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Duke's Ingram excels thanks to Kinston roots

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, well before the season began, said freshman forward Brandon Ingram could be used in lineups where he'd have to defend power forwards and the reaction was ...

That guy?

The guy who needed to add about 25 pounds when he got to campus just to reach 190 pounds. Who many assumed developed guard-like skills to avoid the heavy contact in the paint. Whose long and rangy 6-foot-9 physique suggested he'd get blown away from the post with all the resistance of dandelion seeds.

"He has good strength," Krzyzewski said. "When you look at him you'd say, 'He shouldn't be strong,' but he's very well proportioned."

No one is questioning that now, especially not anyone who viewed Ingram's performance at Boston College on Saturday. He scored 25 points to go with nine rebounds and left mouths agape when he drove past Ervins Meznieks and dunked two-handed over Idy Diallo and Sammy Barnes-Thompkins.

It put the exclamation point on a five-game stretch during which he has averaged 21.2 points and 8.8 rebounds while filling in at power forward in place of senior Amile Jefferson, who has been sidelined with a foot injury.

Overall, Ingram is second on the Blue Devils in scoring with a 16.4 points per game average. He's also putting up six rebounds per game. No one questions whether his body can hold up now.

"He's a tough kid," Krzyzewski said. "He's just not a kid who will talk at you tough."

Ingram doesn't talk much at all. He's not someone whose emotions can easily be read just by looking at him. And he's a bit introverted, so those feelings aren't going to be revealed in an interview either.

So it was hard to gauge how he would react when he struggled early in the season. The Kentucky game was supposed to be a showcase, but Ingram scored just four points with one rebound. It seemed as though he was going into a shell when he followed that by combining for just 13 points and six rebounds against Georgetown and VCU.

When the Blue Devils returned to Cameron Indoor Stadium to face Yale, a couple of Duke fans sitting in the student section began calling him "Weak Daddy" under their breath.

Ingram never heard that directly, but he's used to the questions about his strength. He's never paid it much mind because the way he sees it, he proved himself in Kinston, North Carolina. And if he could develop into the top player in his hometown, he could play against anyone.

It's why long before recruiting analysts placed Ingram in the top five in the class of 2015 and he arrived at Duke, he believed that he was one of the nation's best.

"I've always been humble, but knew I could play with anybody who you put in front of me," Ingram said. "I knew Kinston was a pretty good town with a lot of good athletes so if I could play there, I knew anywhere that we traveled I could play with anyone."

See, in Kinston, a town of about 22,000 people 80 miles southeast of Raleigh, they build players who aren't known for an outward swagger because they keep it smoldering inside.

They have a toughness created from playing on baskets nailed to trees that, upon closer inspection, were really just old bicycle rims. Kinston isn't a place where many kids grow up with a sense of entitlement.

"We like to think toughness is the first part," said 18-year NBA veteran Jerry Stackhouse, who is revered as one of the greatest to ever make it from Kinston.

Before Duke, Stackhouse watched Ingram get physically tested while playing on an AAU team he coaches.

"Of course they would try to test me because I'm skinny, but it's all about my heart, my mental toughness," Ingram said. "The things that went down in my hometown helped me be ready."

In Kinston, players are molded by playing against the old guys, talented players who never made it out of town because of life's vicissitudes. Former high school heroes whose names alone still resonate on the playgrounds. The players who never made a big name but kept their skills sharp and were always looking for a good run.

It's a rite of passage as a high school-aged player to go against grown men in the gyms and playgrounds about town.

Stackhouse recalled the days he and his friends lost to teams that Ingram's father, Donald, played on before finally maturing and winning. Ingram had a similar progression. Kinston is where he learned how to survive being the skinny kid on the court.

"That was probably a knock on him early on," Stackhouse said. "People just assumed he was soft because he was skinny and he quickly proved everybody wrong."

Kinston made Ingram. That's why he carries that hometown pride everywhere. It's right there in the ode to Kinston tattooed on his left shoulder: "Small city, big dreams," with Kinston's 252 area code stuffed in between.

"It's a small town that's had a lot of change the last 20 years," said Ingram's high school coach Perry Tyndall, referring to plant closings and economic challenges. "One of the constants here is the love of basketball for so many kids. It's like a cycle that breeds itself."

The same fabric that produced Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell, who led the Charlotte 49ers to the 1977 Final Four and was the Boston Celtics' 1981 NBA Finals MVP, was woven into Stackhouse, who helped North Carolina reach the 1995 Final Four before becoming the No. 3 overall pick as a sophomore in the NBA draft that same year.

There have been plenty more who have carried the baton for the town in major college basketball, like Charles Shackleford (NC State), Craig Dawson (Wake Forest) and most recently Reggie Bullock, who also starred at North Carolina.

It's Ingram's turn now.

The versatile wingman with the 7-foot-3 wingspan has a chance to be as good as any of those before him. He's being compared to a slightly smaller version of Kevin Durant. They've got the same slight build, nearly the same height and wingspan -- not to mention the same skill set.

Ingram plays so many positions that Krzyzewski refuses to label him, aside from saying his NBA future is at guard. Ingram is such an unusual talent that Krzyzewski experimented early in the season with using a 1-3-1 half-court trap and a 1-2-2 defense with Ingram at the top.

"He's one of those guys who's a hybrid," Krzyzewski said. "You don't want a position, you want to give him the ability to play multiple places on the court. But he'll be a really good player right away."

So good that he can be one-and-done good, although Krzyzewski hasn't repeatedly said Ingram will be gone after a year in the same way he did Jahlil Okafor last season. For Ingram's part, he hasn't fully expressed his NBA desires just yet. His initial goal in high school was to play in college for two years. He acknowledges that his talent may have moved up that timetable.

"It's one year or it's two years, then it's whatever," Ingram said. "I'm coming in and my goal is, I want to be the best freshman here."

Ingram is well on his way to reaching that goal with a potential that Krzyzewski said he's just beginning to tap into.

"Eventually, it may not all be while he's at Duke," Krzyzewski said. "But he's going to be a special basketball player when it's all said and done."

Ingram already is special in Kinston. And that's good enough right now.