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Duke's Brandon Ingram figures to be quite a catch for some NBA team

The trips to Atlantic Beach started at 6 a.m., just before the sun rose over the northeastern part of North Carolina.

Brandon Ingram would sleepily get into his grandmother's car, study the tree-lined flat lands on Highway 70 and arrive at the pier to start catching whatever saltwater fish found the bait attractive. They'd eagerly pull up spots and mullets and occasionally small sharks that would be released faster than you could say the name of the local watering hole, the aptly named Tackle Box Tavern.

The spots were a particularly good treat. They were only about as big as a person's hand, not large enough to be filleted, but easily dipped in batter and pan-fried with the head chopped off and tail still intact.

These are the days Ingram remembers as a child from the tough part of Kinston, a little over an hour from the Atlantic Beach haven.

Life will soon change dramatically for the soft-spoken teenage Duke star, who talks about fishing as effortlessly as he moves around the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium, his skills as a freshman making him the likely No. 2 pick in the NBA draft behind Louisiana State's Ben Simmons.

Ingram hasn't declared for the draft, a mere formality at this point, meaning the Lakers will take a long look at him if the lottery balls fall their way and they end up with the second pick.

Lakers scouts will see a player with three-point touch who rebounds steadily for a 6-foot-9 small forward forced to play power forward because of attrition on Duke's roster.

They'll see someone who can handle the ball with long arms and drive proficiently to the basket with a facial feature that might remind them of one of their former players — sleepy-eyed Sam Perkins.

They'll also notice Ingram's physique. It's thin. Very.

Ingram, listed at 190 pounds, knows it. The main critique of his game is his frame.

"I definitely hear that a lot," he said, adding that he gained muscle since arriving at Duke, eating often at the athletic department-sponsored dining area and lifting weights three to four times a week.

"I just look back and see how I put on 20 pounds when I first came here and know that I have another off-season to put on more weight. I know I'm dedicated to doing that, but what people don't see is I'm not just a twig. I'm actually pretty strong."

He invites the comparison to Kevin Durant, who was rail-thin at Texas and definitely wouldn't be called barrel-chested as a perennial All-Star for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Ingram's favorite team is the Thunder and his favorite player Durant, after whom he patterned his game while spending all that time at the Teachers Memorial Recreation Center in Kinston.

He'd head there after junior high classes ended at 3 p.m., play with the high school kids when they showed up a bit later and then stay after they cleared out, working on his shot with his father, Donald, who was the rec center director. Ingram sometimes took 800 shots, staying an hour past its 9 p.m. closing time, in a city still recovering from the loss of textile industries to overseas competition, not to mention the devastating flood of 1999.

"It kept me out of a lot of trouble, being that Kinston is the way it is," Ingram said. "I think it has become more violent as I was growing up. From my eighth-grade year to my senior year, it was pretty crazy. I kind of stayed out of the mix, being with my dad in the gym all the time. It kind of kept me off the streets."

Ingram was always one to swim against the current.

He chose Duke over North Carolina, a surprising move from Tar Heel-rooted Kinston. Unlike Jerry Stackhouse and Reggie Bullock, Kinston kids who chose UNC, Ingram grew up a Duke fan.

Ingram's high school teams at Kinston were sometimes good enough to hit the 40-point mercy rule, at which point a running game clock would be used and his character would be checked.

Kinston was on a roll one particular night and the mercy rule went into effect in the second quarter. Ingram immediately stopped scoring after that, uninterested in racking up individual stats.

"He wasn't a record-chaser. He wasn't ego-driven," said his high school coach, Perry Tyndall. "He was a true, true teammate that just wanted success for his team."

After a rare conference loss last year at Goldsboro High, Ingram worked on his shot from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., after the bus arrived back at Kinston, Tyndall said.

It's endemic in his success after only a handful of months at Duke.

In a run last month against top-15 teams Louisville, Virginia and North Carolina, he averaged 21 points, nine rebounds and 2.7 made three-pointers.

His shot wasn't sharp against the Tar Heels — seven-for-21 accuracy — but he earned praise from Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski after scoring three consecutive baskets in the final minutes. He was the first Duke player since 1962 with 20 points and 10 rebounds in his first game against North Carolina.

"There's a lot of pressure on him, not just here. He's 18 and he's not ready to be who he will be," Krzyzewski said, alluding to Ingram's tantalizing pro future. "He's pretty darn good. He's also good enough not to let not hitting [shots] affect him. There's a toughness element with that — you know, like, 'It's not going to be my night, no, I'm going to work through it.' He really gave us a stretch there that was incredible."

Like most 18-year-olds, there are holes in the game. He had 10 turnovers in a rematch with Louisville and wasn't real fluid Tuesday against Wake Forest, missing 11 of 17 attempts in a surprisingly close Duke victory.

Even on Tuesday, a Western Conference personnel evaluator saw something from Ingram he wasn't expecting. "The thing that impressed me was his rebounding," he said. "Eleven rebounds and some trips where he kept offensive possessions going with tips."

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There is a lot at stake over the next few months. The second pick in the NBA draft, for example, will earn more than $23 million over his first four years.

Ingram has found a way to relax, to ease the pressure. He'll grab some shading pencils and charcoal and start sketching.

Sometimes he does portraits of NBA players. He spent four hours working on a Durant sketch and has profiled Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul too.

Other times he draws copies of the tattoos that run up and down his arms, including one on his right shoulder that shows hands in prayer, an ode to his grandmother, Ida Mae, who died in 2010, and his great aunt, Leatha Smith, who passed away last summer.

Ida Mae was the one who always took him fishing and Leatha helped raise him for several years, "kind of in the projects area," Ingram said, while his father and mother, Joann, worked full-time jobs in Kinston.

"I draw anything I can see — still-life drawings, perspective drawings," Ingram said, visibly proud.

Maybe he'll return to Atlantic Beach one day when the breeze is mild, the sun is trying to sneak through the clouds and the spot fish are biting. With memories of his grandmother and possibly a successful NBA career in tow, it could be his most fulfilling sketch.

Follow Mike Bresnahan on Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 06, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "LAKERS AND THE LOTTERY A SERIES OF OCCASIONAL STORIES ABOUT KEY PLAYERS LIKELY TO BE AVAILABLE IN THE 2016 NBA DRAFT - Thin heir - Duke freshman Ingram, who has been compared to Durant, figures to be a catch for some team" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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