As far as Brandon Ingram has come in two months for Duke, from skinny, scoring-focused freshman to multidimensional impact freshman, it may not be until he gets to the NBA that Ingram really shows what he can do.
Curiously enough, that’s an opinion held by Duke coach Mike Krzyzyewski.
“I hope he plays great for the rest of the year, but he’s going to become a very special basketball player because he’s smart and he’s incredibly ball-friendly,” Krzyzewski said Saturday after Ingram’s all-around performance in an easy 82-58 win over Virginia Tech. “In an open court, in an open game, eventually when he’s going to be playing, his passing will show up even more.”
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There were glimpses of that Saturday, when Ingram fired a pair of improbable passes to wide-open teammates from amid a crowd of players under the rim – one for a Marshall Plumlee dunk, the other to Luke Kennard on the right wing for a missed 3-pointer.
That was characteristic of his performance. Ingram hit the first two of Duke’s seven 3-pointers to start the game, but his 16 points – his ninth straight game in double figures – may have been the least impressive part.
He blocked six shots. At one point, the 6-foot-9 forward fought through a forest of Virginia Tech arms under the basket for the rebound of a Derryck Thornton miss, using his wingspan to his full advantage. He held position in the lane and forced Zach LeDay to shoot over him (and miss). Later, after drawing a charge on LeDay, Ingram showed uncharacteristic emotion.
Ingram was able to score from the moment he walked in the door. He’s just now showing the other facets to his game, doing things he either couldn’t do or didn’t have the confidence to try in November.
“After my first seven games, that wasn’t me at all,” Ingram said. “I had individual meetings with my coaches, and just listening to my teammates, I knew I had to do something about it.”
These things take time. It took Marshall Plumlee four years to reach the point where he could score 21 points in an ACC game. Ingram doesn’t have that luxury, so continual progress is mandatory both for his sake and for Duke’s.
What’s even more impressive about Ingram is the way he has continued to progress despite being asked to guard bigger players on a continual basis since Amile Jefferson’s injury. His strength hasn’t turned out to be as much of an issue as his wingspan has been an asset.
“He’s learning how to use his body,” Duke guard Grayson Allen said. “He’s gifted with long arms and his bouncy frame and he can really get up and rebound. Defensively, you think you got him, and then he reaches up and blocks your shot or reaches out and gets a deflection. He’s been huge for us. When he’s active and using his athleticism and his wingspan and making plays defensively, it’s really big for him and for us.”
Duke continues to evolve as long as Jefferson is out, and some games will be tougher than others, both for Ingram and the Blue Devils. Virginia Tech, despite recent wins over N.C. State and Virginia, doesn’t have the size or bulk to challenge Duke and Ingram the way that North Carolina and Florida State will, or even Clemson – and Ingram indeed struggled against Kentucky and Utah, which had front lines that could trouble him.
Still, at the rate he’s progressing, it may not be an issue.
“I just don’t want to be an impediment to the pace. I want to be a help to the pace,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a really good basketball player. He’s positionless. … He’s been tough and good and he keeps getting better. He keeps getting better.”
Ingram is just scratching the surface. He won’t be at Duke long enough to show the best of his game, but he has come so far, so fast, he may end up getting pretty close before he’s gone.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock