A year ago, the NBA threw a curveball to scouts with the creation of a new team -- the NBA G League Ignite, providing the NBA’s most credible alternative yet for draft prospects not going to college or the international route.
After the NBA initiated an age requirement of 19 for the NBA Draft in 2005, a number of young prospects looked for alternatives to playing in college, especially in recent years.
Last season, two top prospects, LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, skipped the college experience to play professional basketball in the Australian League. Terrance Ferguson did the same thing in 2017. James Wiseman, after playing just three games for the University of Memphis, decided to withdraw when the NCAA gave him a 12-game suspension for eligibility issues; Wiseman hired a professional trainer rather than stay with his college team. In 2018 and 2019, respectively, Mitchell Robinson and Darius Bazley sat out an entire season and worked with a trainer. In 2016 and 2018, Thon Maker and Anfernee Simons each played another year of prep school instead of attending college.
The reasons varied. Some prospects had college eligibility issues. Others had financial pressures or goals that were incompatible with the NCAA’s insistence that college players remain amateurs. Some believed a year of dedicated training would enhance their draft stock.
The results varied as well. Ball, Wiseman and Maker went in the lottery. Hampton, Bazley and Simons slipped to the late first round. Robinson was an early second-round pick.
The NBA believed the G League could provide a better solution for prospects who chose not to go to college. From the NBA’s perspective, seeing Ball go to Australia for a season was the final straw.
“We have kids leaving the United States -- Texas and California and Georgia -- to go around the world to play, and our NBA community has to travel there to scout them,” G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim told ESPN last year. “That's counterintuitive. The NBA is the best development system in the world, and those players shouldn't have to go somewhere else to develop for a year. They should be in our development system."
Prospects had the opportunity to play in the G League before the creation of the Ignite, but the compensation wasn’t great, and some would be stuck on veteran teams with little chance of development. It wasn’t a popular option.
So the G League upped the pay and created a team that was focused on development. Half the players would be young draft prospects while the other half would be G League veterans who could provide mentorship and support. The Ignite hired Brian Shaw, a 14-year NBA veteran who had been the head coach of the Denver Nuggets and an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers, to lead the team.
“This year the talent pool in the G League was the best that it’s ever been.” Shaw told me in a podcast interview. “You got the cream of the crop out of the guys that would’ve been in the G League anyway. Our guys got to play not only with, on their team, the veterans that we had like Jarrett Jack and Amir Johnson and Bobby Brown, who played in the NBA. They practiced against those guys every day and got to pick their brains. But a lot of the guys they played against on a night-in, night-out basis were assignments from NBA teams or two-way players from NBA teams or ex-NBA players. There were a handful of guys that were lottery picks at some point. I just don’t think you’re getting that type of competition even at the highest level of NCAA teams.”
By offering increased play, a developmental focus and the opportunity to hire an agent, get endorsements and start building their career early, the G League landed four elite prospects: Jalen Green (ranked No. 1 in the high school class of 2020 by ESPN), Jonathan Kuminga (No. 4), Isaiah Todd (No. 13) and Daishen Nix (No. 21).
The team spent several months in Walnut Creek, Calif., training and practicing, and then joined the G League bubble in February. The Ignite went 8-7 before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
“The G League players are hungry,” Shaw said. “They don’t make a lot of money. They’re fighting to put food on their table and to take food off of yours. The guys on our team had a target on their back the entire season. But they didn’t back down. All of them did exceptionally well. It gave them good indication of what it will take not just to get there, but also if you want to make an impact, what it takes to shine at that level.”
NBA teams were surprised at how competitive the Ignite were despite how much the team relied on young players, and both NBA scouts and executives came away impressed by what they saw.
“I was skeptical,” one NBA scout told NBA Big Board. “I really thought they’d be overwhelmed playing against NBA and college veterans every night. I was wrong. They held their own. They developed as players. I felt like I had a better handle on them [the G League prospects] than I did on the college prospects.”
An NBA GM explained that scouting college players requires a level of translation to the NBA game. The G League was a closer match, he said:
“They had a pro coach, pro sets, pro practices and they played against pros every day in practice and every night in games. They were breaking bad habits now and learning the game in a way I don’t think you could get in college -- especially this year with all the COVID restrictions. It’s an absolutely viable option for prospects. I’ll be shocked if more don’t take that direction. College is great too, but for young people that want total focus on their development, the G League is the place.”
Here’s a look at the four draft prospects from this year’s G League Ignite team, ranked in their likely draft order:
Note: Quotes from Brian Shaw were slightly edited and condensed.
1. JALEN GREEN
SG, G LEAGUE IGNITE
Age 19.2 | 6'6" | 178 | Wingspan 6’7.5”
Birthdate: Feb. 9, 2002
Primary Values: Scoring, athleticism
Pos Ranking: 1
Draft range: 1-5
It’s easy to project Green as a 20-point-a-night scorer who will heat up for some big scoring nights. His ultimate value will rest with what else he brings to the table. Will he be just a volume scorer or a more complete shooting guard? A commitment to playing defense and using his ballhandling skills to get others involved could make him into an NBA superstar.
Brian Shaw’s take: “As he says, ‘I’m not backing down from any fades.’ His work ethic -- I’ve been around Kobe when he was young [and] some very good young players like Paul George when I was in Indiana -- and there’s just a certain ‘It’ factor that those guys had when they were Jalen’s age, and he has that. When you couple that with that he’s willing to put in the work, so he has that work ethic, he wants to be the best, he competes everyday in practice, in every drill, just not wanting to lose a sprint to a shooting contest. When you put all that together and get to compete, he has a knack just to figure things out.”
See full Green Scouting Report Here
F, G LEAGUE IGNITE
Age 18.5 | 6'8" | 210 | Wingspan 7’0”
Birthdate: Oct. 6, 2002
Primary Values: Physicality, versatility, defense
Pos Ranking: 1
Draft range: 1-5
Of the players in the top 5, Kuminga is the biggest work in progress. The upside is enormous, but he’s a bigger risk than Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs or Jalen Green. Nevertheless, he has all the physical tools to make an impact in the NBA right now. If his shooting and on-ball defense come around, he could be a star. He has the most pure upside of any prospect in the draft.
Brian Shaw’s take: “From a talent standpoint and an athletic standpoint, he to me was the most NBA-ready out of the guys that are in this class. Having the body, the athleticism, the strength. When you watch him, it maybe doesn’t look as smooth as Jalen on the offensive side. He’s efficient and he gets it done. He can score from all three levels. I think maybe the best two-way player in the draft. We put him constantly during the season on whoever was the head of the snake for the opposing team, regardless of position. So if we wanted to shut down the opposition’s point guard we could put him on it. He could switch on to bigger guys and be able to hold his ground. He reminds me a lot of Jaylen Brown when he was coming out of Cal. Same body type and athleticism, [Kuminga’s] a little bigger at 6-8. That’s probably the closest comparison I have on what type of player he projects to be.”
See full Kuminga Scouting Report Here
3. DAISHEN NIX
PG, G LEAGUE IGNITE
Age 19.2 | 6'5" | 225 |
Birthdate: Feb 13, 2002
Primary Values: Positional size, passing, ballhandling
Pos Ranking: 6
Draft range: 30-50
Nix has two clear NBA skills -- passing and ballhandling -- and excellent positional size. He reminds scouts of a young Andre Miller. However, his poor conditioning and even poorer shooting have really damaged his draft stock. He was considered a potential lottery prospect coming into the season, but most scouts now have him ranked as a second-round prospect. If he can get in better shape (which shouldn’t be too hard) and improve his jumper (which will be harder), he has a chance to be a second-round steal.
Brian Shaw’s take: “I think he’ll be a successful NBA player. With him, and hopefully wherever he ends up going it will be a good fit. He’s a guy who no question had the best feel for the game out of everybody on the team. If you watch him work out in a regular workout, you may not be impressed. But he’s what I call a gamer. Once the ball is thrown up in the air and you start going up and down you can see what he can do. He has a big strong body that, once he’s able to get a step on you, he’s strong enough to get you on his side and not let you get in front of him, and then be able to let his instincts make the right play. For a point guard that is the size that he is, he’s very light on his feet.”
See full Nix Scouting Report Here
4. ISAIAH TODD
F, G LEAGUE IGNITE
Age 19.5 | 6'10" | 210 |
Birthdate: Oct 17, 2001
Primary Values: Shooting
Pos Ranking: 8
Draft range: 30-50
Todd is intriguing as a 6-10 shooter with the athleticism and quickness to defend players on the perimeter. He exceeded expectations with his play in the G League this season and moved from unlikely to be drafted to likely to hear his name called during the first half of the second round. His NBA appeal would grow if he added strength and showed the willingness to use his size and athleticism to play more like a big man than a wing. He’s a project, for sure, but given the athletic tools and skill set, he’s got a chance to be a productive NBA player.
Brian Shaw’s take: “He probably improved his stock and opened up people’s eyes more than anyone on the team. I was quite shocked when I got to work with Isaiah early on that he wasn’t on anyone’s draft boards. He worked out with the guards every day. He could do everything the guards could do from putting the ball on the floor, shooting the 3, pick-and-pop, step-backs, decent post-up game. Defensively he can wreak havoc with his size and mobility because we switched a lot 1 through 5, and he showed the ability to stay with the guards as well as the guys his size. To me, he had a really impressive bubble season and opened the eyes of a lot of people.”
See full Todd Scouting Report Here
Listen to our full podcast with Brian Shaw breaking down all four players on the G-League Ignite team.