Nearly a year of buildup will get its payoff Wednesday morning, when the G League Ignite team — a squad featuring several top basketball recruits from the 2020 class — makes its debut on national television.
The G League’s revamped developmental program is the latest non-college pathway to pro basketball to come along in recent years, and it’s made the biggest impact so far in regards to luring some of the top talent from the high school ranks. Five highly touted players from the 2020 class — including a pair of top-five national recruits — chose to join this G League program, earning six-figure salaries as they prepare for the 2021 NBA Draft by training with and playing against professionals instead of going the college route.
The Ignite team — coached by Brian Shaw and featuring NBA veterans like Jarrett Jack and Amir Johnson — debuts Wednesday at 11 a.m. on ESPN2, and NBA front office types looking ahead to this year’s draft won’t be the only ones watching.
Some of the top recruits in the 2021 class and beyond — curious about the validity of this new professional path — will also have eyes on their slightly older peers as they grapple with their own basketball decisions. Some of those players are major Kentucky recruiting targets.
Who to watch
The five star recruits from the 2020 class on the Ignite team are guard Jalen Green (No. 2 in the 247Sports composite rankings), forward Jonathan Kuminga (No. 4), point guard Daishen Nix (No. 17), forward Isaiah Todd (No. 20) and center Kai Sotto (No. 67).
The previous recruiting class featured a couple of high-profile players who opted for a different approach — LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton playing in the Australian league instead of college — and others have gone preps-to-pros in the recent past, but this 2020 group is the largest yet to choose the same non-college path to draft eligibility.
ESPN’s newest mock draft — posted last week — had Green as the No. 3 overall pick in 2021, with Kuminga at No. 5 and Nix at No. 43 (one spot ahead of Terrence Clarke, who also considered taking the G League path rather than coming to Kentucky).
According to a group of experts writing for Pro Insight this week, Kuminga has been the most impressive and intriguing draft prospect in Ignite’s recent scrimmages.
Three of these players — Green, Kuminga and Todd — held Kentucky scholarship offers at various points in their recruitments.
Kuminga was actually the first player from the 2022 class to receive a UK offer, picking it up on a visit to Lexington two years ago. (He later reclassified to 2021).
Green was one of UK’s top targets following his junior year, but the Cats backed off of his recruitment after the commitments of Clarke and Brandon Boston Jr., and with straight-to-the-pros rumors already hovering around him. Green has since said that he would have gone to Auburn if he’d played college basketball.
Todd was also a top UK recruiting target until the Cats distanced themselves from his recruitment heading into his senior year, convinced he wouldn’t play college basketball. He signed with Michigan but backed off that pledge to take the G League money.
Kentucky looked into Nix and Sotto during their recruiting processes, but neither earned UK scholarship offers. Nix signed with UCLA before breaking that commitment last spring.
G League Ignite on TV
The G League Ignite team’s first game — against the Santa Cruz Warriors, featuring former NBA point guard Jeremy Lin — will be Wednesday at 11 a.m. on ESPN2. All G League games are being played in a bubble in Orlando.
Ignite will play a total of 15 games — just like every other team in the league — from Wednesday through March 6, and the squad would be eligible for the G League playoffs if they have a good enough record to earn a spot.
The Ignite team will also play 3 p.m. Friday on ESPNU and 3 p.m. Monday on ESPNU. Most of their games will be on either ESPN2 or ESPNU, and the rest will be available to ESPN+ subscribers.
Impact on Kentucky recruiting
There’s not much UK could have done to land players like Green and Kuminga in the last recruiting cycle, but the Wildcats are still pursuing several younger prospects who have been talked about as G League possibilities, and they’ll be paying close attention to how the Ignite players fare in the coming weeks and months.
At the top of that list is combo guard Jaden Hardy, who has risen to the No. 2 spot in the 247Sports composite rankings for the 2021 class and is viewed as the top perimeter scorer in that group. He was also the first backcourt player from the 2021 class to land a UK scholarship offer.
Kentucky is still recruiting him hard for next season — Hardy is the type of dynamic perimeter player the Cats are currently missing — but the G League rumors have been strong. On top of that, Hardy is close with Jalen Green, who has been relaying information about his experience to the younger recruit.
Asked what he’d tell players like Hardy looking to bypass college for the G League’s new program — and make hundreds of thousands of dollars for the year of development — Green offered his pitch.
“If you want to learn how to become a pro and your ultimate goal is to get to the league, then I think this would be the best choice for you, especially if you want to learn more and just get the knowledge of the game,” he said a few days ago, according to ZagsBlog.
That advice came, of course, before Green had even played a G League game.
Beyond the 2021 class, UK is recruiting several others with possible G League aspirations.
Jalen Duren, arguably the top performer in high school basketball so far this season, is the top available recruit in the 2022 class, and the 6-10 big man from Philadelphia has UK high on his list of colleges. He’s also been the subject of rumors that he’ll jump straight to the pros. Keyonte George — the No. 1 shooting guard in the 2022 class — is a Texas native and UK target, and he, too, has been talked about as a G League commitment. (247Sports analyst Brandon Jenkins, who specializes in Texas-based recruits, predicted last week that George would indeed go the G League route).
Several others ranked in five-star range in the 2022 class have also been talked about as G League possibilities.
If John Calipari is to continue to rely on young, elite talent — and there’s no indication he will break away from recruiting the top-ranked players in each class — he’ll likely need to land some of the can’t-miss, college-ready prospects like Hardy and Duren to return to the overwhelming success of his first several seasons in Lexington.
Hardy and Duren and others will be paying attention to what this Ignite team does on the court — and how that affects their NBA Draft stock — as they think through their own college (or pro) decisions in the coming months.