Jalen Green says he watches college basketball and realizes he’s “itching to play.”
There’s a lot of scratch for that itch.
Green would be playing on ESPN and Fox Sports as a freshman. So would Isaiah Todd, Jonathan Kuminga, Kai Sotto, Princepal Singh and Daishen Nix.
Instead, they’re the best-paid prep schoolers around.
They have joined Ignite, the G League team coached by Brian Shaw, the ex-Laker, and their curriculum is Pro Basketball 101, or 401k. Green signed a one-year deal for $500,000. Nix, who had committed to UCLA, signed for $300,000.
They will go into the 2021 NBA draft. One mock draft, and feel free to mock any draft that happens six months before the fact, has Green as the second pick overall, Kuminga the ninth, Nix the 12th and Todd the 53rd.
They are joined by NBA veterans like Jeremy Lin, Cal State Fullerton alum Bobby Brown, and Amir Johnson. They practice and remain hopeful of live action, against other G League teams.. As Shaw said, that’s up to the coronavirus,
If you’re wondering why college basketball seems a little sluggish this year, beyond the obvious postponements and stop-starts, Ignite might be one reason. Green, Kuminga and Sotto had not committed to specific schools when they signed with Ignite, but one can reasonably expect Kentucky and Duke would look more normal if they had.
Ignite is shifting the one-and-done paradigm to a model that actually benefits the player. The NBA is expected to begin drafting 18-year-olds again in 2022, ending the 19-year-old rule that took hold in 2006. Until then, Ignite should thrive.
“I wanted to be the best me I could be for the draft,” said Todd, who is 6-foot-10 and had committed to Michigan. “That’s not to say college couldn’t have done it for me, but I think that with all the things we do, I will be. Part of me wishes I was playing, because I haven’t been on TV yet this year, and I’m a basketball player. But we’ve gotten calls from all our peers. They want to know what we’re doing.”
Ignite would resemble all the familiar flesh-peddlers except for one thing. The kids are guaranteed four years of paid education at Arizona State, redeemable over five years.
“I don’t know what’s better than that,” Shaw said. “Whether you like it or not, school isn’t for everybody, but we arrange for it on the back end.”
Ignite trains in Walnut Creek. The players arrive at the gym at 8:30, get tested and eat breakfast. Half of those head for the weight room and treatment, the other half puts up shots. Then they flip those assignments, in advance of full practice.
“Then we have a free period, and that time is so important,” Todd said. “That’s the time that reflects on your game.”
Their typical workday ends at 2 p.m. The guys live in an apartment complex near the gym. They are getting unspecified “life lessons” from the staff, headed by G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim. They also have scrimmaged some G League teams, and Shaw doesn’t even keep statistics.
It sounds as if Ignite is following the European club model, which values skills over coaching “systems.” Once upon a time, the world was hoping to Americanize the game. If Ignite can give us three more Luka Doncics or Nikola Jokics, the NBA and its fans will be grateful.
“We’re teaching all our guys the skill sets that come with each position,” Shaw said. “Our big men won’t just learn the game with their backs to the basket. We want them to do everything at game speed.
Green and Kuminga “can step into the NBA right now,” according to Shaw. Nix doesn’t always command the stage athletically, but he has a point-guard head. He can sense when Sotto, the 7-foot-2 Filipino, hasn’t had the ball enough, and he delivers. He is from Fairbanks, Ak., and moved to Las Vegas at 13 to find competition.
“In a workout he might not impress you as much,” Shaw said, ‘but he’s a gamer and eventually you see his special skills. I saw UCLA lose its first game (to San Diego State) and I figured they could have used him.”
UCLA has not lost since, as it tries to develop a college program that wins in the 21st century: Deep, mature and defensive.
What is being ignited here is the slow bifurcation of basketball, with a college path and a pro path, leading to the same place. Eventually you’d expect the parade to outlast the charade.