Attack. That's all Brandon Ingram is thinking. He sees LeBron James dribbling at the top of the key, crossing over, left to right. Ingram approaches James and crouches down into a defensive stance.
Tiny Dog versus The King.
Yes, Lakers players still call Ingram "Tiny Dog"—"Tiny" because, as a rookie, he was so skinny, so light that he looked like he might blow away in the wind. "Dog" because he isn't afraid to challenge anyone.
Not even LeBron.
Tiny Dog bends low, steadying his gaze on The King's stomach. He swarms him with his gangly arms fully extended. He wants to make him feel his 7'3'' wingspan, to make the words scrawled on his arms look close enough to read.
Editor's note: Opportunity next to LeBron. A crown for the taking. A max contract that needs to be lived up to. Welcome to "Time Is Now"—our look at the three players feeling the urgency in 2018-19.
It doesn't matter. LeBron torches him from every spot he chooses. Ingram closes out to play him tightly. He slides his feet quickly. But LeBron hits one shot after another. On offense, Ingram gets solid looks. But his jumpers miss short, and he is unable to fall into a rhythm.
The two continue to battle. The intensity of this late-September workout at the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo is palpable. Ingram's energy is unwavering. "I wanted to get the best out of LeBron James," Ingram would say later, sitting in the team's media room.
After a few more daggers, LeBron finishes Ingram off.
Teammates, gathered on the sidelines to watch, are impressed with Ingram's play. But Ingram is upset with himself. His eyes, which hide underneath the short braids that gently droop over his forehead, are fixed on the floor as he combs through each play, obsessively, in his mind. He chastises himself for missing shots he usually makes. For forcing shots he doesn't usually take. The voice inside his head has always been harsh. Never mind that he's barely 21 years old. He's sure of himself yet painfully modest. He aches to be really good, really badly. The distance between his ambitions and his reality motivates and frustrates him.
"In the two years that I've been in the NBA, I don't think I've played to my ability," Ingram says. As he speaks, he sounds like someone much older. He takes his time with each sentence, as if making sure each syllable counts. His voice is barely audible, but there's excitement in it, as if he knows he is a man in the middle of a metamorphosis: not quite caterpillar, not quite butterfly. "Even just me being comfortable and playing my game," he adds. "I don't think I've ever been on the floor, comfortable."
The Lakers are counting on Ingram to find comfort on the floor. To come into his own. There were rumors in the offseason that Ingram would be included in a trade for Kawhi Leonard, but the Lakers didn't make the deal. Instead, they bet on their development as a function of his: As he grows, they will, too. If he doesn't find his groove, they may not either.
"In the two years that I've been in the NBA, I don't think I've played to my ability. ... I don't think I've ever been on the floor, comfortable."
No one is measuring more feverishly than Ingram. Last season, he averaged 16.1 points (up from 9.4 the year prior), 5.3 boards (up from 4.0) and 3.9 assists (up from 2.1) on 47 percent shooting (up from 40.2). But he still seems unsatisfied and has spent many moons searching, adapting, pushing himself.
"I think Brandon likes to be perfect," says Mike Krzyzewski, his former Duke coach. "He's very critical of himself."
When all parts of Ingram connect on the court, it is mesmerizing. He blocks shots, reads defenses, nails pull-up jumpers, finds spaces and places to flow within a set. Other times, he looks less sure. Contemplative. Frustrated, even. When Ingram catches the ball, he typically knows what he's going to do with it; it's just a matter of his body heeding his mind's commands. He intuits and reacts, intuits and reacts. But he's careful with his movements. Sometimes Ingram can seem like he is moving in slow motion. His demeanor, subdued.
"He's reflective," says Perry Tyndall, Ingram's former high school coach. "He has always taken that inward look and said, 'What can I do to change? To be better? To be what's needed?' He holds himself accountable."
Ingram drifts between modes, a nomad who is at home anywhere, never quite settling in one place. His instincts and skill set have made him a poster boy for the positionless NBA. "With his versatility, it's kind of seamless to fit him into a game," says Grayson Allen, a guard for the Utah Jazz and Ingram's former teammate at Duke. "He can go anywhere. He can adjust to whatever you're doing."
It's that level of dexterity that has people so enthusiastic about what lies ahead.
"Within the next five years, I think Brandon could be one of the top five or 10 players in the game," says Jerry Stackhouse, the former NBA All-Star who is also Ingram's mentor and former AAU coach.
Ingram's feel for the game, the way he floats between point guard and forward, the way he peeks over defenders to whip a pass few see coming, traces back to afternoons in his hometown of Kinston, North Carolina. When he was 11, Ingram would sit silently on the wooden bleachers in Martin C. Freeman Recreation Center, the ball cupped in his hands, watching his dad, Donald, and his older brother, Bo, play. As they hustled on the hardwood, Ingram dissected every detail of their games: their decisions, timing and spacing, rotations and extra passes.
"He's always to himself," says Andrew Lopez, Ingram's former Kinston High teammate.
On the court, Ingram would cloak his drive with shyness. Sometimes he was mistaken for being aloof. Sleepy. Not paying attention. He doesn't go out of his way to prove he's competitive; he doesn't roar after a dunk. During his recruitment of Ingram, Jeff Capel, the former Duke associate head coach who now coaches at Pittsburgh, thought Ingram's official visit was the worst one in his seven years in Durham because Ingram hardly said a word.
But Capel soon learned this was Ingram's gift: "He's watching and observing everything you do, everything you say," Capel says.
When he was a freshman at Duke, Ingram frequently got thrown around when attacking bigger, stronger players. He was reacting rather than attacking. He was deferring rather than commanding. Over and over, Ingram heard those three familiar words his dad used to scream his direction: BRANDON, BE AGGRESSIVE! Ingram was also overeager to involve his teammates. "He was a reluctant superstar to begin with," Krzyzewski says.
After a big-time matchup against Kentucky in which Ingram had just four points and one rebound, and only eight points against VCU the following game, Krzyzewski yanked Ingram from the starting lineup for two games. "It wasn't because he wasn't starters talent. In fact, he was star talent," Krzyzewski says. "But we wanted to put it across that you have to be you on the court, and you is at a high level. That's what you have to produce."
Being relegated to coming off the bench inspired Ingram to work harder. He practiced and practiced to prove he belonged back in the starting lineup. He was back in it when the Blue Devils played Utah State. But even then, Ingram's regimen continued. Just hours before the next game, against Indiana, he completed a full-on workout with assistant coach Nate James, completely soaking through his practice jersey. "He understood it wasn't about blaming anyone or saying he got screwed or saying he should have been starting," says Amile Jefferson, a former Duke teammate now with the G League's Lakeland Magic. "It was him putting the onus on himself, saying he needed to get better."
Ingram was used to putting in extra gym time. After a road loss during his high school senior year, Ingram asked his coach if he could keep his gold-and-white practice uniform for the night so he could shoot free throws, which he did until 1 a.m. Another time, he skipped Kinston High's senior prom because he couldn't stomach missing a late-night workout on the court. He dribbled and shot and ran and cursed his misses and ran some more. It didn't matter to him that he was the most popular boy in his class, the one college coaches drooled after. "He just had to be in the gym that night," says Darnell Dunn, a former teammate who now plays for Pepperdine.
The night the Blue Devils played Indiana, Ingram dropped 24 points and six boards. He didn't hesitate to take his shot. "We tried to teach him 'next play,'" Krzyzewski says. "A missed shot is not a mistake. A bad shot is."
"He was a reluctant superstar to begin with."
—Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski
As the season progressed, Ingram became Duke's quiet leader. Nearly every NBA coach craved to get their hands on him. Potential. Project. Those words became attached to Ingram as everyone wanted to mold him. Even more enticing? He hungered to be coached.
But, as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, sometimes Ingram got in his own way.
His rookie year didn't begin the way he'd imagined. He was coming off the bench regularly for the first time in his life. Losing for the first time in his life. He had won at every level, even in middle school (his Rochelle Middle School team brought home the championship).
Ingram was expected to lead, but he was still learning. Still adjusting to the physicality of play. And like any young player, sometimes his mistakes were from trying too hard to impress.
He wasn't playing badly, though; he just wasn't asserting himself enough. Being forward enough. Consistent enough. Sometimes he'd catch the ball, glimpse at the basket and then quickly pass it off.
"B.I. wants to play good basketball. He doesn't want to be that guy taking bad shots or forcing a shot if it's not there," says Larry Nance Jr., the Cavs forward formerly with the Lakers. "He wants to play unselfishly to a fault. He's a rare breed in the NBA."
His coaches encouraged him to take his shots. They joked with him during film sessions. Tried to help him relax. "Hey, B.I.," head coach Luke Walton would say, "you're scared to shoot the three right there!"
"Luke always did it in a way that was like, 'I don't mind you being aggressive.' It was like an invitation to be more aggressive," says Thomas Robinson, the Hawks power forward formerly with the Lakers.
Fans criticized his slender frame. They demanded results quicker.
What they didn't know, however, was that Ingram was doing the same.
He would return home after practices, after games, frustrated and disappointed in himself. "I've never been the guy to put my head down, but I'm, like, miserable," Ingram says. "Every single day, I don't know what to do.'"
After Lakers home games, he'd drive to the team's practice facility with Bo and shoot until the moon disappeared. And after practices, while his teammates were showering, he'd stay behind so often, fine-tuning his shot with Lakers assistant coach Brian Keefe, that players began to call Keefe Ingram's "Coach-Dad."
"I don't want to call my dad (Donald) because he tried to teach me to be the toughest guy in the world," Ingram says. "I don't want to talk to nobody. I don't wanna tell nobody about it."
Ingram tried different techniques to block out what others were saying about him. He recited a mantra Stackhouse had given him: Your pace is your pace. Your pace is your pace.
"People thinking he wasn't living up to expectations—that may have bothered him," Donald says. "He kind of put the pressure on himself, as to, I want to put this weight on, I want to put this strength on, and I want to show people why I was drafted No. 2."
"He was fighting a lot of demons," Donald adds.
In December 2016, his late-night work began to show. With more game repetitions, Ingram started to relax, find his flow. In a game against the Cavs, Ingram glimmered with promise. There he was, unafraid to pull up. There he was, confident. Controlling the offense, making the right reads. It was like the game slowed down, like he was watching it from the rafters above, knowing exactly what to do and when and why. He finished with a near-triple-double: nine points, nine assists and 10 rebounds—a few plays away from becoming the youngest NBA player, at age 19, to accomplish the feat. (James held the record at the time, but it's since been broken by Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball.)
The performance was brilliant but still a work in progress, as if Ingram were an artist in the studio who had been crafting his beats, fine-tuning his melodies. He hadn't quite finished the record yet; he couldn't give people the finished product they craved. There was promise, but he wanted to give them more.
When reflecting on his difficulties that year, Ingram seems to grasp something usually only older, retired players can (and even they sometimes never do): Although this game drives you every day, deposits dollars into your wallet and makes you happy, sad, jealous and mad, it truly is just a game.
"I been through things way worse than this," Ingram says.
When Ingram stretches his arms out, the ink of his tattoos tells stories about where he's been. "Live for Today, Pray for Tomorrow." "Nothing's Promised." He got his first tattoo at age 15, though he didn't know why he wanted one. It wasn't until someone told him years later that reading his body was like reading parts of his life that he realized the tattoos remind him of home.
He thinks back to his childhood. "I really didn't have anything," he says. "I can't name the number of guys, my friends, that are dead before the age of 17 or are in jail."
Kinston has produced NBA talent like Stackhouse, Reggie Bullock and Cedric Maxwell. The area has also been devastated by poverty, crime, murder, drugs and recent hurricanes. Kinston's poverty level (30.3 percent) is 2.4 times higher than the national average (12.3 percent), according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. At games, some kids had to borrow sneakers from other young players who played in the prior game because theirs were too worn.
There are hands cupped in prayer tattooed on Ingram's right shoulder. He drew the blueprint of them himself. His passion for drawing started in Drawing 199, an introductory art class at Duke. On road trips, he would pull out his nine- by 12-inch black, spiral-bound notebook and let his mind unfurl. He'd carefully shade each detail with his pencil, laboring to get every shadow, every curve just right. He'd draw basketballs, nets, backboards, jerseys and, of course, sneakers (his favorites are the Adidas Yeezy Boost 700s). He'd also work on his class assignments: one weekly or biweekly drawing of a still life or landscape, plus four weekly sketches. But more often, he drew scenery from Kinston.
"He was really eager," says Bill Fick, a lecturing fellow in Duke's Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies who was Ingram's professor. "He always drew things that were important to his life."
One tattoo on his left leg is a portrait of his great aunt, Leatha Smith. She died right before Brandon's freshman season at Duke. He found out when he was in his dorm room. Great Aunt Leatha had piercing eyes, and in the portrait, her hair is tightly pulled back.
When Brandon was younger, she would watch him. She cooked for him often; he loved her fried chicken more than Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits, his favorite hometown spot, on Heritage Street. "Y'all wouldn't believe this, but Brandon was a fat little boy. A plump little boy," his mom, Joann, says. "Leatha cooked all the time. He loved her fried chicken."
Brandon was the only kid Leatha would let dribble a basketball inside, on the tile floors of her small, brick apartment. She clipped out every Kinston Free Press newspaper article about him and saved them in a photo album, along with his school pictures. Leatha loved that Brandon was playing a game he was passionate about. "Brandon was her baby," Joann says. "She loved that boy."
Brandon's parents worked long hours. Donald only slept three, maybe four hours a night because he worked three jobs: material handler for a forklift plant, gym coordinator and basketball referee. He clocked into the first job at 3:30 in the morning and wouldn't return home until around 11 p.m. Joann has been working full time as a pharmacy technician services manager for nearly 29 years. "I seen my dad work for like 16, 17 hours a day," Ingram says. "My mom, she's still working right now."
Brandon often texts Joann after his workouts with messages like: "I'm working hard today—just like my mama!"
Some of his tats—"Family," "Honor," "Loyalty"—help Ingram stay grounded. They remind him of home. They bring him back to Kinston, back to the kids who cannot afford what he now can. He's donated hundreds of book bags, school supplies and shoes to kids in Kinston.
Oftentimes he thinks about not wanting his friends from back home to feel like he's left them behind. He doesn't really let the outside world peek into his personal world. In this click-click-click era, where athletes share the most private parts of their lives over social media to the point where not sharing something puts into question said thing's existence, Ingram doesn't fit in. He is, at his core, still a country kid who just wants to log off and hoop. When he hears commentators on TV discussing his potential, saying he could be good or great or terrible or mediocre, he grabs the remote and turns it off.
"I never sit down and really search the internet," Ingram says. "But it's people that do that."
He stays away from the glitz and gossip of Hollywood. He doesn't go out to party much. He likes to shop. (Joann calls him a "fashionista.") He likes to bowl. He still can't cook. ("Probably an egg or two," says Bo.) His parents help keep him focused, help him maintain a clear picture of what's at stake when he plays. "I always hear my mom say, 'God has everything planned out for you, just walk into it,'" Ingram says.
"Terrible." It's the only word Ingram can find to describe his play in the preseason. He says the word again and again, as if it can erase his bricks. Sometimes it seemed he couldn't buy a bucket. One night, he shot an icy 4-of-15 against the Timberwolves. He was out of rhythm. Struggling. Deeply disappointed in himself.
Nance Jr. tried to reassure him, but Ingram still worried. "[He] could have 50 and he'd still say, 'I missed this shot here' or, 'I had a turnover here,'" Nance Jr. says. "That's part of him wanting to be great. That's just his competitive nature."
Through the preseason, Ingram struggled to find his footing, to shoot at an accurate clip. Fans wondered why he wasn't gaining more weight. They craved quicker progress. But nobody wanted it more than Ingram.
And then he began to show flashes of dominance. He took on his idol, Kevin Durant, who famously said that when he looks at Ingram he feels "like I'm looking in the mirror." Ingram dropped a career-high 32, to Durant's 29, in the overtime loss.
One play, Ingram pulled a hesitation move at the top of the key and drove hard to the lane, rising up to hammer home the dunk.
His shooting improved as he filled in at point guard for a sidelined Lonzo Ball throughout February, shooting a blistering 52.2 percent from long range that month.
It seemed like Ingram had arrived, but he didn't think so. Sure, he had an amazing month from the perimeter; but it didn't necessarily mean he had become a consistent shooter. Then, to boot, he missed all but two of the Lakers' final 21 games due to injury.
"He's so passionate," says Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma. "I see those emotions kind of get in the way. Sometimes he kind of forgets how far he's come because he's always looking to be like, 'Man, I gotta be better. I gotta be better.'"
When summer rolled around, Ingram knew he had to attack his weaknesses in a different way. So he began working with Micah Lancaster, an NBA skills specialist who has trained pros, including Victor Oladipo, the NBA's 2018 Most Improved Player. Ingram's goal was to get stronger to finish better in traffic. Lancaster would make Ingram grab a foam roller with his body in the air to force him to react and manipulate his body positions in order to simulate finishing with heavy contact.
"He's not the type of guy that shies away from a challenge," Lancaster says. "He fights through everything."
Off the court, too. Ingram was unsure of his fate all summer, listening to his name being thrown around in trade rumors with Leonard. He had heard stories about players who were about to board a flight, only to be told they had to get off because they were being traded. It was unnerving.
Ingram's family felt the stress, too. On the one hand, Donald recognized his son's name was being mentioned among some of the game's greats. On the other, it filled him, and the entire family, with gnawing uncertainty. "It was stressful. It was scary," Donald says. "Not a good feeling at all."
Whenever Ingram would read his name next to the word "trade," he'd get offline, get back to the gym. Back to his calm.
When Ingram isn't guarding James, he's watching him, studying him. Closely. James rarely looks at his defender when he's about to shake him, Ingram says.
"It's like this," Ingram begins. He moves his arm in a straight line, motioning with his finger. "LeBron's always like this: steady. Steady all the time. He's never forcing anything."
Ingram believes James moves differently, thinks differently. He has an aura about him. People gravitate toward James because of James' even-keeled demeanor. He's never too high or too low. "LeBron knows exactly who he is," Ingram says.
That's what Ingram strives to be.
"I'm trying to believe fully in myself, trying to believe fully in every word that I say," Ingram says.
He's struggled with that before. "I've tried to prove too much to myself," he says. "Trying to prove it so bad to myself that it looks bad, like you're overdoing it or you're forcing it."
James' arrival in L.A. will likely ease some of those pressures. "Brandon knows LeBron is the franchise," Donald says. "He knows that he's going to have to take that Robin-to-Batman role, and he has no problem with that. He wants to learn from the best."
After Ingram dropped 31 points and nine rebounds last Thursday in a preseason game against the Kings, James tweeted: "Lil bro gone be a problem!! #YoungDripKing." No one yet knows how Tiny Dog and The King will mesh, or how any of the Lakers will mesh collectively this season. Or if Ingram will have his breakthrough.
He took a giant leap forward last season. But he's still a young 21, born September 2, 1997. Still the same kid who begged his parents for every new pair of Jordans, vowing to pay them back when, not if, he reached the NBA. The same kid who dropped his cellphone, cracked it and broke it so many times that salesmen at Verizon on Vernon Avenue knew him on a first-name basis.
Maybe he does break through this season. Or he doesn't. Perhaps it happens the next year. Or the one after that. Or not at all. Who's to say what Ingram will become tomorrow? The week after? Months later?
Whichever way his career goes, Ingram will be the most critical of all his critics when it comes to his play on the court.
"The only voice that's steady going through my head is mine," Ingram says. "Like, You gotta do this right. Every day I try to be superhuman in whatever I do.
"I feel ready now."
Like it's your time?
"I feel like it is," he says. "And for me to say that right now, like, I feel arrogant. But that's why I would never say it. I stay humble. But in the back of my head, I think what keeps me going is, I know that I'm going to kill you."
Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and SLAM Magazine. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.