duke basketball alums earned premier max extensions, and deservedly so.

Both Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum entered free agency after their best performances yet in the league. Over the past few years, the former Duke basketball one-and-dones have worked impressively hard to improve their game well enough to earn these extensions.

Duke fans saw them grow as players under Mike Krzyzewski’s direction. A few years later, the 22-year-old Tatum and 23-year-old Ingram represent the program as two of the highest-paid young players in the league. Now that their hard work has paid off, let’s look at their growth since transitioning into the NBA.

How Duke basketball’s Brandon Ingram arrived at a mega payday

Brandon Ingram was drafted as the second pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016. He was awarded a four-year, $23 million contract at the time.

Every NBA fan knows Ingram’s first couple of years didn’t live up to the Lakers’ expectations. As the top-tier lottery pick from Duke, with an elite eye for shooting and ridiculous wingspan, Los Angeles brass probably assumed the 6-foot-7 forward would perform better than 12.2 points per game across his first two seasons as a pro.

Ingram did bring that average up slightly his third year, but when the Lakers acquired LeBron James, they would do anything to keep him satisfied.

That included doing anything possible to acquire highly skilled big man Anthony Davis. Ingram was included in the trade that set in motion the franchise’s complete rebuild. He was sent to New Orleans along with Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and a few first-round picks.

Though the Pelicans seemed like a lesser fit at the time, the whole ordeal worked in Ingram’s favor. The completely new dynamic of his new team and location changed the dynamic of his game for the better.

Both Ingram’s points per game and 3-point percentage went up dramatically. He averaged 23.8 points per game in his first year in New Orleans, whereas over three years with the Lakers, he averaged 13.9. His averages with Pelicans allowed him to put up 1,477 points on the season.

When it comes to his 3-point percentage, Ingram averaged nearly 40 percent from behind the arc with the Pelicans, improving from 33.0 percent in his last year with the Lakers.

All this and more contributed to the Most Improved Player award he received from the NBA, in turn solidifying the Pelicans’ trust in him to be a cornerstone player for their organization. Ingram’s major improvements as a player and teammate rightfully convinced his program to offer a five-year, $158 million contract, the fifth-highest among players in free agency this year.

How Duke basketball’s Jayson Tatum managed to pace 2020 free agency

As the third overall pick in 2017 by the Boston Celtics, Duke’s most versatile player in recent years, Jayson Tatum, had high expectations from the entire basketball community. His ability to drive to the basket and shoot from the perimeter at any given moment could split anyone’s defense, as opponents are left to wonder what he might do next.

To the Celtics, Tatum was the perfect fit, signing him to a four-year, $30 million contract as a rookie. In his first couple of years, the 6-foot-8 forward did as well as anyone of his caliber could do. He averaged 14.8 points per game in his first two years, putting up a total of 2,355 points.

However, his first few seasons didn’t come without growing pains.

Tatum made questionable decisions in both shooting and ballhandling, something that rookies have to get used to when transitioning from college to professional leagues. That said, the third year seemed to be the charm, as his numbers showed immense growth.

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His work in the offseason paid off, going from 15.7 points per game his sophomore season to 23.4 the next. That’s not to mention the multiple games scoring 30-40 points that led Tatum to put up over 1,500 points on the season and the reel-worthy dunks that took fans right out of their seats.

All of Tatum’s hard work and sacrifice as a player, teammate, and father made him a cornerstone for the Boston organization. Without a doubt, that is the reason the Celtics offered him a max extension contract worth $195 million over five years, the largest offered in this year’s free agency.

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The Pelicans and Celtics saw the potential that Duke fans saw as they watched both Ingram and Tatum go from growing pains to cornerstone players. Not only was their recognized by their teams, but it was also recognized by their peers after both were selected to their first of many-to-come All-Star Games just this year.

Basketball fans around the world are amazed by their talents, but the truth is, they have barely scratched the surface. Now that their checks are cut, it’s up to Ingram and Tatum to carry on the trajectory of their careers — and my guess is, they will exponentially.

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