USA TODAY US Edition
Projected top NBA picks ignite in G League
Whether it be summer workouts with Richard Hamilton or fashion tips from Antonio McDyess, Amir Johnson knows the value of veterans.
Johnson was the last player to make the leap from high school to the NBA before the league implemented what has been coined the “one-and-done” rule, drafted 56th overall by the Pistons in 2005.
When presented with the opportunity to give back to the game he loves and pass along his own knowledge, Johnson couldn’t resist.
“I got a call from my agent about this team with young prospects that are coming out of high school, and what the program was, and I got a call from (Brian) Shaw furthermore explaining it. And I thought to myself, ‘Man, what a great idea,’ ” Johnson said. “What an opportunity for me after me being a kid that came out of high school at 18 years old, straight into the NBA, to actually come to the program and get some coaching experience. So I felt like it was a win-win. It was the perfect opportunity for me.”
In 2020 the NBA’s development league, the G League, created an alternative for premier players who didn’t want to go the traditional college route – the G League Ignite.
The Ignite’s roster is filled with former 4- and 5-star players from the 2020 recruiting class, headlined by Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga – both of whom are projected top-5 picks in this year’s NBA draft. Overall there are five draft-eligible players on the roster.
To bolster a team with so many 18and 19-year-olds, players like Johnson, 33, and Jarrett Jack, 37, were brought in to not only fill out the numbers but to provide mentorship to the young players – something Johnson says could be invaluable as they enter the NBA.
“For these guys to be able to come to this program, play with (veterans), get that experience of living on their own and all the extra stuff, you know, they get that before they’re thrown in the fire,” Johnson said. “Coming into the program I was like, ‘What a great idea getting experience first, before they get to the NBA.’ I just kind of got thrown into the fire, and God bless I had such great vets that steered me in the right direction.”
Being able to mentor players like Isaiah Todd, the No. 20 prospect in the 2020 recruiting class according to the 247 Sports composite, is a glimpse into the past for Johnson, who spent most of his first two years playing in the development league, then known as the D-League.
“This is like a flashback, seeing these guys, of seeing myself and the things that I did,” Johnson said. “I’m able to speak on it because I’ve been through it. The best experience is when you go through things. This is perfect for me.”
One thing Johnson has stressed in his time with the Ignite is his “process.” His pre- and post-practice routines – even down to drinking a specific type of water – have shown Todd the kinds of things it takes to have the longevity that Johnson has had.
“He’s seen people’s processes, from the time they were my age, including his own, to the time where they’re his age,” Todd said. “I think, you know, really picking his brain could put me ahead of the game.”
There is one thing, however, that Todd says the younger players have been the experts on. “I think they got all the fashion tips from us,” he said jokingly.
The Ignite was pitched as a way for high school players to get a year of professional experience without having to go abroad like 2020 draftees LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton.
While the G League and college routes come with their own challenges, the similarities between what these players are going through and what life is like in the NBA is something that Jack says can’t be overstated.
“It’s totally different from college,” Jack said. “It’s a situation where you can lock in and focus on the craft, work on your professional future. (You) get acclimated to what your lifestyle and what your day-to-day is gonna be going forward and you do that without having homework and other things that come with more of a college life. You’re just able to put 24 hours a day into being better, understanding how to be effective on a job. So I think that’s where this program is really, really crucial and can be beneficial to a lot of people that college may not be the necessary route for.”
There was a concern, Jack said, that bringing 18-year-olds into a professional environment – some making six-figure salaries – could lead to inflated egos, but from what he’s seen, most, if not all, of those concerns have been washed away.
“The good thing about these guys is they want to be good,” Jack said. “They ask questions, they’re curious, they’re inquisitive and they want to know the ins and outs and small nuances of what separates the guys that stick and the guys that don’t. So having guys that are naturally enamored with the game, it makes it easy.”