But after his first couple of professional basketball scrimmages in December, Green went back to his apartment in Walnut Creek, Calif., and dealt with an unfamiliar feeling: self-doubt. The ease with which he had dominated in high school, the defensive lapses he got away with because of his physical tools — that was all nonexistent against the grown men, some of whom had collected NBA paychecks, he was playing against now.
“I got down on myself a little bit,” Green said in a phone interview this week. “And I just was telling myself: ‘I don’t know why I’m down. I’ve just got to be mentally here, be where my feet are and play the game that I love.’ I’ve just learned that it’s a mental game.”
These are the lessons Green is receiving with the Ignite, an ambitious and unprecedented project in which teenage prospects are getting groomed for the NBA by an unlikely source: the NBA.
Green, a 6-foot-6 Fresno native, is projected to be a top-three pick in the 2021 draft. He is one of six NBA hopefuls who bypassed college basketball for a one-season apprenticeship with the NBA’s long underutilized developmental league, giving him a head start on the terminology, pace of play and professional obligations that come with a job in the NBA.
In the process, he is also helping the G League fend off global competitors for players with NBA potential who want to be paid now for their abilities on the court.
“They shouldn’t have to go halfway across the world to do something that they can do here,” G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim said this week, before Green and the Ignite kicked off their season in Florida. “Young men shouldn’t be pigeonholed into doing one thing. … We wanted to make sure that we had something in place that more young players that thought this was right for them, they could take advantage of it.”
Done with one-and-done
In the spring of 1995, Abdur-Rahim was in a Springfield, Mass., hotel room for the first Nike Hoops Summit when his teammate Kevin Garnett revealed to him, Stephon Marbury and Robert “Tractor” Traylor that he wouldn’t be joining them in the NCAA that fall. Instead, he was declaring for the NBA draft.
“We thought he was crazy,” Abdur-Rahim said. No player had entered the NBA out of high school in more than two decades. The path to NBA riches was through college basketball stardom.
But Garnett was a potential top-five pick, he told them, and he had a workout scheduled for NBA executives including Isiah Thomas and Kevin McHale. If that didn’t convince Garnett’s peers, they all understood what might be ahead — for them and for professional basketball — after they left that hotel room. Abdur-Rahim, Marbury and Traylor took the bus to one destination. Garnett took a private car to another.
“It’s kind of how it started. When you think about it, it really wasn’t that crazy, because a year later, I was putting my name in the draft,” said Abdur-Rahim, who played one season at the University of California at Berkeley before being drafted third overall in 1996. “But mentally, I wasn’t close [to being ready for the pros].”
Now, though, “the NBA, for a lot of young players, is so much more accessible,” Abdur-Rahim said. “They work out with many of our players now. They see the opportunity different than what we did.”
Ever since Garnett’s decision, the league has grappled with the best way to accommodate a younger workforce. The preps-to-pros movement was shut down in 2005, after the league determined that getting a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James a little earlier wasn’t worth sending scouts to high school gymnasiums. That unleashed the “one-and-done era,” 15 years during which the NBA has mandated that all players be at least 19 or a year removed from high school, sending even most NBA-ready talents to college.
But college basketball in those years has been plagued by scandal and a lower quality of play. Meanwhile, players with no interest in attending school have had to find creative alternatives, mostly overseas, for their NBA-mandated gap years.
That’s why Abdur-Rahim pushed the G League, which typically functions like the NBA’s minor leagues, to offer financial, personal and professional incentives to keep elite high school players in the U.S. The result was the Ignite, a separate team of elite prospects, surrounded by handpicked veterans, that has no affiliation with an NBA franchise.
The G League was already moving toward offering prospects a professional path before Abdur-Rahim took over in December 2018, hoping a $125,000 salary would be enough of a lure. It wasn’t. As Abdur-Rahim pushed the issue, basketball people he respected, including his friend and former agent Aaron Goodwin, convinced him the league needed to drastically increase the compensation and create a more refined program.
It worked: For a salary that reportedly exceeds $500,000, Green agreed to bypass a scholarship at Memphis to get on board, giving the G League a face for the program and a magnet for more talent. Isaiah Todd soon followed, shunning a scholarship offer from Michigan. Then came Daishen Nix, Jonathan Kuminga and international projects Kai Sotto of the Philippines and Princepal Singh of India. The team started training in Walnut Creek last August, preparing for a nearly one-month G League season being staged in the same Walt Disney World bubble outside Orlando where the NBA restarted its pandemic-shortened season last year.
“These guys are NBA players,” Abdur-Rahim said. “They’re going to play in the NBA. I try to take that anxiety away from them. I don’t think anybody expects them to just go out and dominate.”
At least a dozen eventual draft picks have skipped college during the one-and-done era, starting when Brandon Jennings went to Italy in 2008. Emmanuel Mudiay went to China in 2014. Terrance Ferguson went to Australia in 2018, followed by LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton in 2019. But the predicted mass exodus never occurred. And so far, only Ball was taken as a top-three selection. None, so far, has become an all-star. Jennings and Mudiay are out of the league.
“The overseas game isn’t the same as the NBA game,” said Jarrett Jack, 37, one of the Ignite veterans. “You get used to the language, what certain calls mean. You get hip to that fast if you’re playing in a situation that mirrors what you’re about to embark on.”
The other benefit of the Ignite, Goodwin said, is that the NBA isn’t going to invest its resources into a program to watch it fail. “Your biggest partner in the NBA is the NBA,” Goodwin said. “So if you have an opportunity to partner with them early on and have them guide your career, why wouldn’t you?”
That support extends off the court, too, Abdur-Rahim said. His lone year at Cal exposed him to possibilities beyond basketball, he said, even if he couldn’t pursue them until his 12-year playing career — which included an all-star appearance and an Olympic gold medal — ended at age 31. After retiring, he earned a sociology degree from Cal and then an MBA from USC.
The Ignite prospects all have scholarships to attend Arizona State, where they can earn credits toward an eventual degree. They have also participated in Zoom calls with current and former NBA players (including Darius Miles, Jamal Crawford and Quinn Cook); the parents of NBA stars such as Chris Paul; and experts in financial literacy, personal branding, voter registration and relationships.
“It would be hard for me to be attached to something that was total basketball and didn’t try to address some of the other aspects of their life and their development,” Abdur-Rahim said.
Then there’s the support they get every day from those veterans — one is Amir Johnson, the last player drafted directly from high school — and from Shaw, the former Denver Nuggets coach who won five NBA championships as a player and coach.
Green spurned playing for Penny Hardaway at Memphis to be coached by Shaw, who was teammates with Hardaway, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant. Shaw’s experience of being around Bryant, both as teammate and coach, earns him a receptive ear from his inquisitive youngsters.
“I preach to them all the time, ‘Pay your dues, your dues will pay you back,’ ” Shaw said. “I care. They could easily be my sons. And as a Black man, I feel responsibility to make sure that they understand all of these worldly things that are going on around them, and what they’ll be facing. Everything that I do is with a purpose. Sometimes they may not like it, and they may not understand it right now. But at some point they will.”
The league and its players’ union are expected to eliminate the minimum-age rule in the next collective bargaining agreement, allowing future NBA-ready talents like Green to simply enter the draft. But Green says something like the Ignite may still have value to some players.
“I think this is better, because you’re not just thrown in that fire,” Green said. “It gives us a chance to learn the things that we wouldn’t know going straight into it. It’s a whole different game from high school, and then you’re just making that jump. You got to really adapt. Even Kobe had to adapt.”
Green’s “bros” in college — prospects like Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham or USC’s Evan Mobley — started that process this season and will have the NCAA tournament to leave a final, lasting imprint on league scouts, executives and owners. Green, though, will only have the next 14 games, and possibly a postseason run, to showcase his game before the draft.
“I’m not really worried about that,” said Green, who scored 11 points in his pro debut Wednesday. “This is a whole ‘nother level. It’s a new route. And it could be questionable, but as long as we go out there and show that we’re doing our thing and getting better, everything will take care of itself.”