Duke’s Brandon Ingram is rare case of a quiet, creative superstar

He’s hard to read and that’s what makes him so dangerous, so unsolvable.

It’s also what makes Brandon Ingram so intriguing.

Duke’s sleepy-eyed slender superstar has steadily ascended his way to an outstanding freshman season, one that now has him, in the eyes of some in the basketball business, leapfrogging the previously preordained No. 1 draft pick, LSU’s Ben Simmons.

Simmons commanded so many college basketball headlines from October through, well, even just a few days ago, when his team removed itself from consideration for any postseason tournament. As LSU’s letdown of a season strung along, and as Ingram’s own teammate became the latest confirmed Villain of Duke, Ingram was overshadowed but nonetheless put up the second-best campaign of any freshman in the country, averaging 17 points, seven rebounds and a block-and-a-half.

“I think about it from time to time,” Ingram said of his ascension at Duke and being a No. 1 pick. “Is this really all happening? It’s been good for me.”

As you’re watching Duke in the tournament, keep an eye on Ingram not just because he’s unconcernedly terrific at basketball, but also watch his mannerisms. Watch his face, his demeanor, his body language. Ingram is a flat line, a rock-steady hand. He does not show emotion. Always steady. Not too high, never too low.

Any response can be a reveal of weakness. So Ingram will not show weakness.

Think of his face. Have you ever seen him smile? Can you recall the young man pounding his chest or barking at an official? He doesn’t even campaign against his own fouls. In a worst-case scenario, he’ll approach a referee and ask, “What did I do wrong? Explain it to me.”

“I taught him never to go out there with fear in his heart about another player,” his father, Donald, said. “That’s why his demeanor, he goes out there with pure confidence. He’s an observer. He uses it as an advantage.”

His brother, Bo, called him a “sponge” for basketball.

Ingram’s rise is a very real conversation. Here’s what Jonathan Givony, a leading NBA draft analyst, wrote at The Vertical just this week: “Ingram is 14 months younger than Simmons, has a longer wingspan by four inches and a standing reach six and a half inches higher. Ingram is a better shooter — which is perhaps the most important skill in today’s NBA — and has shown a much better trajectory throughout the college season. The intel on Ingram as a teammate and competitor has been much stronger than Simmons’. Yes, Ingram has a much more frail frame now, but it’s easy to envision him filling out as he ages and matures.”

Ingram, who told CBS Sports he’d ideally like to add 25 pounds of muscle in the next two years, has helped the reigning national champs overcome the loss of three top-24 picks in the 2015 draft, plus the departure of vital veteran Quinn Cook. Plus, for most of this season he’s had increased responsibility in the frontcourt due to Amile Jefferson’s foot injury, which sidelined the senior. The Blue Devils won 23 games and are the No. 4 seed in the West region, where they’ll play No. 13 UNC Wilmington on Thursday at 12:15 p.m. ET.

Ingram’s cracked a code here. It’s not easy to become a star at Duke, play your way to elite draft status and still remain relatively anonymous — and accepted by the rest of the country. Yet Ingram’s done it, and he’s done it quietly, which is how he’s mostly lived his life and stayed out of serious trouble in a dangerous place.

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In some respects Ingram is a mystery man even to his own family. For example, he’s recently rediscovered his passion for drawing. He used to have an occasional pull to the page when he was younger, but only in the past few months has he started to stimulate his creativity in such a way again. He shared two of his illustrations with CBS Sports. His sketching skills are still raw but the artwork has a youthful spirit behind it; depictions of current NBA stars, guys who will push him to compete for his career just a few months from now.

Yet, when asked about Ingram’s sketches, both his father and his brother said they had no idea this had become a hobby. It was simply something Ingram took to and somewhat kept to himself. He has little surprises to him, and he’s still impressing his father in many ways that have nothing to do with basketball.

“I always liked trying to recreate still-life images of people,” Ingram said. “It’s been fun doing that in this class I’m taking now.”

Ingram’s sketch of James Harden. (Courtesy of Brandon Ingram)

We often see these players as nothing but that: players. But just about any great athlete has to have some sort of creative streak in him. Seeing the angles, knowing the designs before others, it’s what leads athletes to be so great. Sometimes, that talent and imagination translates in the brain with other activity. So it has with Ingram and his amateur art.

Ingram grew up in a one-story house on Highland Avenue on the north side of Kinston, N.C. He spent his younger years with his great aunt, and every so often, he’d get to take a 70-mile drive down route 70 to Morehead City, where he’d dangle his legs off a bridge next to Atlantic Beach and catch fish with his grandmother.

Brandon has two half-siblings: He shares a father with Bo and a mother with his younger sister, Brittany. Bo grew up in a different house 10 minutes away but would spend weekends with Brandon, teaching him basketball. Ingram was raised by a trusting family in an unsteady area. They never had to worry about him but always worried about the world he grew up around.

Athletes rising above dangerous conditions and escaping from shady neighborhoods is one of the oldest tropes in sports. But just because the stories are prevalent doesn’t make them any less remarkable. Kinston comes in at a “1” out of 100 on the crime index, according to the national Neighborhood Scout service. The 1 signifies the most dangerous possible rating.

Ingram has lost friends and former teammates to gun violence; one of them was murdered in December. Others have been lucky enough to survive gun shot wounds. His father said an acquaintance of Ingram’s was killed last year after leaving a convenience store, when her body was used as shield. She was an innocent bystander caught walking next to the wrong person at the wrong time while gang-incited vendettas exposed themselves once more on the streets on Kinston.

“It’s a good town, but as I grew older, it got kind of violent,” Ingram said. “Most of those guys I knew as friends, but they knew the direction I was headed. They tried to protect me, even in the gym, they would tell me to sit down or something. If I’m in the wrong place, they’d let me know.”

Ingram’s personal sketch of Bulls star Jimmy Butler. (Courtesy of Brandon Ingram)

Dad had a rule: Be up the hill. Always be up the hill. Don’t be down the hill.

“These kids around here, it’s like a turf war, so to speak,” Donald Ingram said. “Wearing the wrong colors and crazy stuff like that. North is up the hill, where it’s safer, and south is down the hill. And don’t be caught wearing a certain color somewhere. A friend of Brandon’s was playing with him at the gym only a couple days before. He was on a bike on a weekday afternoon. It doesn’t matter the time of the day down here. Sometimes you would think it’s the night. No. Guys come out here and are shooting in the wide-open daylight.”

Ingram was kept clear of chaos and bullets because his basketball talent was recognized by friends and paternal neighborhood watchdogs as something special. Ingram’s exceptional abilities on the court started to become evident near the end of middle school. His father, too.

“The kids in the bad areas leave me and his family alone because they understand I’m not a snitch,” Donald Ingram said.

Donald started his career as a police officer, then fruitlessly pursued dreams of becoming a pro basketball overseas. He didn’t make it past semi-pro circuits in America. After giving up basketball, he landed back in Kinston in the ’90s when his grandmother became ill. He rejoined the police force, working in town of LaGrange. Brandon was born on Sept. 2, 1997. At that point, the town had criminal concerns, but they were largely contained to the east and south side of town. The dynamics of Kinston changed when Brandon was 2, after Hurricane Floyd dropped more than a foot of rain on the area in 1999. The south side was deluged.

“Because of that, some of the crime from east and south side relocated,” Donald Ingram said. “And they moved to the northern part simply because of the housing that was available. FEMA relocated hundreds. As time went on, things started getting worse. People he grew up with started getting in trouble a lot in school. Some started getting in trouble with the law and were sent to juvenile detention. I was recognizing that then. I separated him from those kids as much I could.”

Donald eventually inherited managerial duties of a local gym. His full-time work now is at a welding plant, where he makes fork lifts, but he’s become a community protector for a lot of people. Basketball has made it happen.

That gym is small, not even a full-sized court. The walls and sidelines crunched against the 3-point lines in the corners. You’d have to stand on the balls of your feet not to step out of bounds. The backboards were wood and had no shooting squares painted on. The rims were old and basic. Brandon would get antsy on Friday and Saturday nights. He and his friends would get games going at midnight.

“The area we were around, there was a lot of influence where you could easily get into the wrong crowd and be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bo Ingram said. “Any time we wanted to go, whether it was late at night, we always had access to the gym. There were friends that were involved in different things, gang activity. It was easy to get in trouble. There were friends and people we knew that lost their lives around that violence.”

Donald Ingram changed gym protocol. He created an open-door policy to massage the tensions between different groups in the town. There were a lot of clashing cultures and personalities. In the beginning, there were fights in the gym. Teens vs. teens — and teens vs. grown adults.

“I was talking to them as a black man at my job,” Donald Ingram said. “Saying, ‘You don’t have another place to go. If you fight, they’re going to come up and shut this place down. Don’t you see, you’ve got a black man running it. If you’re gonna do your fighting, if you’ve absolutely got to fight, don’t do it here.'”

The fights went on but dwindled over the course of two years.

These fights from went on from 2009 through 2011. Eventually, a culture was established. As the gym became a safe haven, Ingram got better. He loved football, too. His dad wanted him to play, but mom wouldn’t allow it. As basketball began to dominate his life, Jerry Stackhouse wanted him on his AAU team. The North Carolina legend is from Kinston. Donald Ingram has known him for more than 20 years.

This led plenty of Carolina fans to think Ingram would wear their shade of blue one day.

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In many ways, it was always going to be Duke for Ingram, but that didn’t prevent his recruitment from becoming one of the most intense courtships in the state’s history. Ingram led Kinston to four straight state titles and had every major program in the state wooing him. He held out as long as he could, but ultimately, the kid who grew up wearing a Duke jersey, a youngin who went against the grain in that town by rooting for the Blue Devils when most others liked Carolina, picked Duke.

“He always had that jersey on, riding around or wherever we were,” Bo Ingram said.

Ingram decided on Duke after a North Carolina in-home visit, which wound up being the last in-home visit for any staff. The family had a wonderful Sunday without phone calls. Donald Ingram said his son decided “four or five days before” officially announcing.

“When it got near the end, it got too hectic and confusing to him,” his father said. “It got stressful at the end for him, for all of us.”

Ingram has said multiple times that the NCAA’s (still ongoing) investigation into UNC’s program factored into his decision.

“I didn’t listen to the people outside of my family other than maybe Jerry and (former UNC player) Reggie Bullock,” he said. “But even those guys didn’t sway me anyway.”

It’s worked out for all. UNC is a No. 1 seed this year, while Duke wouldn’t be near the team it is now if it didn’t have No. 14. The backdrop to Ingram’s upcoming NCAA Tournament run, however long or short it lasts, will be how he performs on college basketball’s biggest stage and whether they might lead him to definitively become a No. 1 prospect. It is a mortal lock that he’ll be leaving Duke this spring.

“Of course it’s in the back of my head right now,” Ingram said. “I think about it a little bit because I have to. It is important for me to stay in the moment and right now and show that I care about this team and the aspiration of this team to make a national championship. I’m ready to experience it and ready for all of it. I’m ready for our guys to make a push. I believe in everyone in the locker room.”

Bo Ingram graduated from UT-Arlington in 2012 after playing two years at South Plains College, an elite juco school. He’s now 25 and living in Lubbock, Texas, trying to make a living playing basketball while working part-time on the side. Brandon will be a top-two pick; Bo was cut by the D-League before even playing in a game.

“It’s a blessing to witness something like this,” Bo Ingram said. “Our family, the background we come from, it’s a great blessing for us because we are a family full of love. We love to reach out to people and help people along the way.”

Stackhouse was the face of Kinston for more than two decades, and he still does tremendous things for that community. Brandon is now the torchbearer. It’s not required responsibility, but athletic gifts engender social representation. Ingram is the spindly superstar who exemplifies the good in college athletics and is the reminder that you don’t have to be the loudest to become the greatest. Head down, eyes up, mouth closed — and be up the hill.

Brandon Ingram has been the rare kind of Duke star who has blended in. (USATSI)

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