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Brandon Ingram just might be the Lakers’ perfect replacement for Kobe Bryant

Replacing a living legend can be tough, but L.A. fans should be optimistic about their prize rookie

The “Bryant” nameplate is gone from the Los Angeles Lakers locker room for the first time in 20 years — and for good. That old nameplate has been replaced with a new name: “Ingram.”

Taking over future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant’s locker might appear intimidating. For two decades, “KOBE” was the longtime face of the Lakers and often the NBA itself with his five championships, fiercely competitive fire, popularity and franchise-record scoring. While Ingram and his family unquestionably respect Bryant and the Lakers’ illustrious history, they strongly believe this prized rookie will eventually make a memorable name for himself, too.

“It definitely sends a message,” Ingram told The Undefeated before his Lakers’ debut on Wednesday night against the visiting Houston Rockets. “I know it’s motivation. It’s going to be a process for me. But I think it’s something I can handle.

“This is something I’ve been dreaming for. I didn’t want to come to the league just to be an NBA player.”

Bryant arrived in Los Angeles out of high school far from the typical African-American teenager, as he spent much of his childhood growing up in Italy, where his father Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant played professionally. But 19-year-old Ingram could feel like a foreigner himself coming to the second-largest U.S. city from his tiny hometown.

The second overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft hails from Kinston, North Carolina, a small town with a population just over 20,000, the number of people who fill the Staples Center for a sold-out Lakers game. That compares with the Los Angeles metropolitan area and the Greater Los Angeles region, which have about 13 million people and 18 million people, respectively.

Brandon Ingram (Duke) walks off stage after being selected as the number two overall pick to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at Barclays Center.

Brandon Ingram (Duke) walks off stage after being selected as the number two overall pick to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at Barclays Center.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Ingram lives about five to 10 miles from the Lakers’ practice facility, but leaves about 45 minutes before practice starts to beat the city’s traffic, which is as famous as all the Hollywood stars. His biggest fear in L.A. is already the renowned stifling traffic.

“Most definitely traffic, especially getting up in the morning,” Ingram said. “If I was going to the auxiliary [gym] in North Carolina, I’d probably leave about 15 minutes earlier to get there. I probably leave about 45 minutes earlier to go to the practice gym here. I live in Marina Del Rey, which is not far at all. But the traffic, it shows up.”

Ingram’s proud parents, Donald and Joann Ingram, attended the Lakers opener to see their son’s NBA debut. They sat in section 119, not far from the Lakers’ bench. Donald Ingram received lots of text messages from loved ones who stayed up past their bedtime to watch his son make his Lakers debut.

“To be a part of the Lakers, something historic, means a lot to the family and a lot to Brandon. We don’t take it lightly. We don’t take it for granted,” Donald Ingram told The Undefeated.

Donald Ingram isn’t naïve about what “La La Land” has to offer, especially to Hollywood stars like his son. The former police officer also believes that the “grounded” way they raised his son will keep him on the right path out west. It also helps that Brandon isn’t in the city alone, as he lives with his 25-year-old brother, Bo, a former University of Texas-Arlington forward.

The Lakers’ veteran security is keeping a watchful eye on Ingram, as they should, but his background check was so squeaky clean that they are not worried. Former NBA star and Kinston native Jerry Stackhouse also serves as a mentor to the prized rookie. In other words, there is a village for Ingram to make sure he survives in mammoth Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Lakers' No. 2 draft pick Brandon Ingram looks at Lakers championship trophies in a room overlooking the basketball court before he is introduced at the NBA team's headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., Tuesday, July 5, 2016.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ No. 2 draft pick Brandon Ingram looks at Lakers championship trophies in a room overlooking the basketball court before he is introduced at the NBA team’s headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., Tuesday, July 5, 2016.

AP Photo/Reed Saxon

“I got trust in him because I know I raised him right,” Donald Ingram said. “And even though you raised him according to your standards, you know they can stray away at any time. We got the proper people in place with the Lakers, security and some of my family. My oldest son is out here. We felt we brought him up the right way.

“He wasn’t wild back home, so we don’t expect him to become wild out here. I am also going to be in and out of here myself. That’s a part of my parenting job. I definitely will be checking on him.”

So where can you find Brandon Ingram in Los Angeles during his free time?

In a swanky club in Beverly Hills with Swaggy P? One of the many beaches? The Hollywood Strip? No.

Ingram says he is into amusement parks and the Los Angeles area has its share in Disneyland Park, Universal Studios, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Knott’s Berry Farm. And with Halloween days away, he is loving haunted houses now, too. Los Angeles hasn’t taken away his innocence yet.

“My brother lives with me, so we just find things to do. Not all the time. But we go to amusement parks, haunted houses for Halloween. Usually, we just end up right back at the gym,” Ingram said.

The Lakers have an exciting, yet unproven group of young’uns with Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, all of whom just took part in a cool photo shoot with GQ. With Bryant gone, the Lakers are now looking toward the future and have those four young men and second-year forward Larry Nance Jr. on the cover of the 2015-16 media guide.

Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Shaquille O’Neal were all Lakers superstars who were eventually replaced by another star. As hard as it might be for Lakers fans to believe it now, Bryant will be replaced by another star at some point, too.

While Russell appears to have improved this offseason, Ingram has the best chance to eventually fill Bryant’s legendary shoes. Ingram averaged 17.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and a 41 percent 3-point range during his lone season as a true freshman with the Duke University Blue Devils. Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, a 2014 NBA MVP, said he felt like he was looking himself in the eye when he played against Ingram this past summer. The skinny 6-foot-9, 190-pounder is a talented perimeter scorer, and a slasher who is also a talented defender with Plastic Man-like arms.

The Lakers fans roared as Ingram headed to the scorer’s table and eventually entered the season-opener off the bench with 6:15 left in the first quarter. The fans roared again when Ingram guarded Rockets All-Star guard James Harden and coerced him into a missed jumper over his long arms. They also roared when Ingram scored his first NBA basket on a 3-pointer with 2:57 left in the first.

“I was ready to get out there just to get my moving,” Ingram said. “I had a plan to be aggressive. And when I am aggressive, a lot of good things happen … I just want to affect the game in different ways.”

Ingram finished with nine points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field and three rebounds in 23 minutes while acting legends Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington watched from courtside seats. Not bad for a rookie debut, considering the minutes given. Bryant actually went scoreless on one field goal attempt in six minutes on Nov. 3, 1996, his NBA debut against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram (14) shooots against the defense of Houston Rockets forward Sam Dekker (7) during the second half at Staples Center.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram (14) shooots against the defense of Houston Rockets forward Sam Dekker (7) during the second half at Staples Center.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t quite a Hollywood script for Ingram as he came off the bench and did not play the final 4:27 of the game. The Lakers used a 10-6 run without Ingram to seal a surprising 120-114 victory in rookie head coach Luke Walton’s debut.

“It’s a new process. You can’t be mad at it,” Ingram said. “I know I’m coming in as a new player or part of the team. It’s something you have to work for. I don’t want anything given, and as soon as coach feels I can handle those situations, then I’ll be out there a lot more.”

After the Lakers’ locker room opened, most of the media excitedly parked in front of Clarkson’s and Randle’s lockers. Bryant’s old locker oddly had no one with a pen and paper, camera or microphone eagerly standing in front of it initially. Eventually, the media did come when Ingram came out, relieved after completing his first NBA game.

Impressed with the eventual media horde, Russell verbally belted out respect. Ingram let out a shy, brief laugh in response. He appeared to have a personality quite the opposite of Russell or Lakers teammate Nick “Swaggy P” Young. The small-town kid was laid back, quiet.

While Ingram doesn’t have Johnson’s smile and charisma, O’Neal’s humor or Bryant’s brash confidence, he said not to take his kindness for weakness.

“If they take it as weakness, it’s probably a strength for me. It would probably bring the killer [instinct] out of me. A guy trying to attack me, a guy trying to go at me, will bring out the competitor in me,” Ingram said.

Ingram has met Bryant before, but has not talked with him since he was drafted by the Lakers, but he would love to speak to the living legend.

“I want to pick his brain a little bit. I want to see how he felt when he was [in his] rookie year,” Ingram said.

Along with having the same locker and both beginning their careers wearing Adidas, Bryant and Ingram also both have strong confidence in themselves. Ingram has embraced taking over Bryant’s locker believing, in time, he will have the game brewed enough to fill Bryant’s shoes.

“He knows there are a lot of big shoes to fill,” Donald Ingram told The Undefeated. “He’s taking his time doing it. He is not going to rush or be out of character going too fast and make a lot of mistakes. He is trying to fit in with the team, get adjusted, get adjusted to the locker and the Lakers organization.

“And at some point, you’re going to see Brandon take off. I’m not saying we’re going to forget about Kobe. You know we are not. But Brandon is going to make his own name.”

Brandon Ingram agrees with his dad.

“Of course, I know it’s not going to happen right away,” he said. “Eventually, I want to be one of the best players in the league.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.