LAS VEGAS – It’s a commonly used cliché: He was born for this. In sports it’s used — and often misused—to describe an athlete so gifted that his future must have been preordained. Big-armed quarterback? Born for this. Unparalleled speed on skates? Born for this. A feathery jump shot? Yep: born for this.
Brandon Ingram? The Lakers’ top pick might be — wait for it — born for this. Kinston, N.C., thinks so. The small town (population: 21,000) near the Carolina coast saw Ingram’s talent. It was familiar: Jerry Stackhouse called Kinston home. Pistons guard Reggie Bullock did, too. Ingram had that kind of talent — maybe more. So a city plagued by gun violence wrapped a protective bubble around the skinny kid in the old Kevin Durant sneakers and faded Nolan Smith jersey.
“Anything violent, they kept me away from it,” Ingram told The Vertical. “If I’m somewhere and knowing something is going down, they just keep it away from me. They knew that I had the potential to go somewhere. And if they see me anywhere but the gym, they’d say, ‘Well, why are you not in the gym?’ So, I was always in the gym.”
Indeed. Most kids have hobbies. Leisure activities. Ingram didn’t. When he was 10, he trailed his brother, Bo, to local parks. Begged him to let him play. Often, Bo, seven years older, wouldn’t. When he did, the games were unrelenting. Bruised arms, scraped knees, rolled ankles — Ingram went home with all of it. With a lesson, too.
“All those guys being physical with me. Just knowing that I needed to become tougher, much more tougher,” Ingram said. “And if I was going to be a skinny guy, I needed to be strong inside. So, I knew I had to be strong mentally.”
As he got older, his basketball obsession grew. He played after school. When he got home, he challenged Bo to one-on-one on the battered hoop in the backyard. “I was a senior in high school before I beat him,” Ingram said. When it got dark, his father, Donald, who managed the local rec center, opened up the gym. “It was an all-access pass,” Ingram laughed.
The work paid off. Ingram won a state championship his first year at Kinston. He went on to win three more. A stringy, 6-foot-2 guard as a freshman grew, by his own estimation, two inches every year to finish high school as a slender 6-8 forward. Spins, fadeaways, step-backs — Ingram had it all. He averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds as a senior. Legend had it that in four years, Ingram never missed a free throw. So? “Most definitely, that’s true,” Ingram said.
Last month, the Lakers tabbed Ingram with the second overall pick in the draft. Overnight, Ingram, 18, became the face of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. It’s not the type of position he has always been comfortable in. For years, Ingram was shy about playing in front of crowds. It wasn’t until eighth grade, when he joined Stackhouse’s AAU team, that he took to it. He was a star in high school but needed Mike Krzyzewski to tell him at the 2015 McDonald’s All-American Game that he had pro potential. He could score on anyone but wasn’t always assertive in high school and was briefly benched for listless play at Duke.
The Lakers hope he grows into the role. They see Ingram as a multi-position player. At 6-9, 190-pounds, Ingram will need to bulk up. He was eating six meals a day, some 5,000 calories, Ingram said, before the draft and he hopes to be 210 pounds next season. But the talent is undeniable.
Durant sees it. For months, scouts have compared Ingram to Durant. And Durant understands why. “He reminds me of myself, but he’s a little farther along than I was at that stage,” Durant told reporters at Team USA practice in Las Vegas on Wednesday. For Ingram, there is no higher compliment. He grew up wearing Durant’s sneakers. His walls were covered with Durant posters. He mimicked many of Durant’s moves. He worshipped him when he was at Texas, cheered him in Seattle, followed his career closely in Oklahoma City. The Lakers hope they found the next Durant; Ingram knows it will be a while before he gets there.
“It’s a very special comparison,” Ingram said. “But, of course, I know I’m not him. I know I’m not him yet, but I have the potential to make my own brand. Of course, you grow up with him as an idol, and in a few months he’s going to become my rival. It’s going to be a dream come true. I think just watching him for so long and having the ability to actually learn and play against him is just going to be a special motivation for me as a competitor and someone who really looked up to him.”