McDonald’s: Ingram drawing close

CHICAGO — You couldn’t blame Brandon Ingram if he’d decided to coast through the postseason. The lanky wing forward just captured his fourth consecutive state championship and still must resolve his college recruitment. But at this week’s McDonald’s festivities, he has been active and prolific, forcing even those of us who have watched him from day one to reevaluate our opinions.

In the spring of 1992, I drove to the Dean Smith Center and watched Jerry Stackhouse and his Kinston (N.C.) High squad fall in the state championship game to West Charlotte. Twenty-three years later, I watched Brandon Ingram and his Kinston teammates hoist the trophy for the fourth straight time.

Some things have changed since then, such as Kinston moving from Class 4A to Class 2A and Stackhouse having progressed from high school to college and through a lengthy, highly prosperous NBA career, but Kinston — and Ingram and Stackhouse — remain connected.

”Jerry is my mentor and we talk all the time,” Ingram said. “Winning the state title didn’t sink in as well at first, but now I know it’s a great accomplishment and the city supported us the whole time.”

Support is a word that surfaces frequently during any conversation with Ingram. He has been supported by his town and his school, his family, his mentor — who was a judge in this week’s slam dunk competition — and his inner circle. But now, as he’s set to exit high school and attend college, he finds himself facing the most significant decision of his young adult life.

Ingram needs weight but boasts outstanding length and skills

Ingram has been a hot commodity for more than a year, playing his way from the top-50 range into the top 25, and now to No. 13 in the senior class. He has cradled offers from Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA for many months, clinging tightly to his finalists and hoping for clarity.

Things are likely to become even more intense before he announces. Ingram has been spectacular at times here this week, and if anything his suitors may become even more determined to land him as the finish line creeps into the horizon.

”I’m not really surprised,” Ingram says with a smile, when asked about how well he has played this week. “I’ve been getting more comfortable day by day, and my teammates have been helping me out a lot.”

As we chatted Tuesday at the McDonald’s All-American practices, a slightly weary Ingram — who was besieged by reporters the past two days — admitted that, after all his patience and reflection, he’s finally beginning to near the finish line.

”I’m ready to get it over with,” Ingram said. “I’m going to decide by the end of the month (April).”

From the beginning, and no less so now, the skinny, long-limbed forward always has navigated his recruitment with an elephant on his shoulder. Kinston is North Carolina country, Stackhouse is a UNC graduate, and Kinston alumnus Reggie Bullock competed for the Tar Heels as well. Roy Williams offered and prioritized him nearly two years ago.

The situation bore all the markings of a pledge to UNC, but it turned out that the Tar Heels have recruited with an elephant of their own since last fall, when the school’s academic scandal widened and brought the NCAA to campus for an investigation. Ingram has said a couple of times recently that he likely would have pledged to UNC last fall were it not for the threat of sanctions, but that situation is unlikely to resolve for several more months.

”It’s still kind out of there,” Ingram said, “but I trust Coach Roy Williams and what the coaches are telling me. I take it from them and don’t listen to what’s said on the outside.”

Meanwhile, within the state, many have expressed over the past six months a belief that Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils may sit in the leader’s position. Speculation has arisen that Justise Winslow’s potential one-and-done status would foster Ingram to Durham, but Ingram himself speaks to a different mindset.

”It would be a plus if (Winslow) leaves,” Ingram said. “but it would be even better if he stayed. We could play on the wing together and I know he would make me better.”

With Duke and Carolina the perceived frontrunners, rightly or wrongly, no one else is giving up. Mark Gottfried watched first-hand as Ingram cut down the nets in Chapel Hill, and Ingram always speaks with a reverence toward his official visit to Kansas last October.

”I don’t feel any pressure at all to stay in the state,” Ingram said. “Jerry and Reggie both support me 100 percent, and they just tell me to make the decision that’s best for me and my family.”

Ingram said that he will continue to monitor the recruiting and NBA situations at his finalists, as well as how he projects to fit into each prospective system.

In the meantime, he appears on track to earn a top 10 ranking and prove that even the best-known, most exposed players can still open eyes. Perhaps his ultimate college decision will prove an eye-opener as well. Bring on the in-home visits.

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