Just over a year ago, a new wave of college basketball obituaries surfaced in response to the creation of the G League Ignite program, which burst onto the hoops recruiting scene by landing four top-20 prospects from the 2020 recruiting class. The inaugural Ignite haul was headlined by No. 2 overall prospect Jalen Green and No. 4 overall prospect Jonathan Kuminga, both of whom considered college basketball before spurning that option for six-figure deals with the NBA’s innovative new draft prep program.
What really irked some within college basketball’s power structure about the new G League program, though, was its active recruitment of two players pledged to college programs, as it lured No. 20 prospect Isaiah Todd out of a verbal commitment to Michigan and fished No. 17 prospect Daishen Nix away from a signed letter of intent at UCLA.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin told ESPN radio last March that “there were things that were said in the process that just weren’t right.” Meanwhile, Memphis coach Penny Hardaway called on the NCAA to take action toward letting college players profit after his Tigers missed out on Green.
If the Ignite program was going to find its talent by poaching recruits from blue-blood schools at the end of each recruiting cycle by waving large sums of cash in the faces of young players, how would college basketball’s premier brands manage their rosters and recruiting classes?
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Fast forward just over a year later, and those fears should be subsiding. College basketball now has the tools to compete and co-exist peacefully with the G League’s upstart program and the ever-increasing number of alternatives available to big-time hoops prospects. Look no further than Jalen Duren’s commitment to Memphis on Friday and subsequent reclassification into the 2021 class to play for the Tigers this season.
Duren was the No. 1 prospect in the 2022 class, according to the 247Sports Composite, putting him in the same stratosphere as Green. Ignite was among Duren’s finalists but, unlike Green, he chose Memphis and college basketball instead.
There are a couple reasons why other prospects with similar choices in the future would be smart to follow Duren’s lead. New rules allowing college players to benefit off their name, image and likeness are a huge factor, of course, but there is more to it.
The Ignite program enjoyed a mostly successful debut 2020-21 season as Green went No. 2 overall in the draft, Kuminga went No. 7 and Todd went No. 31. On the flip side is the cautionary tale of Daishen Nix, who was ranked the No. 17 prospect in the 2020 class by the 247Sports Composite but was not selected in the NBA Draft. Nix now finds himself trying to earn a professional contract as a member of the 76ers Summer League roster.
Nix’s predicament shouldn’t be viewed as an indictment on the Ignite program — his three classmates proved it can work — but his plummeting professional stock is more evidence of why an offer from Ignite is not the trump card in recruiting that some college basketball coaches initially feared.
There is no shame in only getting a Summer League opportunity, because even those spots are coveted by players seeking a shot in the league. But it is a shame that a 19-year-old player like Nix is facing such an uphill climb to make an NBA roster after completing a program devoted to preparing players for the NBA.
Nix isn’t the only five-star prospect from the 2020 class who struggled to meet sky-high expectations in his first season out of high school. But he is the only one left on an island with no better alternative than to try and catch fire in the Summer League with the best-case scenario likely being a two-way contract or non-guaranteed deal.
His story should give college coaches some ammo if they find themselves in a recruiting war with the G League for a prospect who is anything other than a generational talent.
Just look at the alternative route taken by Caleb Love last year. The No. 14-ranked prospect in the 2020 class was among the players approached by the G League about playing for the Ignite’s first squad. He was one of only two point guards ranked ahead of Nix in the 247Sports Composite — with the other being No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham — and was seen last spring as a potential first-round draft pick in 2021.
But much like Nix, Love struggled in his first season out of high school, shooting just 31.6% from the floor and turning the ball over 3.1 times per game as his 2021 draft stock fell.
Unlike Nix, though, Love will have at least three more seasons to develop his skills — and profit off them — while also working toward a degree since he chose to play college basketball for North Carolina.
Nix’s pockets might be temporarily padded from his six-figure G League Ignite deal, but the next couple of years look like they’ll be more enjoyable (and potentially profitable) for Love and probably more conducive to one day sticking in the NBA, thanks to the backing of UNC’s coaching, facilities and brand.
There is a place for the G League Ignite program in the basketball landscape. Some prospects simply want to play professionally ASAP, and they shouldn’t have to leave for Australia to do it while waiting to reach the NBA Draft’s age minimum. Playing for Ignite also offers prospects a jumpstart on mastering the skills and schematics that are prioritized in the NBA, and it will be interesting to monitor in the coming months if Green, Kuminga and Todd adapt more quickly to the NBA than their peers from the 2021 draft.
But college basketball can compete financially now while providing a safety net that Ignite can’t.
Haradway’s frustration last year centered on the G League’s apparent appetite to battle it out with college programs for talent rather than courting players clearly dedicated to pursuing collegiate alternatives. Now that the dust has settled a bit and the Ignite’s 2021 haul is coming into focus, there seems to be a more clearly-defined lane for the Ignite’s recruiting efforts.
One of the G League’s three commitments from the class of 2021 is Scoota Henderson, who reclassified from the 2022 class and is on track to play two seasons with the program before becoming eligible for the 2023 draft. Yes, he was considering Auburn, but his decision to go the G League route did not amount to an 11th-hour wrecking ball taken to Bruce Pearl’s 2022 recruiting class like the late poach of Nix from UCLA’s 2020 haul. The Tigers have plenty of time to recover from missing out on the 17-year-old guard.
The G Legaue’s other class of 2021 commits are from No. 3 overall prospect Jaden Hardy and No. 19 overall prospect Michael Foster. Both received “professional” Crystal Ball predictions from 247Sports guru Jerry Meyer before their senior seasons began, so college programs had plenty of time to make contingency plans, knowing their pursuits of those players might ultimately be fruitless. Neither were ever committed to a college program.
Another domino that fell in the year since the Ignite’s launch is the advent of the one-time transfer rule, which makes it easier for college coaches who lose a target to the G League to make use of an open scholarship late in the recruiting calendar.
Hardaway, Cronin and others were right to sound the alarm on the seemingly nefarious recruiting tactics of the G League program last year. But as a new day dawns in college basketball recruiting, it’s clear they have less to worry about than first anticipated.
NIL opportunities and the fear factor of what happened to Nix should be all the ammo they need to compete with an Ignite program that appears more willing to exist harmoniously with college basketball than was suggested by its controversial initial foray into talent acquisition.