There is no denying that Brandon Ingram is a collegiate star and one of the premier players in the nation. The Duke Blue Devil Freshman is tearing up the ACC, averaging 17 points and nearly 7 rebounds per game. Listed at 6”9 with a 7”3 wingspan, comparisons to NBA superstar Kevin Durant began as soon as he stepped on the court. His smooth shooting touch and tight handle, along with his slight frame have made this inevitable. With such comparisons it is no surprise that he is projected by most to go as high as second in the NBA draft come June. Ben Simmons has been proclaimed as the obvious first overall pick since before the year began, but with LSU struggling to the point that the Tigers may not even make the tournament, the door has been opened for Ingram to potentially overtake the Australian international in the draft. Ingram has certainly taken to the challenge and shown he doesn’t want to play second fiddle to Simmons.
Brandon Ingram had an underwhelming start to the season. Even though he scored 15 points followed by a 21 point outing in his first two career games at Duke, they were against Siena and Bryant, not exactly powerhouses in the NCAA. His first real test of non-conference play came in a loss against Kentucky, where he went 1-6 from the field for a total of 4 points, 4 turnovers, 1 rebound and 4 fouls. This terrible outing was followed by 2-7 shooting night against VCU, and a 5 point game with only 1 rebound against Georgetown. In each of these three games Ingram failed to connect from beyond the arc, not even registering an attempt against Kentucky, and only 8 rebounds combined during this stretch. It was an extremely underwhelming start to what was a highly anticipated career.
Then in early December, Duke’s starting power forward Amile Jefferson broke his foot in practice. Jefferson was having a phenomenal start to his senior year, averaging a double-double and was the undisputed leader of this Blue Devil’s team. However, because of the lack of depth in the front court, Coach K was forced to play the 196 lb Ingram as a small ball four. The change seemed to work, as Ingram has punished opposing big men with his quickness and destroyed the opposition from the perimeter. He has seen an uptick of scoring that has gone from 13.6 ppg to 18.5 ppg since the injury to Jefferson. This massive improvement in scoring can be directly linked to his 3-point efficiency, as Ingram has been willing to take, and convert, on more shots from distance. This newfound confidence from behind the arc has led to an outstanding 43% shooting from long range in conference play. While this change to a small ball lineup has hurt Duke on the glass, Ingram has done very well for someone who is generally giving up 30 lbs to his counterparts. Ingram has utilized his height and incredible length as well as hustle to compete on the glass and is collecting 15.5% of all available defensive rebounds. To compare, Duke’s starting Center Marshall Plumlee, who measures in at 7”0 and a muscular 255 lb, grabs 18.5% of the defensive rebounds. While Ingram’s rebounding totals and percentages are lower than Jefferson’s, he has done very well so far and more than makes up for it with his offensive production.
Most of Ingram’s offensive contribution comes from behind the arc, where he takes almost half of his shots and does so extremely proficiently. He has a quick and smooth shot, with good mechanics and a high release point. His shot preparation is impeccable, catching the ball always in position to let fly, elbow to and hip directed at the rim. Watching Ingram shoot, it’s hard not to go back to those Kevin Durant comparisons and drool at the talent and potential a player with that kind of offensive production could give an NBA team. The only problem is, he’s not Kevin Durant. While initially both Ingram and Durant pass the eye test as being carbon copies of each other, Durant had certain abilities that Ingram just doesn’t yet.
The most obvious difference between the two is Durant’s finishing at the rim. While at Texas Durant was able to convert on 50% of his shots inside the arc, while Ingram has struggled in this category, finishing at a 43% clips in conference play on 5 less shot attempts than Durant. There are several reasons for this; Durant is listed at 6”9 like Ingram but is much closer to 7 feet, he also had 20 lbs on the North Carolina native at the same age and he is a far superior athlete. Although Ingram’s finishing inside for the season has been better at 48%, Duke has a weak non-conference schedule and few teams to boast the rim protectors of the quality of the ACC. His finishing numbers inside the arc will most likely improve slightly, as in general his struggles can be attributed just as much to a lack of confidence when attacking the rim as well as the defence played on him, missing several easy and uncontested layups.
What is obvious about Ingram is his outstanding defensive ability, something that was not highly praised when he entered college. Coach K’s aggressive style of defence allows Ingram to pressure the slower opposing power forwards, not giving them space to make decisions on the perimeter and competes admirably on the block, working to push his man as far away from the basket as he can before they catch the ball. He has already passed Grant Hill for most blocks by a Duke freshman, with 42 blocks on the season he has shown the instincts and timing of an elite wing rim protector. Ingram may not be the most explosive leaper but he is still a much better than average athlete and can soar in from the weakside to reject opponents at the rim. In fact Ingram has only 2 less blocks this season than Plumlee, who leads the team in that regard. Coach Krzyzewski has also utilized the lanky freshman in his 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone, putting Ingram at the top of the key to get into passing lanes and disrupt the flow of the offence to terrific success. Ingram accounts for 18% of Duke’s steals and is second on the team to sophomore Greyson Allen.
At the next level Ingram has a chance to be elite if he lands in the right situation where he can be allowed to develop. He could turn into an elite scorer and a shut down defender if he puts on the weight and strength necessary to compete against grown men. With the proper weight training and diet expertise offered at the next level Ingram most definitely should, as reports from Duke said that Ingram was able to put on 15-20 lbs upon his arrival to training camp in the fall. This bodes well for the young man, as his frame does not suggest he will ever be one to overpower opponents, he needs to at least be able to hold his own.
As it stands in the NBA landscape for the lottery is fairly set, with 5 teams that are likely to land the first overall pick. Philadelphia (25%), Lakers (19.9%), Phoenix (15.6%), Brooklyn (11.9%) and Minnesota (8.85) are all in a very favourable position to gain that first overall pick. Ingram could be utilized by each one, as having a long, rangy wing with excellent defensive instincts, court vision and a silky smooth stroke. However there are really only two teams that would probably take Ingram over Simmons.
The Philadelphia 76er’s have a young and talented frontcourt. In fact they have an overcrowded frontcourt of top picks. With former Duke star Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky big Nerlens Noel it would already seem unlikely that they would pick another power forward, no matter how talented, over Ingram. If European standout and 12th overall pick of the 2014 draft forward Dario Saric can find a way to get out of his contract in Turkey and join the 76er’s next season it will add another talented frontcourt player. Not to mention if Joel Embeid can finally get healthy and back in shape, Philadelphia simply does not have the space to draft another big man. They are devoid of shooting, and if they find themselves picking 1st in the coming draft don’t be surprised if Ingram’s name is called.
The other is the Los Angeles Lakers, who drafted Julius Randle last year to fill their power forward position. Randle is similar to Simmons in many ways. Both can put the ball on the deck, finish at the rim, pass and rebound (even if Randle is a bootleg version of Simmons in every regard). Both lefty’s are also slightly undersized and not great shot blockers, so to draft Simmons would be counter intuitive to the Lakers rebuild. This is without mentioning how ball dominant Simmons is, and playing on a team with other ball dominant players such as D’angelo Russell and Jordan Clarckson who are still developing would do nothing but hurt the Lakers. Ingram on the other hand can play without the ball, allowing sophomore Grayson Allen to run the show at Duke.
Ben Simmons is still the consensus number one overall pick, but Ingram has closed the gap separating the two. His resemblance to megastar Kevin Durant and the particular skills he could bring to teams such as LA and Philadelphia would be more valuable to them than Simmons. Do not be surprised if his name is the first called come June.
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