The NBA is ending the G League Ignite program, leaving a few players in limbo

The NBA is ending the G League Ignite program, leaving a few players in limbo

The NBA announced on Thursday that it is shutting down the G League Ignite program after only four seasons. It's been more than a disappointing showing in the 2023-24 season with the Ignite currently 4-28. The young team filled with NBA hopefuls had a massive wake-up call three games in when it lost 158-99 to the Salt Lake City Stars on Nov. 13.

"We've been through the struggles of playing against NBA players playing in the G League," Ignite forward Matas Buzelis told Yahoo Sports. "Players in college don't get to go through that struggle and they don't know what it's like to play against professionals, so when we're playing in games in the G League against players that are playing to feed their families, it's definitely different than playing in college."

NBA commissioner Adam Silver addressed the state of the Ignite during All-Star Weekend last month, saying the league was reassessing the program due to the NCAA's name, image and likeness (NIL) policy and changes in the transfer portal.

"Players who didn't want to be one-and-done players because they felt it was unfair and they wanted the ability not just to earn a living playing basketball but to do commercial deals that weren't available to them at college, to hire professional agents, an opportunity that wasn't available to them at college, they now — all of those same opportunities have become available to them."

The Ignite had success in recruiting big players in the first three years. In their inaugural season in 2020, the program landed top high-school recruits Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga. Both were lottery picks in the 2021 NBA Draft, with Green going No. 2 to the Houston Rockets and Kuminga No. 7 to the Golden State Warriors. The following year Scoot Henderson signed a two-year deal worth a reported $1 million. The 6-foot-3 guard was the No. 3 pick in last year's draft and now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers. Overall, the Ignite have had 10 players drafted and the development was relatively positive until this season.

The G League Ignite’s Ron Holland is a projected lottery pick in this year’s draft, but what about his teammates? (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

On paper coming into this season, the Ignite had the most young talent since the program's inception in 2020. There are eight draft-eligible players for the upcoming 2024 NBA Draft, plus Dink Pate, a top-40 high-school recruit who committed to a two-year contract and isn't eligible until the 2025 NBA Draft. Ron Holland was originally committed to Texas before he decided to decommit last April and join the Ignite program.

Holland, Buzelis, Tyler Smith and Izan Almansa are all potential first-round picks this year. Both Holland and Buzelis are projected lottery picks, but scouts have had a difficult time tracking their progress and projecting what sort of players they'll be at the NBA level with their games being so lopsided in score and turning into elevated pick-up games at times. Holland announced in February that he was ending his season and undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured tendon in his right thumb. He averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.3 steals before shutting things down.

The big question remains, where do the rest of the draft-eligible players turn to?

Thierry Darlan, Babacar Sane and London Johnson will likely go through the pre-draft process this year and try to help their draft stock while playing against players their own age during the NBA Draft Combine in May. There is no pressure that they have to remain in this year's draft, but for a program that took pride in youth development prior to hitting the league, half their young players are left in limbo with the Ignite shutting down.

Pate's options are a little more limited. Because he signed a two-year deal as a professional, he obviously doesn't qualify to play college ball next year and will need to either find a team overseas, join Overtime Elite (a semi-pro league located in Atlanta), or possibly join a different G League team.

Australia's National Basketball League has become a nice alternative route for young draft prospects. Hornets point guard LaMelo Ball and Heat guard R.J. Hampton both chose to play in the NBL in their one year before the NBA Draft. This year the projected No. 1 pick, Alex Sarr, is playing for the Perth Wildcats. Bobi Klintman, A.J. Johnson and Trentyn Flowers also elected to play one season in Australia this year before entering the draft.

Overtime Elite started their program similar to the Ignite as being an alternative professional route for high school players. They pivoted once the NCAA NIL rule went into effect and now allow both players who want to maintain their college eligibility and players that want to forgo college and be paid a professional salary. OTE has already had early draft success with Amen and Ausar Thompson both playing two years in Atlanta. The twins were taken back-to-back at No. 4 and No. 5 in last year's draft.

Pate sat out half the season coming back from a foot injury and even though he's the youngest player on the team (and youngest player in the G League), he was the Ignite's best defending wing and a prospect with a ton of upside potential. The 6-8 wing averaged 6.9 points and 3.5 assists in 22 minutes in 27 games this season. He uses his athleticism to his advantage and is so quick at turning defense into offense, getting the ball up the court quickly. He's a player NBA scouts will be watching closely next season, wherever he ends up, leading up to the 2025 NBA Draft.

The NBA had to do something with the Ignite program after the embarrassing season it had with limited fans coming out for games. The players' frustration continued to grow, losing night after night against players and teams much older and stronger. It wasn't fair to individual development. What's next for Pate and his teammates after their final game on March 28 is unclear. The NBA saw some success with the Ignite in four years but could no longer compete with the landscape changes in college basketball with the transfer portal and the growth of NIL. In the upcoming draft that is still wide open, it will be interesting to see where the Ignite players fall after such a disastrous final season.


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