Ingram arrives, owns the big stage against Hoosiers

<p>Freshman Brandon Ingram made seven of his eight shot attempts in the first half Wednesday on his way to the first dominant performance of his young career.</p>

Freshman Brandon Ingram made seven of his eight shot attempts in the first half Wednesday on his way to the first dominant performance of his young career.

Patience is not something college basketball does well nowadays. With the one-and-done system entrenched as the path for top-flight players, just a few dozen games are all hyped-up high school talents get in the college game before they are off to sign multi-million dollar contracts in the professional ranks.

With such a short window, it’s almost expected, or even taken for granted, that every five-star recruit will instantly blossom into a star. Every night, it seems, 19-year-old freshman Ben Simmons puts up a stat line at Louisiana State that looks like it came out of a video game. Duke, lately, has been a prime example of this—spoiled by the immediate successes of elite prospects like Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor—but this year, things haven’t quite followed the script.

The Blue Devils brought in a trio of five-star recruits—Brandon Ingram, Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter—to replace Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, who departed for the NBA. Each of them, plus four-star guard Luke Kennard, was hailed as a top-25 recruit but has had his fair share of struggles in the early going. Each one of them has been shuffled to the bench and suffered through poor performances, leading many to ask the tough but pressing question—when are these talented rookies going to start living up to their billing?

Brandon Ingram answered that question Wednesday night.

Ingram turned in his best performance of the young season Wednesday, torching Indiana for a career-high 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and leading the No. 7 Blue Devils to their 15th win in 17 tries in the interconference battle.

Right from the opening tip, it was evident Ingram—tabbed as the No. 3 recruit in the Class of 2015—had brought his A-game. He drilled a 3-pointer on Duke’s opening possession, and followed that up a minute later with a long two-pointer with his toe on the 3-point line. The next time down the floor, Ingram drained another triple and in the blink of an eye, he was up 8-4 against the Hoosiers with barely two minutes off the clock.

“When he hit his first one, I could tell he was really into the game,” Kennard said. “I was like, ‘Oh, he’s about to go off’, and he did. He’s just a great player. We’re excited about how he played. It might’ve been his best overall game this year.”

It turned out that Ingram was just getting warmed up in that opening sequence. With his team trailing by four midway through the first half, Ingram knocked down a jumper to push himself into double-digits. Then came another 3-pointer, already his third of the night in as many attempts—he finished 4-of-6 from downtown.

With the Indiana defense unable to slow him down, a media timeout forcing a stoppage in play was about the best Hoosier head coach Tom Crean’s squad could get. But coming right out of the under-eight timeout, Ingram splashed home another trey and drove to the hole for a layup on back-to-back to complete a personal 10-2 run that transformed a 24-20 deficit into a 30-26 advantage.

“Before, my shots weren’t falling, but tonight, my shots were falling,” Ingram said. “We were knocking down shots at the beginning and as a result, we kept pushing. My teammates kept on finding me and we found everyone else and we just kept knocking shots down.”

Thanks to those two scoring bursts, Ingram had notched 18 points on a smooth 7-of-8 shooting by halftime, and was well within reach of his career-high of 21. He eclipsed that mark at the 9:21 mark in the second half, finding the soft spot in the Indiana zone defense and rising up from just inside the free-throw line to swish home yet another shot.

That particular jumper captured exactly what can make Ingram such a difficult threat for opposing defenses—his 6-foot-9 stature, coupled with a guard’s skill set, is an almost impossible combination to defend. He beat the Hoosiers from just about every spot on the floor Wednesday—pouring in buckets by shooting off screens, creating his own shot off the dribble or getting to the rim with a drive.

“He can have one of these games every game, I think. He can shoot the ball unbelievably,” senior Amile Jefferson said. “At his size and his length, he can almost get a shot off on anybody, so it’s no pressure for him. He shoots freely because who can block his shot? If there’s a guy out there who could block his shot, he’s too slow to stay in front of him. There’s not a lot of guys like him out there.”

After scoring in double-digits just once in his five games before Wednesday, Ingram said he was relieved to see his shot finally start falling. He has found other ways to contribute with his scoring lacking—his six rebounds Wednesday were second on the team, and his length at the top of zones has been tremendously effective when Duke chooses to mix it up defensively—but his offensive outburst could be the best sign for the Blue Devils moving forward.

“I think he’s someone who’s going to get better every game, or we’re at least pushing him to get better every game,” graduate student Marshall Plumlee said. “Talent-wise, it’s all there, and I’m really proud of how he led our team tonight. It doesn’t come as a surprise to us because we know he’s capable of having nights like he had tonight.”


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