Duke freshman Brandon Ingram is gaining momentum to be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. But four months ago, the last time Duke played Yale, he wasn’t even in the starting lineup.
The learning curve might have been steep in the beginning, but Ingram climbed it quickly.
“Who he was at the beginning of the season and who he is now is night and day,” sophomore guard Grayson Allen said. “He is so much more of a confident player now. He really knows his spots.”
Both the fourth-seeded Blue Devils and the No. 12-seeded Bulldogs have changed since that 80-61 Duke win Nov. 25 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Yale guard Jack Montague, the team’s captain, was expelled from school in February amid allegations of sexual assault. And Duke forward Amile Jefferson broke his foot in December and hasn’t played since. It was Jefferson’s presence on the court that first jumped out at the Bulldogs and Duke assistant Jeff Capel when noting what was different on the old film. But Ingram’s transformation is the most relevant in Saturday’s matchup in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.
The Blue Devils do, in part, have Jefferson to thank for that.
Capel remembered an early-season conversation with Ingram while he was struggling. The physicality of the college game was jarring to the rail-thin freshman, and facing preferred walk-on Justin Robinson in practice wasn’t getting him prepared to compete at that level. So Ingram asked if Jefferson could start guarding him.
“Brandon, because of the physicality of the actual games, we weren’t able – and we still aren’t – we weren’t able to simulate that in practice,” Capel said. “And once we made that change, he and Amile would do a lot of one-on-ones and stuff like that.”
Assistant coach Nate James worked Ingram out, hard, a few hours before the Dec. 2 Indiana game, and Ingram responded with 18 first-half points and 24 overall in the 94-74 blowout. Since then, Ingram has grown into a can’t-miss prospect.
Ingram, who coach Mike Krzyzewski said this week is a one-and-done player, also started to fit the Duke mold better about that time – and that’s essential for success in Durham.
“In our program, you have to talk. You have to,” Capel said. “Even guys who don’t have it, you learn how to show emotion. You learn that it’s necessary here because doing that can get you out of thinking about you.
“It was around that Indiana game and really after that where you started to see it. I don’t think he is ever going to be this big-time emotional or whatever, but you know what he’s thinking. He’s incredibly competitive. And he is a lot tougher than he looks.”
Allen said he started to notice Ingram letting out a yell after dunks about the time of the win against the Hoosiers. And Ingram opening up emotionally has helped him become more aggressive on the court, too.
“He was such a quiet person at first, and he has come out of his shell and is very aggressive on the court offensively and defensively,” Allen said. “That’s allowing him to play a lot better. We want him in that aggressive attack mode.
“He’s still a quiet guy by nature. He does talk in the huddles because that’s when you can hear his voice just because there isn’t a lot of noise going on around you. But a lot of times, you can just kind of see it in his face.”
Several times during Thursday’s 93-85 first-round victory over UNC Wilmington, Ingram would drive left, spin back right and use his long arms get off a shot over a shorter guard. Thanks to his 7-foot-3 wingspan, that shot is indefensible.
“He knows he is the best player on the court,” junior guard Matt Jones said.
Curiously enough, the Bulldogs didn’t mention Ingram’s emergence when asked about the difference between Duke in November and Duke now. They are aware of it, though.
“I haven’t watched him too much, but everyone says he is playing a lot better and playing a lot tougher,” Yale forward Justin Sears said. “He is a freshman, so at the time he didn’t really understand how to compete as hard as I’m sure he does now.”
Rest assured, Ingram gets it now.