The complicated legacy of G League Ignite

Whenever commissioner Adam Silver steps before an NBA-branded lectern, each occasion tends to send ripples across the league. This February, once the commissioner declared during All-Star Weekend’s media availability his office was “assessing” the viability of G League Ignite, an initial expectation among figures throughout the NBA’s development league was that the association would likely shutter its club for elite, draft-eligible prospects by the end of next season. Instead, the curtain is being closed at the conclusion of this very campaign, G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim announced last week, bringing to an end a four-year experiment that brought mixed results.

To better contextualize its ending, it’s important to recall how Ignite began. The NBA launched the program in April 2020, with a commitment from top-ranked prospect Jalen Green, now the Rockets’ third-year guard who is spearheading Houston’s late-season playoff bid in the Western Conference. Ignite arrived on the heels of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leading a group investigation into the underworld of college basketball recruiting — a shadow game that also provoked an FBI probe into sneaker company and agency payola connections within numerous major NCAA programs. The NBA, too, watched a pair of highly touted prospects, LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, depart for Australia’s National Basketball League before they would enter the 2020 NBA Draft.

“We were so laser focused on how to help create a pathway,” Abdur-Rahim told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday over the phone from Henderson, Nevada, where the former 12-year NBA veteran was on hand with Ignite's staff for the final days of their final season. “We thought if kids wanted to be professionals [before entering the NBA], we felt we could have a place. We wanted to help solve a problem.”

The NBA had been conceiving its home for high school phenoms like Green and Jonathan Kuminga before the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus, of course, eliminated the possibility for Ignite’s original strategy of traveling overseas for exhibitions against rival national teams, as well as facing junior college or Division II squads back stateside. “In the beginning we weren’t sure exactly how it would come together,” Abdur-Rahim said, but the league’s thinking was predicated on “how could we get enough competition to help them grow?”

Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green (4) dunks the ball between Portland Trail Blazers guards Rayan Rupert, left, and Scoot Henderson (00) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 25, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Houston Rockets guard and G League Ignite product Jalen Green is averaging 28.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists in March. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

Orchestrating the G League bubble in Orlando, an isolated season similar to the NBA’s completion of the 2019-20 playoffs, allowed Ignite to compete along with 17 affiliate teams that chose to play at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in February 2021; 11 teams decided to remain at home because of new variants of the virus and cost considerations.

That first iteration of Ignite was replete with bonafide NBA veterans such as Jarrett Jack and Amir Johnson, in addition to highly regarded G League mainstays like Reggie Hearn and Cody Demps. Ignite fared just fine, compiling an 8-7 record that earned a playoff bid before falling to Raptors 905 in the quarterfinals. That next season, 2021-22, the league opted to have Ignite compete in a similar sample size of live action during the first half of the G League calendar, where games counted only for an early season tournament dubbed the Showcase Cup. This allowed Ignite and the upstart Mexico City Capitanes G League organization to participate alongside the minor league’s standard affiliate clubs. From there, Ignite, which was then based in Walnut Creek, California, barnstormed to face several G League teams during the second half of that year. But Abdur-Rahim heard feedback from NBA scouts that the exhibition format made it difficult to evaluate Ignite’s top prospects like Scoot Henderson and Dyson Daniels, as well as their veteran opponents, devoid of an environment that had meaningful stakes akin to an NBA game.

When Ignite relocated to Henderson for the 2022-23 season and attempted to run as a full-fledged competitor within the G League’s 50-plus game season, it marked a clear inflection point of the program’s history.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

Ignite’s structure and operating procedures weren’t truly congruent with the G League teams that occupied the opposing sidelines of Dollar Loan Center. Every rival club, for example, has been limited to paying their players the standard G League salary, which maxed out at $40,500 this season. Many within the league can earn significant paydays by first signing Exhibit 10 contracts worth up to $75,000 with an NBA team. But each of those deals and their guaranteed money are required to be submitted to a league-wide contract database called PCMS, while Ignite never met requests from opposing G League executives to disclose its operating budget or base payments for its players, sources said. The lower range of those salaries for Ignite’s veteran players was roughly $50,000, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Some made upward of $150,000. Factor in Ignite signing Henderson to a two-year contract worth over $1 million, to go along with this year’s leading prospect, Ron Holland, inking a lucrative deal north of Henderson’s $500,000 number, sources said, and multiple G League general managers estimated Ignite operated with as much as three times the spending power of their rival front offices.

“We were not outbidding NBA [affiliate] teams for players,” Abdur-Rahim told Yahoo Sports. He went on to explain that Ignite had its disadvantages compared to other G League teams, as Ignite was barred from taking part in the annual draft and from making midseason trades. Prior to each campaign, however, Ignite had the ability to acquire veteran players whose rights were otherwise held by other G League teams. Ignite was able to add Cameron Young from the Cleveland Charge for last season, for example, then brought in David Stockton and later Gabe York from the Indiana Mad Ants this campaign, without providing any form of redress to that G League team. “That was a sore spot,” Abdur-Rahim said. “It had gotten to the point that if we continued forward with Ignite, we were gonna have to figure that out.”

Each NBA team utilizes the G League for varying goals, whether that be winning games, developing players, coaches and executives, or using the minor league as a testing ground for NBA ideas. Ignite made no bones about being dedicated to player development, and this season the club featured top prospects in Holland and Matas Buzelis, plus six other draft-eligible players. Yet as Ignite compiled just a 2-31 record on the year, G League personnel consistently mentioned the team’s depth of prospects created too crowded of a rotation to best nurture potential NBA players amid a non-stop regular-season schedule. During that most successful opening campaign, Ignite rostered only three other draft-eligible players next to Green and Kuminga, in addition to those veterans who could still provide high-level G League production.

The loss of Pooh Jeter, a journeyman point guard out of Portland who spent the second and third seasons with Ignite as a defacto player-coach, has also been credited by G League figures as a difficult hurdle for the team to overcome this season. Jeter has been described as a backbone of the entire program, with a connective presence in huddles and an emotional intelligence to relate to players individually. Jeter could guide them on the court during practices, set sturdy enough screens to free ball-handlers even at 5-foot-11 and approaching 40 years old, and could initiate pick-and-roll action himself. Jeter was hired by the Trail Blazers in June as a player-development coach before being named the assistant general manager of the franchise’s new G League affiliate, the Rip City Remix.

Perhaps that will be one of Ignite’s greater legacies: creating several post-career avenues for their veteran mentors who teamed up with their draft prospects. Jack has become a widely respected assistant in the NBA, most recently following Monty Williams from Phoenix to his staff in Detroit. After scouts and teams picked Hearn’s brain about teammates Green and Kuminga before the 2021 draft, he landed a role in the Spurs’ front office. Johnson became a member of Ignite’s coaching staff this season. He replaced Hakim Warrick, a former NBA veteran who left Ignite’s sideline to become an East Coast scout for the Pistons. Ignite offered Admon Gilder the chance to keep playing basketball this season while finishing his degree. Jeremy Pargo has been shadowing Ignite’s coaches while serving on the playing roster.

The program took pride in building a fraternal feel among its past and present players. Henderson came and spoke to this year’s class of draft-eligible Ignite players during All-Star Weekend. Daniels and MarJon Beauchamp spoke last year before a team banquet. The staff placed as much emphasis on off-court development as it did skill work, ranging from business classes to nutrition testing and sleep hygiene analysis. Ignite always brought the same athletic testing company that conducts the NBA’s Draft Combine to give its players a free test-run for the drills completed in Chicago every cycle. Ignite’s general manager, Anthony McClish, held several sessions each season explaining how NBA scouting and intelligence factors into teams’ roster decisions as well as intricacies of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The league’s new CBA that was ratified in July 2023, of note, still forbids players under 19 years old during that calendar year to enter the draft. At the time of Ignite’s origination, NBA team executives, league office representatives and the members of the players’ union were all of the mind this latest round of CBA negotiations was going to eliminate that rule, and thus return high school players’ access to entering the league directly. “It was a foregone conclusion that the NBA rule would return to 18 [years old],” Abdur-Rahim told Yahoo Sports. The perceived “double draft,” which was supposed to result from two years of high school classes suddenly merging into a single NBA Draft pool, now appears like it may never arrive. During the league and union’s back and forth for this past CBA, the age limit never became a significant talking point, according to league sources, and this current arrangement now runs through the 2029-30 NBA season.

Perhaps the introduction of NIL faded that momentum for the NBA, just as the newfound ability for players to earn several hundreds of thousands to play for college programs has rendered Ignite no longer a necessary entity in the eyes of the league. “The need that we were looking to fill isn’t there anymore,” Abdur-Rahim said Wednesday. “I’ve always taken the approach that we weren’t competing against college.”

The jury is still out on Ignite’s ultimate success as an NBA feeder system. “It ended too early. It’s too early to say how good of an NBA player Jalen Green is or Jonathan Kuminga,” Abdur-Rahim said. To this point, since Ignite’s inception there’s no program, college or otherwise, that produced more NBA draft picks, more top-10 draft picks, alumni that played more NBA minutes or signed for greater contract value than Ignite’s crop of current NBA players — and that’s before Green’s and Kuminga’s likely respective contract extensions this summer.

There will be one more member of Ignite that could still be playing in the G League next season as well. Dink Pate, a 6-foot-8 guard from Dallas, signed a two-year deal with the club. And despite Ignite’s imminent closure, there will be a chance for the 18-year-old to compete next season.

“We’ll work as a league to make sure he has everything he needs on court, resource-wise. We have 31 teams he can play on,” Abdur-Rahim told Yahoo Sports. “We’ll make sure there’s a way, a process, for him to be in our league and still prepare and get everything that he needs to land and be somewhere next year and still be connected to him.”