Inside the NBA’s plan to develop top draft picks

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — In the middle of a routine scrimmage, Bobby Brown called out, “Baby.”

The basketball journeyman passed to former McDonald’s All American Brandon Ashley on the wing, then G League veteran Reggie Hearn jogged to the strongside block for a post touch against Jalen Green — an 18-year-old guard, top-ranked NBA draft prospect and in this case, “Baby.”

The play is designed to test Green’s defense, his swing skill at the next level.

“Yeah, you heard about that?” Green said with a laugh. “I caught onto that too late.”

With the help of his coaches and teammates, Green eventually figured out the set and stonewalled Hearn, stringing together multiple stops to the excitement of the veterans around him.

A group of former NBA players and coaches has spent the past few months putting Green through a crash course in professional basketball. Green (No. 3 in ESPN’s top 100), Jonathan Kuminga (No. 5), Daishen Nix (No. 35) and Isaiah Todd (No. 85) have been developing in relative isolation in Walnut Creek with the G League Ignite, the NBA’s new project that gives players an alternative pathway for their draft-eligible season.

“We’ve been getting a ton of calls from NBA execs, scouts that want to see and ask questions about who’s doing what,” said Ignite head coach and former NBA player Brian Shaw. “We’ve purposely kind of kept everybody at bay up until this point while we’re training and getting ready.”

With the pandemic wiping out high school all-star games, most NBA executives have only seen these prospects through high school video and film from a pair of scrimmages against other midlevel professionals. Otherwise, the four players remain wild cards to NBA teams.

In the coming weeks, the Ignite prospects will finally be thrust onto center stage. They leave for the G League bubble on Sunday — their first opportunity to prove themselves to scouts in person. Evaluators will have a week of practices to watch the prospects before the 18 participating teams take the floor in Orlando, Florida, with the Ignite playing 15 to 20 games.

Before the team got ready to leave — and after an initial quarantine period and daily PCR testing — I spent three days watching practice and conducting socially-distanced interviews with the players and coaches involved. Here’s what I learned about this important, potentially groundbreaking NBA venture in its initial season.

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