Is the G League Ignite the best option for Emoni Bates?

Is the G League Ignite the best option for Emoni Bates?

Once listed as the top recruit in the Class of 2022 in ESPN's Top 100, Emoni Bates announced last week that he would be reclassifying into the Class of 2021.

According to multiple reports, Bates has cut down his list to the NBA G League Ignite, Memphis, Michigan State, and Oregon.

With plenty of options to choose from now in amateur-to-pro preparation, it is becoming a new trend for elite high school athletes to bypass the development that the high school level could provide for their games. And while the traditional college route has been gaining traction with top high school recruits due to the NIL decision by the Supreme Court, Bates has been open to going the professional route straight out of high school.

The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn reported in March that Bates will in fact take his talents to the G League and seek the “most lucrative deal the G League can muster” prior to turning pro after the fact. 

24/7 Sports writer Jerry Meyer wrote in his scouting report of Bates: “Extremely thin but has great length for such a skilled player. Plays with strength, though, and doesn’t avoid contact... Quick twitch athlete who moves feet well and is quick off the floor. Elite three-level scorer. Has deep range off catch or dribble. Can score in a multitude of ways... Handles well, has plethora of moves and can attack either direction. Has a feel as a passer. Dangerous offensive rebounder. Good defensively when focused. Has defensive versatility. Elite, elite prospect."

Already signed to the G League Ignite is five-star recruit Jason Hardy, whom CBS Sports predicts to go No. 4 in the 2022 NBA Draft. The team also rosters five-star guard Scoota Henderson — another top-10 prospect — and five-star power forward Michael Foster.

With the addition of Bates, the G League Ignite could be well on their way to forming a "Fab Five" by landing the best prospects at each position, which could be the growing trend amongst top high school recruits in the near future.

It’s important to note that, because Bates doesn’t turn 19 until January 2023, he would not be eligible for the next year's draft. However, he won't be alone, as the Ignite signed Scoota Henderson for two years since he reclassified as well (and also won’t be draft eligible until '23).

Now, here's a little bit about the G League Ignite:  

In year one, the G League Ignite experiment proved to be a great success, as three players were selected during the 2021 NBA Draft. The Houston Rockets selected Jalen Green with the No. 2 overall pick, the Golden State Warriors selected Jonathan Kuminga with the No. 7 overall pick and the Milwaukee Bucks selected Isaiah Todd at No. 31 (he was later traded to the Washington Wizards).

That trio is now a trendsetter, as top high school recruits will likely feel much more comfortable following in those footsteps of pursuing this alternate path to the NBA and bypassing the traditional NCAA route. 

However, this route isn’t for everyone, but rather a small subset of the creme de la creme. Each of these three players was a five-star high school recruit in 2020 before joining the Ignite, so it’s not for everyone. Still, it does provide a viable option for that special elite-of-the-elite group who choose not to opt for the traditional college route.

The NBA maintains its controversial age limit of draft-eligible athletes, requiring them to attend college for at least one year (one-and-done rule), so the need for an alternative is tremendous. 

The mastermind behind the G League Ignite program is former NBA player Shareef Abdur-Rahim. He installed this experiment with the overall mission of providing “NBA Draft readiness and growth of professional life skills.”

The G League Ignite compensates players for their services (unlike the NCAA) and prepares them to be a professional athlete — both on and off the court — while playing with and against NBA veterans or other professional leagues. The program teaches the young men about what it takes to be a professional, and it includes courses on media training, financial literacy training and Zoom sessions with former NBA veterans to prepare them for what they are walking into.

For years, the National Basketball Players Association has attempted to do something similar in a crash course for a weekend for incoming NBA rookies, but what Abdur-Rahim has done is expand that training into a year-round program. So with financial backing of Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA, we have had the birth of a true NBA developmental team. 

To discuss this further, I had the opportunity to catch up with Jason Hart, the newly-named head coach of the Ignite and my former teammate at Syracuse University.

Etan Thomas: ​Coach Jason Hart, how are you doing, sir?

Jason Hart: ​Good man. Glad to be here. How you doing, man?

Etan: ​I'm good. My point guard for four years at Syracuse University and the new head coach of the G League Ignite, I want to say big congratulations to you.

Jason Hart: ​Thank you, man. Thank you. It's an honor to be here obviously with you, but also excited to get a chance to coach at the professional level.

Etan: ​So I know this is something you've been wanting to do for a long time and you have had this love for coaching for a long time. So just talk to me about how excited you are about this opportunity.

Jason Hart: ​Well, I'm super excited. I got into coaching obviously to give back and stay connected with the game. College was where I wanted to be. It has always been a dream of mine to be a college head coach. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. And when the opportunity presented itself in the G-League, I jumped on it and I'm happy to continue my coaching career, obviously at a higher level.

Etan: ​So let's get into the G League Ignite, a lot of people don't really understand the setup. They've been signing top prospects to play against G League veterans to prepare them for the NBA draft and the Ignite are based in California, and they're expected to play more of a traditional G League schedule this coming year. But talk to everybody about how it actually works. 

Jason Hart: ​So the G League Ignite was created by Shareef Abdur-Rahim a very good friend of mine dating back from our days in Sacramento. Obviously, he's the president of the G League. And so this team was formed to keep our high school basketball stars from taking their talents overseas when RJ Hampton and LaMelo Ball went to Australia to play. It was an idea that was created for high school players who are good enough and who we think are good enough to have a chance to go to the next level, stay and develop in somewhat of a farm system, hone their talents against not only G Leaguers, but draft-pick kids who are playing for the Lakers or the Clippers and take the time to develop those guys, and then they go and get drafted in June.

​It was also formed to help these young men become pros off the court as well. It's a transition from high school, from them eating candy before the games to now understand how to take care of their bodies and get their minds mentally prepared to play against professionals. So it's more of a hands-on approach with 18-year-olds who have a high skill set, high level of talent and putting them in a position to succeed, and then surrounding them with veterans who are going to show them the ropes of the NBA lifestyle, of the NBA, and being able to push them in moments in the games to get them uncomfortable outside of their box. Also academically you have a scholarship for when you want to go back to school, there’s a pilot program through a few universities particularly Arizona State. And they can go to school and get their degree if they want to choose that route as well, but they have an academic piece too. And then also they get paid a handsome amount of money for basically a season. But it's not for everybody. It's not for kids who need more time to develop in college, but it's for special-types-of-talent kids. Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, those two are two of the players that played in the league.

Etan: ​One person that comes to mind is Winfred Walton. I think he would have been fantastic for a program like this. People don’t understand how good he was, people forget. Let's talk about him for a minute, because when we got to Syracuse, it was right after John Wallace and Cuse In The House and they had just played in the championship game. So, you had John Wallace, you had Otis Hill, you had, Jason Cipolla, they were all on the court. So we come in there young, you know, fresh out of high school. And Fred went in there and was like, let's play us against y'all. You remember And pointed to us the other freshman. John Wallace said y'all not ready for that yet, and Fred was like whatever we're ready. Let's go. So it was me, you, Rock, Ramel Lloyd, Leshaun Howard and Fred.

​We had like our own Fab Five, to be honest with you. It’s just that Fred didn't work out and had to leave and Rock transferred. But we had a crew. Talk about that when we scrimmaged them because they had just come back from playing in the national championship game, right, against Kentucky. And Fred was going to work.

Jason Hart: ​Fred, like you said, he was a next-level of talent. Obviously, he had a chance to go out of high school and get drafted, but the G League Ignite program would have helped him because it would have allowed him to obviously be paid, but he was an elite talent. His body was already developed. He would've been able to do that. And we would have had him in a structured environment where we can watch his every move, mental aspect of the game and see that his dreams come true. But definitely, he was elite. He would have benefited from this program, but also he could have gone straight out of high school. He was that good. And his confidence was crazy. I think his game was more mature obviously than ours. He was special. I remember the school gave him No. 44. And they crossed out 44. So nobody could touch it. So that tells you how special he was coming in. 

Etan: ​So I want to talk about that game though, because that game, he was going to work on John Wallace. 

Jason Hart​: Well, Fred was bigger than J Dub. John was maybe 6-8, 6-9, for sure. Fred was 6-10 and a half, 235 [pounds] at 18 years old. So I remember the game and John Wallace was coming off a high, maybe one of the better players in the entire country for college. And so I remember man, we played them and Fred kind of gassed that game up. And we was like, okay, well we gotta play them. But you know what? That mindset right there, they don't do that anymore. In the college game they don't play pickup anymore versus the older guys and our guys, our generation now is suffering from let's just do skill work all the time. And so how we pulled ourselves up, we used to play pick up all the time. That doesn't happen anymore. Especially at the college game. It's more we set up appointment times to where we can do all skill work. And amongst the players, they don't like to do pickup anymore.

Etan: ​That's crazy, but going back to the G League Ignite, they had two players in the draft taken with Jalen Green going to Houston and Jonathan Kuminga going to Golden State, and both still have tremendous upsides. So with them having this success that they had going the route of going to the G League Ignite team as an alternative to going the college route or going overseas and hearing the announcers gush over them, the way that they did. Do you think that this is now going to really open the flood gates for high school players to really do the same, the top, top high school players?

Jason Hart: ​I think it just gives them another option. Obviously, they have the G League experience. You have the Overtime [Elite], it's another high school league that they formed. And they're getting paid out of that as well. I just think that with those two guys, obviously being that it was the inaugural season and they were able to get drafted so high. I think it gives the top-level players, an opportunity to come showcase their talent versus pros and being able to be coached and putting their environment to where it's going to help them succeed on and off the court. College is not for everybody. Like we just said, if Winfred didn't have to go to college, he probably would have been in the pros and had a 10-year career. So I think given our kids, the culture, the basketball coaching options to help them be successful. And that's what it's designed to do. And hopefully, it attracts more talent and it keeps this thing going.

Etan: ​I don't think attracting the talent is going to be a problem you know, to be honest with you,

Jason Hart: ​It's getting the right ones and then giving the kids just options. And so when you have options in life and you make the right decision, it obviously leads to a bright future.

Etan: ​That's definitely true. So, you said that you hope that they give you know, keep attracting talent. I don't know the rules, you know what I mean? So I don't want to, if you're not supposed to mention anything or how they do tampering, I don't even know how the rules are. So if you're looking at, you know watching high school now, who are some guys that you think could make that jump you know, to go to the G League route? Not saying that you're recruiting them to come to you or anything. I just want to make that clear for all that you know, NBA compliance people, whatever, not asking that. And that's not what coach Hart is saying. Just who are some people who could make that jump now that you see?

Jason Hart: ​Well, I'm not sure how the rules are set up, but we are actively recruiting the players that go to the power five schools, the elite schools. And so I don't know if we can say the names because they're not signed to us. It's just like a kid getting recruited to UCLA or Duke. We can't promote a player that's not signed to us. But when we are recruiting, we are sitting next to the Kentuckys and the Kansases. And it's not more of a being a threat, but obviously it's just options. And so your favorite top high school players, international players, 18, 19-year-old, same thing. It's a wide margin of players, of areas we try to cover. And obviously, we are looking for the top youth talent in high school and overseas.

Etan: ​So you are able to go to the top. So say like, we just had the EYBL Peace Jam Fest. You're able to go there and just right next to the coaches?

Jason Hart: ​I'm at the NBA Top 100 camp right now.

Etan: ​In Orlando.

Jason Hart: ​Yeah. And Rod Strickland & Shareef Abdur-Rahim were at Peach Jam.

Etan: ​Got you. So it's the same you're at the same places.

Jason Hart: Yes, same places. I don't want schools to be like, man, they [are] trying to steal our players. That's not the goal. That's not, the intent is to give options for those who don't want to attend college and have the ability and confidence about themselves that they're ready to be professionals at an early age.

Etan: ​I definitely agree. So now as far as players going into the G League, and this is the part where I'm going to be really interested in to see how that develops — because I think that the NIL change will help some players in making the decision who are in a tough financial home situation and want to go pro for that reason. Well, now it will say, okay, well now I can make some money and take care of my family and stuff like that while I'm in school. I think that will help keep some guys in college a little bit longer. But more so about the G League and I don't want to, you know, I touched on the point earlier, but I want to keep on it because with these two high draft picks, in my opinion, I think it has to be the thought of every top high school player out there that if they did it and they hear the announcers gushing over them, the way that they did, they went number two and number seven.

So now they're like, okay, I could definitely do that. And I think it's going to open it up even more so where y'all might have to even be turning guys away, like, okay, we can't take any more high school guys. Or we're going to even open up another team up to the same thing. I think that many high school guys are going to grow up to be going this route. Do you agree with that?

Jason Hart: ​I totally agree. And during the draft, the G League Ignite team got a lot of positive remarks. And like I said, it's an option for players who have the ability and are ready. It’s not for everybody, I can’t say that enough. But I think those two guys obviously being the trend-setters and Isaiah Todd was another player that was drafted. Trend-setters in terms of the new age where we living in. I mean, this is something that was unprecedented being at this team was formed last year. And to have two lottery picks with the first seven picks and then another one at No. 31, it's definitely going to open the flood gates, but it also has to be a right fit. And it has to be something that you're willing to sacrifice and learn and be willing to accept coaching. But, you know, Hey, come join the G League, if that's your goal. And I'm saying it on your show. It's a win-win for all and hopefully, we can keep this thing going and make this team a destination for the elite talent.

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