From the moment Jaden Hardy decided to move on from high school basketball last year, he prepared for his next steps by playing in some exclusive gyms. The projected 2022 lottery pick worked out with a number of pros, including James Harden, LaMelo Ball, and Trae Young. He also spent a day with Damian Lillard, whom Hardy says he models his game after. Ask Hardy about those Lillard runs, and he lights up.
“He just really just poured out knowledge to me,” Hardy said in a phone call in mid-September. “He was telling me different things I should work on on the floor, different things I can do off the court to be great, different ways to attack—being able to shoot off the right foot or either foot, being able to come into your shot. I mean, really, he was just telling me everything.”
Hardy describes himself as a curious basketball player. Which is why every time he finds himself in the gym with an NBA player, he picks their brain and asks how they prepare, stay healthy, and play for as long as they have. If there’s any morsel of insight that can help Hardy excel at the next level, he wants it.
It makes sense, then, that when he was deciding between signing with a college team or going to the G League Ignite—the G League team for college-aged players that would pay him and prioritize his individual development—he sought advice from someone who’d been in that position before: Jalen Green.
In Green, Hardy saw a blueprint. Both players were recruited by elite college programs. Both were considered to be one of the three best players in their respective classes, if not one of the top two. Hardy watched from afar last year as Green joined Ignite for its inaugural season, where he made $500,000 in salary alone and could focus solely on basketball. And after seeing how well Green did—he was drafted no. 2 overall in July—and hearing from him directly, Hardy’s decision was easy.
“After watching those guys and getting their feedback, it was a no-brainer,” Hardy said of his choice to join Ignite this season. “You’re learning NBA terminology here, steadily learning, and you’re a pro so you’re just working on basketball. It was the best decision.”
The people behind the G League hope the Green-to-Hardy baton handoff is a sign of things to come. When they established Ignite a year ago, they set out to create a pipeline of talent that would give the program credibility, and also offer an irresistible pitch to future prospects. G League commissioner Shareef Abdur-Rahim doesn’t like to view it as recruiting, but rather as showcasing an alternate route to the NBA that can yield real results.
“We have a history and a pedigree of development,” Abdur-Rahim said. “Of taking care of players, of taking care of their development and their growth. … We know what it takes to help guys do better on and off the court.”
That’s the perennial G League buzzword: development. It’s usually ascribed to players, but with Ignite, the league is also looking at it more holistically. In Year 1, Ignite proved it could be a viable training ground for some of the NBA’s top prospects. And now, as other for-pay leagues sprout up to compete with both Ignite and the NCAA, the G League has bigger ambitions: to help usher in the future of basketball.
Jason Hart felt ready to be a head coach. The former NBA journeyman always thought that opportunity would come in the college game—he wanted it to come in college, given his eight years of experience as an assistant coach at USC. But the right opportunity hadn’t materialized. So when he heard the Ignite position was open, he thought he would throw his name into the ring and see what happened.
Hart already had a connection to last year’s head coach, Brian Shaw, having followed Shaw’s playing and coaching career closely as an L.A. native. And he had watched most, if not all, of Ignite’s games while the team was in the G League bubble. To Hart, 43, one of the biggest appeals of the job was relatability: Like some of his players, he saw Ignite as an avenue to forego college and head straight toward the NBA.
“This is a huge opportunity for me to become the CEO of my own company, in terms of coaching and being in a position of leadership,” Hart said in a phone call a few weeks ago. “Anytime you get to be the head of anything, that’s an opportunity you can’t turn down.”
While Shaw, who had previous NBA coaching experience, brought a necessary veteran presence to Ignite in the team’s first year of existence, Hart brings a college perspective that lends itself well to a player-first league. He knows that Ignite is merely a stepping stone for a lot of his players, so his priority is to prepare them to make the leap in every respect. Hart even went so far as to say that he’ll measure his success in this job by how successful his players are in the future.
“The main skill set that the NBA is looking for is you have to be coachable,” Hart said when asked about balancing individual development and team concept. “You have to be willing to work with others, and that’s what being on a team is. And you got to be willing to sacrifice and be unselfish. And so those three components will be on display.”
That success extends off the court, too. Since last season, Ignite has partnered with Arizona State to have players take online classes—some of which began before training camp tipped off a few weeks ago. These classes are fully funded by the league, and players are able to work toward a degree throughout their Ignite season, pro careers, and for up to 10 years after they retire. The young players on Ignite are also required to take a Business of Basketball class through ASU, as well as participate in the team’s off-court programming, which includes financial literacy sessions.
On the court, perhaps the biggest challenge for Hart is preparing young players to go up against teams with older players who are trying to make one last run at the NBA. As one member of an NBA front office put it, NBA franchises were most interested in how last year’s prospects like Green and Jonathan Kuminga would fare against the size and athleticism of the rest of the G League. Going from playing overmatched teens to guys in their 30s is both a physical and a mental challenge. “These kids are kind of getting put on a pedestal earlier and earlier,” the front office member said. “And I think that’s just dangerous from a human psychology standpoint.” During the season, though, Ignite hung in there and looked the part. They finished 8-7, which was good enough to make the playoffs, but were beaten in Round 1.
“The competition in the G League is much better than in college,” one college assistant coach with previous NBA and G League experience said. “So you know you can improve because you’re playing higher-level competition. But it’s also a big risk. If you’re playing higher level competition, that could also make you look bad, which could hurt your draft stock.”
As Hart put it, this program is not for everyone. But it can be helpful for many.
Abdur-Rahim says that while he considers Ignite’s first season to be a success, there’s a lot the league wants to do with the program that they weren’t able to last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ideally, Abdur-Rahim says, they’d have mini camps for players to attend before training camp so that they can hit the ground running and get more out of their experience.
At the same time, though, Abdur-Rahim and his team seem to have learned a valuable lesson from Year 1. Last year, the Ignite staff flooded players with information about ways to succeed on and off the court, hoping to keep them as informed as possible. But Abdur-Rahim realized that too much information can be counterproductive.
“I think we will try to condense it,” Abdur-Rahim said. “And highlight those topics and those areas that are really, really important and just make sure they understand. … We don’t want to inundate them.”
The project is still that—a project, with lots of room for improvement and refinement. And Abdur-Rahim and Hart aren’t the only ones experimenting with this type of concept.
The NBA is a copycat league, and Ignite has birthed some imitators, too. The most prominent of those is the Overtime Elite league, an organization launched by the Overtime sports network that features a number of top prospects ranging from 16 to 18 years old and has backers in Silicon Valley and in the NBA, including Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
So far, opinions on Overtime are mixed. One college coach pointed out that because Ignite is backed by the NBA, the league is incentivized to help Ignite players succeed. As he sees it, Overtime is selling players the dream of making money and getting drafted, but there are only 60 picks every year and those from established college programs—and now, the NBA’s own farm system—will likely have an inside track.
“These programs are only for one year,” the college coach said. “So if you can’t play at a top program in college and you go to one of these programs, you are risking the ability to play somewhere for four years and turn into an NBA player, which you may not be right away.”
Abdur-Rahim had a different outlook about Overtime. “Young men having options, and not feeling pigeonholed to do one thing to reach your goals, your dreams, I think it’s a good thing,” Abdur-Rahim says. “Families will make the decisions that they think are best for them. It’s our job to make sure that we’re providing the information and providing the resources.”
The G League also provides a place for the NBA to try new things and test potential changes that the top league is considering. Take the G League’s schedule this year. It has a brand-new format, which features a 14-game cup to start the season, and a G League Winter Showcase at the end of the calendar year where teams will play in front of scouts in Las Vegas. Everything from the less plausible golden basket—which was used at summer league this season to end double-overtime games—to the Elam ending in the All-Star game, to one free throw counting for two in actual G League games, hints at the fact that the NBA is open to all manner of new ideas. Whether that’s a good approach remains to be seen.
Commissioner Adam Silver’s long-awaited goal to have a midseason NBA tournament now seems to be a question of when, not if. The tournament was discussed in a recent competition committee meeting, with the payout said to be $1 million per player on the winning team. As one front office source put it to me last season, the NBA has studied the European soccer model. And the G League has become the ideal arena to experiment.
“Part of what we do as a league is try different things,” Abdur-Rahim said. “We look to be creative. And I think doing this will create information that we can share with the NBA. It’s not always apples to apples, right, but at least you know you get an idea. You know how people respond to it.”
Even Ignite itself has roots in soccer. The program’s concept, of developing younger players for the pros, is similar to that of a club academy, like FC Barcelona’s La Masia, where Lionel Messi famously grew up. If all goes well, the NBA’s version of Messi could also come up through the NBA’s developmental program. That’s the hope, at least. And judging by the early returns and player perspectives, that goal doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
“The players who are here are loving it.” Hardy said. “You got to see it work [with Green] and he stood out and got drafted second overall. … I feel like this program will take off.”