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Duke's Brandon Ingram Could Be Sleeper for 2016 NBA Draft's Top Spot

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterOctober 29, 2015

DURHAM, NC - OCTOBER 17: Brandon Ingram #14 drives against Amile Jefferson #21 of the Duke Blue Devils during Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

For the most part, the star power projected to drive the 2016 NBA draft discussion is fueled by two particular freshmen. I haven't heard of a preseason big board that didn't list LSU's Ben Simmons and Kentucky's Skal Labissiere at the top. From their physical growth to fundamental development, they've each put together strong, exciting cases for future pro potential. 

I'm just not so convinced we should automatically separate them into an impenetrable tier.

Just like it was last year, the door should be open to challengers for the No. 1 spot. And none poses more of a threat to Simmons and Skal than Brandon Ingram, Duke's prized freshman forward who also oozes NBA upside. 

DURHAM, NC - OCTOBER 17: Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils works on offense during Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

At 6'9½" with a giant 7'3" wingspan, he brings power forward measurements to the wing position, which he'll eventually play in the NBA. Along with Kevin Durant, he'd be the only 3 man in the league (according to the DraftExpress database) with that much size and length (taller than Rudy Gay, Al-Farouq Aminu, Kawhi Leonard, Marvin Williams).

Ingram will likely spend some time at the 4 under coach Mike Krzyzewski (like Jabari Parker and Justise Winslow did), but long term, his face-up game, quickness and athleticism will be best suited at small forward, where he projects as a mismatch once his body fills out.

The fact that he just turned 18 years old in September—making Ingram 10 months younger than Simmons and over a year younger than Labissiere (despite being in the same class)—may even help diminish concerns over his skinny arms and legs. We're still going to hear "needs to get stronger" repeatedly directed at Ingram throughout the season, but he's just too young to really penalize for lack of strength. 

Coach Krzyzewski already noted some added bulk on Ingram since July:  

Duke Basketball @dukebasketball

"Ingram will be all over. He's that good of a player" — Coach K. Says Ingram has gained 23 pounds (lots of muscle) since being on campus.

Though always highly touted, Ingram really opened eyes following April's McDonald's All-American event and Nike Hoop Summit, when he combined to shoot 11-of-17 for 27 points between the two games.

His sales pitch ultimately stems from an exceptional skill level and scoring ability, with the latter more advanced than both Simmons' and Labissiere's. 

A slick handle powers his one-on-one attack. Ingram excels as a shot-creator capable of separating over the defense into pull-ups, step-backs, floaters and fallaways. And with dangerous shooting range and shot-making versatility, there isn't a look he isn't comfortable knocking down. 

Unlike Simmons, who's expected to play a similar NBA position, Ingram is sharp around the perimeter. Scouts shouldn't have to worry about whether his jumper will ever come around. It's already a built-in weapon in the arsenal that allows him to play off the ball in a stretch, spot-up role. 

A high release point even lets Ingram convert when guarded or under pressure—a noticeable strength he's flashed, and one that should hold significant value in the pros against bigger and longer defenders. 

DURHAM, NC - OCTOBER 17: Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils dribbles during Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

Regardless, to climb to the top of the prospect pyramid, Ingram will need a little help from Simmons and Labissiere—and by help we're talking about them giving scouts reason to question their star potential. 

Simmons' shooting stroke and half-court scoring prowess aren't especially convincing, which could be a slight concern, considering he isn't an interior or post player. Meanwhile, age, a 225-pound frame, limited off-the-dribble game, inexperience and lack of polish might lead the lottery-winning general manager to believe Labissiere offers too much risk.

Still, it's also on Ingram to establish himself as a go-to option Duke can lean on night after night. Sporadic flashes here and there won't cut it—at least if we're talking about first-pick aspirations.   

An Eastern Conference NBA scout expressed reservations to me about Ingram's energy. Ingram doesn't exactly play with constant bounce or intensity, nor does he jump out as a two-way, defensive difference-maker—something Simmons and Labissiere both have going for them.

DURHAM, NC - OCTOBER 17: Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils concentrates at the free throw line during Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

Ingram is by no means a No. 1 overall favorite heading into the 2015-16 season. He's more of a long shot. But so was Karl-Anthony Towns last November. 

At this early stage, Ingram appears to be a low-risk, yet potentially high-reward option, which could go a long way in a draft that might be missing transcendent talent. 

A best-case projection, which if deemed credible would justify top-pick consideration, has Ingram evolving into a matchup problem and scorer that a franchise can feature. He'll now have a year to sell this vision as both believable and likely. 

Look for Ingram to remain a fixture in the top-five conversation and a possible sleeper to leapfrog Simmons and Labissiere.

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