Brandon Ingram’s first NBA game back in North Carolina was ... underwhelming, to put it kindly. The Kinston native and former Duke star scored a measly four points in 28 minutes of game action.
But his second game back in his home state? Well, that was much better.
The 6-foot-9, 190-pound winger scored 18 points Saturday night as his Los Angeles Lakers toppled the Charlotte Hornets 110-99 in the Spectrum Center. In addition to scoring, Ingram had six rebounds (and had his teammates been able to knock down a shot or two, he’d have had more than one assist).
Or in other words, a much better show for however many friends and family members he could snag tickets for – even if it was 300 of them, which he joked about postgame.
“It’s a good feeling,” Ingram said. “The support has been there ... through my high school years, my youth years, to my college year up to now, and it’s always good to see those people.”
When Ingram was in high school, he wasn’t just one of North Carolina’s most sought-after recruits, but one of the nation’s. He won a state championship each of his four years in high school. Then blue blood programs came calling, and ultimately the local kid chose Duke over North Carolina.
In his one season with the Blue Devils, Ingram was as good as advertised. He was ACC Rookie of the Year and flashed the scoring potential that led some media pundits to peg him as the next Kevin Durant. The Lakers believed in Ingram’s potential and selected him No. 2 overall in the 2016 NBA Draft.
But his first NBA season wasn’t as productive as his one season in Durham. Ingram’s lean frame – he’s the skinniest person on his team, weighing less than guards much shorter than him – meant he struggled to adjust to the professional game, both in asserting himself offensively and defensively. His length, that he has a 7-foot-3 wingspan, is one of his best attributes, but that alone doesn’t translate to professional production.
This second campaign, though, has been markedly different. Ingram put on some weight to get up to his current 190-pound standing, and he worked with Lakers coach Luke Walton on improving his confidence as much as his play. As a result, he’s averaging 16.2 points at a better-than-45 percent clip.
“He trained as hard as anyone I’ve seen train in a long time,” Walton said. “Getting that to carry over to games, it takes some reps at that, and he just seems really comfortable with what he’s doing right now.”
Saturday was just an opportunity for Ingram to flash that new aggressiveness in front of the people who have known him the longest – and he took full advantage.
Ingram showed off his smooth shooting stroke from midrange, but also a burst and ability to get to the rim that comes with that new mentality. He drove around multiple defenders and used his length to get to the rim on more than one occasion. On one play, he drove around the Hornets’ entire defense and threw down a slam over Johnny O’Bryant.
“Early in the game when we were really struggling, I thought he kind of put us on his back a little bit,” Walton said. “That dunk he had driving in the lane, things like that help a young team because it kind of gives you a little swagger and a little fight when you’re on the road.
“So he did a really good job early on of keeping us in striking distance.”
Defensively he struggled to guard Hornets center Dwight Howard in the post (three of his personal fouls, and at least one intentionally, came trying to do so), but when matched up on other wing players, he didn’t shy away from contact. When those Hornets did get past him on occasion, he used his length to disrupt their shots.
All of that, and Ingram still didn’t give himself a positive rating.
“Even tonight, I think I actually had a bad game,” Ingram said. “I tricked (missed) a lot of free throws, tricked a lot of layups that I definitely could have made.
“It just wasn’t one of my better games. You can’t tell that from the statistical sheet, but overall I just feel better going into each of my games.”
But being critical of himself in a productive outing may be a sign of growth for Ingram. Or perhaps a sign that, while he’s taken a huge leap from his rookie season to now, he still believes there’s more potential to capitalize on.
And while he’s working to get there, it’s good to give the family back home in Kinston a glimpse of what’s to come.