Advertisement

NBA G League Team Ignite Shuts Down Amid NIL Changes

[UPDATE, March 21, 2024: The NBA announced the shuttering of its G League Ignite program Tuesday, citing the NCAA’s new NIL and transfer policies among the reasons for the decision.

“Four years ago, we started Ignite to fill a void in the basketball landscape, and I’m proud of the contributions we were able to make to that ecosystem,” G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim said in a statement. “With the changing environment across youth and collegiate basketball, now is the right time to take this step.”

More from Sportico.com

The team will play its final game on March 28 against the Ontario Clippers.]

In year four, the NBA G League Ignite program has experienced some serious growing pains. On the court, the team—which includes eight pro prospects—is 2-28 after a 131-107 defeat at Santa Cruz Saturday.

And off the court, existential threats loom.

“I’m not sure what the future of Team Ignite will be,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told the media last month of the initiative that offers top prospects a pathway to the league. “Before, there was a hole in the marketplace.”

College basketball players’ newfound ability to commercialize their fame poses a particular challenge for the G League route, as do other pro opportunities around the world. But, according to Ignite GM Anthony McClish, finances are not the key differentiator in his pitch to high schoolers.

“We really don’t want someone coming for the money anyway,” McClish said in an interview.

Players aren’t coming to win right away either, he added. Yes, the goal each time they step on the court is to record a victory, but within 15 minutes of the final buzzer, team officials have generally moved on to thinking about individual players’ development.

For that reason, Team Ignite is different from just about any other high-level basketball franchise in the world. Coaches don’t feel pressure from fans or school administrators to win games and championships, despite managing world-class talent. The group sits somewhere between minor league outfit, developmental program and all-star team. However, it remains unclear just how beneficial that unique approach is.

Jalen Green, ESPN’s No. 1 prospect in the class of 2020, put Ignite on the map when he accepted a reported $500,000 offer to join the new program, which would feature a mix of veteran mentors and future stars facing off against the G League’s other franchises. The league was previously offering $125,000 but upped its budget in large part to attract young players who were already planning to skip school.

“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,” G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim said at the time, as the likes of LaMelo Ball were opting for a season in far flung places including Australia. “They should be in our development system.”

A year later, Green went second overall to the Rockets. Ignite teammate Jonathan Kuminga went seventh to Golden State, and an Ignite player has gone in the top 10 of each of the last two drafts as well. This year, forward Matas Buzelis is likely to keep that streak alive.

One of each new Ignite players’ first team activities is a trip to the NBA draft in June to see what’s achievable. But, McClish said, their performance in the league is more important to the Ignite program than their draft position.

“Maxing the readiness of these guys to be contributing players to NBA teams … as quickly as possible, that’s the number one goal,” McClish said, pointing to Ignite members who went in the second round or even undrafted and have managed to become role players.

But others point to several Ignite players who have seen their draft position slip during their G League year. Isaiah Todd, a top 20 recruit in Green’s class joined him on the inaugural Ignite roster, for instance. He slipped into the second round of the following year’s draft, though, and after a stint with the Washington Wizards landed back with Ignite earlier this season.

On a nightly basis, the Ignite are up against older—often physically imposing—opponents, many of whom see a unique opportunity to shine in the games they know more NBA scouts are watching. “We're incredibly targeted,” McClish said. More high-level prospects now spend time in the league after being drafted as well, raising the level of competition even further.

And ironically, given Silver’s past comments about America’s struggles to produce “team basketball players” in addition to guys with incredible skills, Ignite has been dinged by college basketball defenders for failing to instill a team-first, winning mindset given its emphasis on the individual.

Feedback, particularly from NBA teams who have drafted Ignite alumni, is regularly incorporated. The team has changed its daily scheduling to model NBA life and committed to back-to-back games to prepare players for the next level. Even community and media obligations are created for the same reason. And no matter how much college basketball players might earn, similar elements will remain foreign to them.

“They have NBA schedules, NBA practices, NBA 3’s, NBA rules—everything,” Buzelis said after making his decision. “They don’t have that in college.”

G Leaguers are also increasingly integrated into NBA activities, from Summer League contests to All-Star appearances—learning experiences no one else can offer.

It’s almost as if the pro vs. college calculus from a decade ago has done a complete 180. Now, it’s the university route that can offer potential millions in business possibilities while pro programs emphasize their developmental benefits.

But the contrast is also a misunderstood one, according to McClish.

“There was this misnomer about Ignite from the beginning about, well, ‘We’re built to disrupt college basketball,’” he said. “It’s really to pull from an international pool of players that want certain things that are unique to Ignite.”

The NBA wanted to prevent Americans from taking an overseas gap year, and to bring more internationals here ahead of their league debuts. Three of the eight prospects on this year’s team hail from abroad, with two of them coming from NBA Academy Africa.

“My focus is turning to earlier development,” Silver said while speaking about Ignite’s future. “There’s an opportunity for us to be part of the community that’s developing players—elite players, and also … being a more active participant in getting kids active.”

The league’s Jr. NBA program—focused on teaching basketball development as well as life skills—reached 43 million kids in 2022-23 and has teamed with the likes of Nike and USA Basketball to provide guidance to top teens as well. NBA basketball schools have launched in 15 countries to provide high-level coaching for 6-to-18 year-olds.

Meanwhile more than 100 international NBA Academy products have played Division 1 basketball and about two dozen have reached the pros. Next up is South Sudanese big man Khaman Maluach, a projected top five pick in the 2025 NBA Draft. After spending time at the NBA Academy Africa—and receiving offers from Ignite as well as Australia’s Next Stars program—Maluach committed to Duke earlier this month.

The onus is now on the NBA’s pro development program to keep evolving, itself. The Ignite’s next game comes Friday, at home against the Salt Lake City Stars in the first end of a back-to-back. A win would be great. But everyone is more focused on the bigger picture.

(This article, originally published on March 18, 2024, has been updated at the top with news of the NBA shuttering Ignite on March 21.)

Best of Sportico.com