DURHAM, N.C. — The problem with the one-and-done era and the dominance that highly-ranked freshmen have had over the college game in the last decade or so is that it has created an expectation for greatness.
No one knows that better than Brandon Ingram these days.
The current member of an emerging pipeline of elite wings that Duke has landed — Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow, Jayson Tatum — has struggled to acclimate to the college game. After scoring 36 points in his first two games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, reality hit Ingram like a ton of bricks. Prior to Wednesday’s date with Indiana, Ingram had managed a grand total of 17 points on 5-for-20 shooting in No. 7 Duke’s three games against high-major competition.
Kentucky’s quicker, stronger wings frustrated him. His shooting touch evaporated against VCU. As his struggles continued against Georgetown, Ingram was relegated to the bench, playing a season-low 16 minutes despite being projected as a top five big in this June’s draft.
“I knew I had to pick it up,” Ingram said. “I knew I had to have my teammates’ backs, so I had to pick it up and just be aggressive. I’m never satisfied but [tonight] was better.”
It didn’t take long for him to make that change against Indiana.
Ingram scored eight of Duke’s first 10 and 13 of their first 26 points. In total, he notched 18 of his career-high 24 points in the first half, a performance that helped the Blue Devils overcome Indiana’s initial surge in a 94-74 evisceration of a team projected as a top 15 program entering the season.
That’s one way to boost your lagging confidence.
“It was great for him and it was big time for us,” Amile Jefferson said. “He kept us in the game early. He did an amazing job of shooting with confidence, just shooting freely.”
It’s no secret that one of Indiana’s biggest issues defensively is their ability — and, specifically, Thomas Bryant’s ability — to defend ball-screen actions. That’s one of the ways to attack this Indiana defense, and early on, Ingram was the prime beneficiary.
“We always go based on our game plan and that was one of our plans going in, just go at the five setting the ball-screen,” Ingram said.
It’s been a process for Ingram, who was as aware of his struggles as anyone. He didn’t mope about it. He didn’t get down on himself. Instead, he got in the gym.
“He’s really practiced hard these last two weeks,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Right after our training meal, at about 5:15 p.m. [today], Nate worked him out. Hard. He responded. He’s put a lot of work in. He was outstanding tonight, he missed that one layup in the second half, it’s still a real good work in progress.”
Ingram’s presence is a difference-maker for the Blue Devils.
Let’s go beyond the fact that he’s clearly the most physically-gifted player on the roster. That’s not really debatable. He has the skill set to be a game-changer. That’s why he’s rated as highly as he is by NBA scouts. That’s why he was considered to be one of the few game-changing recruits in this class.
But it’s more than that.
Ingram is Duke’s lineup versatility. He’s a natural small forward, a guy that can guard on the perimeter, that can be effective in Duke’s switching man-to-man defense. Coach K’s defense doesn’t change. Duke does what they do, and what they do is switch all exchanges 1-through-4. Ingram can more than hold his own in that role. But it’s his size and length that is so important, because he can handle being a four as well. He can block some shots and he can rebound the ball, and while he’s not quite to a point where he can bang with opposing power forwards, his physical tools help make up for it.
“The physicality,” Ingram said when asked what the biggest adjustment has been for him at this level. “Playing against men, 22 and 23-year olds.”
And when he does play at the four, it makes the Blue Devils that much more difficult to defend. He may not be the ideal player defensively, but how many opposing power forwards can stop him?
“It’s unbelievable for our team [when he plays like this],” Jefferson said, adding that the team sees him do things like this in practice. “It makes us longer, not only defensive wise, but spacing. We get bigger. We get better. Our confidence goes up because we know how good he can be.”
“He’s a real threat on the court.”
The question now is what happens from here.
Indiana is as high-major as high-major programs get, but defensively they’re a mess. No one in the Duke locker room was willing to say as much outright, but it’s obvious how much work the Hoosiers have to do when, to a man, every Duke player made sure to carefully word their answers to a question along the lines of “How bad is Indiana defensively?” to make sure they didn’t say something that would inevitably end up in a headline.
I say that to say this: Ingram probably faced tougher defensive tests when the Blue Devils played Yale and Utah State. Scoring 24 on Indiana is entirely different than putting up 24 on ACC foes like Virginia or North Carolina or Miami.
Was this the launching point of Ingram’s season?
Or was this simply a result of his Blue Devil team facing an opponent that provided as much defensive resistance as Nate James did during Ingram’s Wednesday afternoon workout?
The answer to that question will go a long way towards determining what Duke’s ceiling is this season and whether or not they will be able to reach it.