PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Brandon Ingram’s sinewy 6'9" frame, uncanny fluidity and knack for scoring flourishes bring inevitable comparisons to Kevin Durant. UNC-Wilmington coach Kevin Keatts made the analogy on Wednesday, calling Ingram the “closest thing I’ve seen” to Durant. NBA scouts note Ingram’s 190-pound frame and can’t help but compare them. Even Ingram himself admits that he studies the 6'9", 240-pound Durant’s game and considers the Thunder forward an idol.
In the two-man race for the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft between Ingram and LSU freshman forward Ben Simmons, it’s already clear who better used his time in college. Ingram played like a future No. 1 pick against UNC-Wilmington on Thursday afternoon, guiding the No. 4 seed Blue Devils past the plucky and pressing No. 13 Seahawks, 93–85. Ingram spun through the lane possession after possession, soaring high only to touch the ball softly off the glass.
He finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks and continued to close the gap between himself and Simmons. While Simmons’s season sputtered to a disappointing conclusion in a blowout loss to Texas A&M in the SEC tournament, Ingram is still soaring in both the lane and the draft boards.
Simmons, a 6'10" forward, chose LSU in part because his godfather, David Patrick, is an assistant there. This season, Simmons coasted under poor coaching from Johnny Jones and his staff. His shooting never improved and his motor stayed in neutral. Ingram is the foil to that cautionary tale, as he packed on 20 pounds, fought through some early struggles and caught up with Simmons in the minds of some NBA personnel. “At the beginning of the year, I was into myself and I was worried about my performance,” Ingram says. “I just started worrying about winning. We got better and kept getting better.”
On Thursday, Ingram snared rebounds in traffic, unselfishly passed out of double teams and showcased a solid handle for a player of his size. Sure, the competition came from the CAA and not NBA, but the smooth-jazz composure, innate touch and spell binding skill were breathtaking at times. Every stutter-step, fadeaway and feathery drop-down pass highlighted Ingram’s skills and development. “He’s much tougher than his body would indicate and may be the next Kevin Durant,” said an NBA scout. “He could go as the No. 1 pick if a team is looking for a guy who can make shots and stretch the floor.”
In the one-and-done era, collegiate legacies are manufactured quickly. All of the themes of a generation ago in college basketball—learning from mistakes, maturing through failures and growing physically—are crammed into a six-month crash course. That sped-up timetable often ends with a fittingly manic final exam—the NCAA tournament—that could last three hours or three weeks.
Two years ago, No. 3 seed Duke and one-and-done phemon Jabari Parker flopped famously against No. 14 Mercer. Parker shot 4-for-14 and got exploited on a critical Mercer pick-and-roll late in the upset loss. Last year, three precocious freshmen—Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones—led the Blue Devils on a scintillating title run before skipping town. Ingram knows the disparate fates of his predecessors, hearing tales of both in the locker room. “We’re going to take a shot at this,” Ingram said in a quiet moment in the Duke locker room Wednesday. “I’m not worried about the future. We’re going to be in this game. We can beat anyone or lose to anyone.”
For a while on Thursday against unflinching UNCW, Ingram’s Duke postseason career looked to be careening toward Parker territory. UNCW led by as many as seven in a frenetic first half that saw 11 lead changes. They never relented, cutting the Duke lead late to five points in a taut and fun game. Ingram delivered one of the game’s biggest momentum swings at the end of the first half, calmly swishing a three-pointer to beat the buzzer and cut the Duke deficit to 43–40. That shot came from savvy set play with 6.5 seconds left, as Duke inbounded to sophomore guard Grayson Allen at halfcourt, drew a double-team and hit a streaking Ingram, who calmly rose and fired with a grace uncommon for a man his size. “His handling and passing at his size while also having NBA-ready perimeter stroke and ability to score in a variety of ways makes him tantalizing,” said a second NBA scout. “He needs to physically develop, but he’s certainly in the running to be drafted No. 1.”
Whether the No. 1 or No. 2 pick, Ingram’s future is already secure.
It was interesting to hear Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski concede without prompting that Ingram will leave Duke after this season. He spoke similarly of Okafor last season. Duke’s recruiting pitch now comes straight from the Kentucky playbook, as Krzyzewski and Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel pitched Ingram directly on following the one-and-done path of Parker and Okafor. “We hope during this tournament, because it’ll be his only time in the tournament, that he takes it to as high a level as he can right now,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s all I’ve talked to him about is just take advantage of this moment.”
Ingram, 18, is so young that he owned a Nolan Smith Duke jersey growing up. Smith finished his Duke career in 2011. Ingram spent his first summer at Duke pounding peanut butter and Muscle Milk to add weight. Duke’s spree of departures to the NBA combined with a run of injuries this season, especially to senior forward Amile Jefferson, sharpened his learning curve. The Duke coaches holding him accountable and forcing him to play defense and be aggressive pushed his development. “It put Brandon in the position to be taught by the best basketball teacher out there,” said Donald Ingram, Brandon’s father.
Donald Ingram didn’t make the trip to Providence for Thursday’s game. He spoke from his job as a service coordinator at Crown Forklifts in Kinston, N.C. He’s hoping that Duke can reach the Sweet 16 so he can travel to Anaheim to watch them. Duke will need to get past either No. 5 Baylor or No. 12 Yale to go to California.
This is a flawed Duke team, limited to a six-man rotation and porous defensively. But Ingram’s performance on Thursday—combined with an inspired career high 23-point outburst by senior center Marshall Plumlee—reminded everyone the searing potential of a superstar in the NCAA tournament.
Ingram’s season at Duke has already secured his future for the long-term. For now, though, he looks mighty impressive trying to extend his college career, one victory and showcase at a time.