With the No. 2 overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Lakers selected Brandon Ingram, with the hope that he can one day turn into the next two-way, franchise player that his 6’9’’ frame and motley crew of basketball skills suggest he can grow into.
The Kinston, N.C. native who just turned 19 in September is 20-odd games into his career. While he’s struggled with his efficiency on offense, as many rookies do, he’s more than made up for it with his varied contributions on defense. Ingram has played well enough enough to earn 26.5 minutes per game on the floor for Luke Walton as a key part of one of the NBA’s best bench units.
Injuries to teammates have been a factor in Ingram showcasing his versatility by playing legit minutes at three positions – point guard, shooting guard and small forward – and even a bit of stretch power forward.
We sat down with Ingram for an extended conversation on a recent road trip to discuss his lifelong love of basketball, the influence of his family and friends along the way and his outlook on his future in the game:
Mike Trudell: What are your first memories of basketball?
Brandon Ingram: I was always around basketball, from when I was four or five years old. My dad ran a gym* about five minutes from my house, so I was always there after I got out of school or the Boys and Girls Club. I used to watch the games there, and as I got older we used to play pickup basketball. I started to get in and play against the older guys.
*Martin C. Freeman Gym in Kinston, N.C.
MT: When did you realize you could really play?
Ingram: On my youth teams, I always pretty good. I guess I just really started to play with some of my peers around age 8 or 9. We always battled and had fun playing in the rec leagues.
MT: How did your dad influence you in terms of hoops?
Ingram: He ran the gym and played basketball himself, including in a 3-on-3 traveling league. He played in some older leagues when I was younger, and I used to watch him.
MT: When did you make your first basketball leap?
Ingram: Coming out of middle school, my dad put me in a position where I played with Jerry Stackhouse on his AAU team. That gave me an opportunity to flourish and play with or against some of the bigger names out there.
MT: I always think about how if Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace had stayed past their sophomore years at UNC, they’d have teamed up with to-be freshman Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, plus Jeff McInnis, who’d go on to an 11-year NBA career. Not sure they’d have lost much.
Ingram: Wow … that’s crazy.
MT: I digress. How did your relationship with Stackhouse grow?
Ingram: He’s always been in my background*. I’ve known him since fourth grade, when he used to come down with his family and have pick up games at the rec center. I was always there, and he always gave me pieces of advice to keep working. He definitely took me under his wing.
*Stackhouse is also from Kinston, and grew up about 10 minutes away from Ingram’s childhood home.
MT: I sometimes talk to (Lakers radio analyst and co-host of “Thompson and Trudell” on 710 ESPN radio) Mychal Thompson about how much his own playing career and what he learned from it influenced his son Klay, and it certainly seems to have been a major advantage for him. Of course the major difference is the genetics, but did you feel like Stackhouse provided a special level of inspiration and a path for you?
Ingram: Definitely. Ultimately, it was always my dream to be here in the NBA. I just took it serious. I knew if I put in the work I could eventually get here. I never knew it would happen this fast, but seeing Jerry Stackhouse and some other guys like (Detroit Pistons forward) Reggie Bullock come out of Kinston paved the way and I definitely thought I could make it.
MT: You mentioned to me after you were drafted that one of your hobbies was fishing, if just on occasion, but that you were mostly focused on basketball. That was No. 1? And No. 2? And so on?
Ingram: It was all about hoops for me. It was always about the gym. I was always driving back and forth to Atlanta where Jerry’s AAU team originated. That was the main goal. Then my senior year, I worried about the next step past high school basketball. That really was my main focus.
MT: How long was that drive from Kinston to Atlanta? How often would you make the trek?
Ingram: It was about seven hours. Sometimes it’d be every other weekend, starting in 8th grade. Stack would always send one of his guys down to pick me up. Basically, we were all like family. One of Jerry’s friends who lives with me now and has always looked out for me. It’s all family. He lived in Atlanta, and he’d drive to Kinston and pick up me and one of my high school teammates, Darnell Dunn.
MT: You were the best player, right? The franchise? Be honest…
MT: We know you were. At Kinston High School, you won four straight state championships. Winning titles isn’t easy anywhere, especially in such a basketball rich state. But was that expected from your school? Was it a surprise at all?
Ingram: Kinston has always been a basketball town. The first year we won wasn’t a surprise at all. My freshman year, when we came into gyms, we had a reputation that we were going to blow you out by 30. As the years went on, I saw my role get bigger and bigger. I took a leadership position and tried to be as vocal as I could, tried to lead by example and do all the right things.
MT: What was your biggest challenge in high school?
Ingram: My senior year in the regional finals we had a battle against a school Farmbille Central. They were pretty good, with a lot of talented guys that played both football and basketball. Lots of athletes. But usually going through those runs, we always bought into our coach, Perry Tindle, and we had good years. We all believed in each other.
I came off the bench as a freshman as the sixth man guy. I was labeled as a shooter and a little bit of a slasher that tried to do the little things. I played wing my sophomore and junior year, but we had a lack of guards my senior year and coach just put me in a good position with the ball in my hands playing point; he knew I liked to push the ball.
MT: I know you were 6’2’’ as a freshman, and that you basically grew two inches a year until you got to your current height of 6’8’’. How were you defensively before you added the extra length?
Ingram: I was blocking shots but I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now on defense.
MT: Are you done growing, by the way?
Ingram: I’m not sure. The last time I measured myself was the beginning of this year.
MT: You went on to have a successful freshman year at Duke, in which you ultimately lost to No. 1 seeded Oregon in the Sweet 16. You guys had only six healthy players, and you played 40 minutes, scoring 24 points on 9 of 20 FG’s with five boards, three assists, two steals and a block. Given the way all four of your high school seasons ended with a title, how did you take that loss?
Ingram: Of course my goal at Duke was to win the national championship, but we were shorthanded, and lost one of our big guys that was very important to the team. By the end of the season we only played about six guys. But we tried our hardest and did our best and overall had a successful season.
Duke was always my dream school, since I was a little kid. I always liked the way they played. I liked the way Coach K coached. When I visited Duke and when he took his home visit (to Kinston), I felt the connection and I knew it was going to be a successful year for me.
MT: Did you get a chance to be a student? How did you balance your basketball dream that became imminent pretty quickly upon your arrival with trying to be a college kid?
Ingram: I always lived in the moment. I never tried to jump the process. I knew I’d keep getting better if I kept putting the work in. If I stayed humble, better things would come. So I stayed grounded, stayed in relations with my teammates and friends around school. I did my work in class and just knew things would (work out).
MT: Is that just you? Where do you think that comes from?
Ingram: That’s how I am, but of course I was raised by good people. I was raised by my mom and dad, and by my great Aunt (Leatha Smith, on his mother’s side).
I was raised by Aunt Leatha in the projects until I got to elementary school. She died two or three years ago. She taught me a lot of stuff. We used to laugh and joke. She’s one of the reasons I got some of the tattoos on my arm. I like the art, but there are some things that mean a lot to me.
Basically, I was there with Aunt Leatha because my mom and dad were always working, and my other family was always
working too. They were trying to provide for me, and Aunt Leatha was always there. It was no problem for me to be over there even if my mom and dad were home. She lived really close.
MT: We’ll have to do a separate interview about the tattoos, but for now, where did your parents work?
Ingram: My mom works at a pharmaceutical medical place where she fulfills prescriptions for older sick people, and my dad worked at forklift plant.
MT: I’d imagine that part of your work ethic and drive to be great comes from seeing your parents work so hard?
Ingram: Absolutely. I appreciate it so much more now. I’d see my dad wake up at 4 a.m. to go to the forklift plant, and come back at 3 p.m. to take an hour nap, then work at the gym from 5 p.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. Then he’d go to sleep and do the same thing again the next day. I definitely saw the work ethic to provide for the family. And my mom still works all the time, she doesn’t stop working. It’s amazing to see that.
MT: What’s it like having your parents on the other side of the country?
Ingram: I text my mom every day, and my dad about every other day. My dad gives me pointers every night I have games and also they both tell me how proud of me they are. My mom is a big believer in the man above so she always prays for me and has different things to challenge me and keep me on my toes, challenge me with different things.
MT: I know you have a half brother and a half sister who are seven years older than you, and that your brother moved to L.A. with you as well…
Ingram: Our relationship was built upon basketball. We were always in the gym together, and I went to his high school practices. We can talk about anything, both outside of basketball and about the game too.
MT: On Lakers Media Day, I asked you what the best gift you’ve ever given to somebody is, and you said a house for your parents. That’s not bad!
Ingram: It’s a good feeling to know that mom and dad worked so hard to provide for everything you had and never go without (what was needed). To finally get a chance to give it back and have an opportunity to do that (is great). I think it was always the idea. They were looking for a house for about five or six years. They were tired of the old house we lived in. They wanted to stay somewhere more secure and out of the way. So that popped a bubble in my head that when I had the chance I could finally do it.
MT: That’s pretty cool. Let me get back to basketball. Luke Walton has asked you to do many different things, from coming off the bench as a small forward or starting as a shooting guard or point guard. What’s it been like for you?
Ingram: Basically for me, it’s just about winning. It’s about doing whatever I can to affect the game in different ways offensively and defensively. Just try to do the little things. I think defensively, I’ve done an exceptional job of trying to make it hard for my guy to score and try to help my teammates out. Offensively, I’ve been a little slow coming along. My shots aren’t falling. But I’m starting to get to the spots I want to more and more as I continue each game. It’s been a confidence builder for me every game.
MT: You’ve had some rough shooting nights where you still managed to be a net positive for the team, like in Chicago, when you went 1 for 9 but finished at +14…
Ingram: As a basketball player you can’t hang your head when something isn’t going well. You go back and work on what you haven’t done well at the end of the day. But right at the moment, you have to find a different way to affect the game and help out your teammates. I think that’s one of the reasons why I get to stay on the floor. Just try to make the right pass, or help my guy defensively, try to stay in front of my man, try to get rebounds, try to slow the game down … there are different types of ways.
MT: Many NBA rookies struggle to shoot the ball efficiently, but I wonder what you’re seeing thus far why it’s been a challenge offensively?
Ingram: I think for the first seven or ten it might have been the confidence in my shot. But now, the last few games, I’ve been getting to my spots, but I’m just not knocking shots down. Definitely, everything I’m doing in warm ups, everything I’m practicing, I’m (able to translate to the games) to get the shots I want now. It’s just about (practicing) different repetitions of what I do in the games, and I’m sure the shots will fall.
MT: In that same time period you mentioned, it seems like you’re starting to take the contact better, or know what angles to drive into to avoid it. Is that something that takes specific work, or just a gradual feeling out process?
Ingram: It’s definitely something that I’ve been working on in my workouts. It’s not about just taking the hit, it’s about footwork and movements I can do after taking hits. I think in this (NBA) game you can get away with an extra step, and just utilizing my steps and trying to create different finishes I can do.
I need to try to use my length. Right now – I said this to Larry (Nance, Jr.) the other day – I actually don’t know how long I am. Sometimes I can flip the ball over and dunk it. Sometimes I don’t even notice.
MT: There was a play in Chicago against Robin Lopez where you drove past him going to your left, starting outside the free throw line, and extended your arm, and you basically dropped the ball directly into the hoop with your left hand. It did look like what you just mentioned, where you didn’t realize you were all the way at the rim so quickly…
Ingram: Absolutely. Sometimes I make it difficult for myself. I just don’t notice it sometimes.
MT: Do you think it’s a fair criticism that you could use your left hand even more when you drive that way?
Ingram: I mean, you normally see guys finish with their dominant hand. Unless you just have to use your left hand. I normally just go with my dominant (right) hand. I think my problem right now (with finishing) is just jumping off two feet instead of one.
MT: So right now, you typically jump off two, but you’ll be better when you start jumping off one more?
Ingram: Right. Jumping off two, the load up takes too long. The guys in this league recover faster.
MT: How would you summarize how you’re feeling right now, 20-odd games into your NBA career?
Ingram: Honestly, I think I will keep getting better every single game. I can see it. I see myself being more aggressive, getting more comfortable. As this season goes along my confidence is going to build. You’ll keep seeing more of who I am. The scorer that I can be, the two-way player I can be. I’m just going to keep getting better.
MT: Do you believe you can grow into the two-way player that winning NBA teams have had to have with almost no exceptions in the history of the league? Do you see how you can impact the game on both ends as you keep improving?
Ingram: I think so. Coming into this league, I wouldn’t have thought about being as good defensively and using my length. I knew the offense was there, but I floated around defensively a bit in the past. In high school and college, you don’t have to play as much defense (as in the NBA). But now I can see it. I can see a little bit of a vision of being a two-way player. That’s ultimately going to help myself and help the team as I try to get better and better each year and see where we can be at.