Name a level of basketball, and Jason Hart has either played or coached in it.
The Los Angeles native starred at Syracuse in the late 1990s, when he was named to the program’s All-Century Team. He then went on to play for nine NBA teams and notched a brief stint in Europe before transitioning to coaching. He coached AAU and high school basketball in California shortly after retirement, and for the last eight years has been on staff at USC.
These experiences, he believes, make him the right person to lead the G League Ignite team into its first nonpandemic season. Hart was named the team’s second head coach Saturday, replacing Brian Shaw, an NBA lifer who left Ignite after one season to become an assistant with the Clippers. He’ll be charged with coaching a group of elite prospects preparing for the draft who compete against G League teams. The inaugural Ignite team featured a pair of lottery picks in Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, and the league has signed three top-20 recruits in the 2021 class (per 247Sports) to headline Ignite’s roster for 2021–22.
Sports Illustrated spoke to Hart about his new job, the differences between Ignite and college basketball, and his vision for the program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sports Illustrated: In the past, you’ve been in the mix for college head coaching jobs. What about this opportunity excited you enough to leave the college ranks?
Jason Hart: I’ve been a college assistant for 10 years. It’s difficult to get a college job, and I just didn’t want to sit around and wait for an opportunity to lead a program. The Ignite program seems to be on the rise right now, and I want to be part of something special. It gives me the opportunity to lead young men similar to the college level, coaching a lot of high-school-aged talent. And partnering with a brand like the NBA was hard to turn down.
SI: You’ve been at virtually every level of basketball. How have all of those different experiences prepared you to run this program?
JH: It’s full circle with my journey. Every prospect coming in, I’ve played at each of their levels. I’ve seen it through the playing eyes and from the coaching perspective. When you tie those two together, it gives me the opportunity to see the mindset of young, talented players coming in but also have the respect of how you have to become a pro both on and off the court.
SI: Each of the last three years, you’ve coached a player at USC who fits the mold of the types of players you’re going to be coaching and recruiting with Ignite: Evan Mobley this past year, Onyeka Okongwu in 2019–20 and Kevin Porter Jr in ’18–19. What did you learn about what elite prospects like them need during that stage of their development that you’ll use with Ignite?
JH: It’s all about relationship building and trying to gain trust. Don’t try to do too much and get in the way of their talent. Find things they are good at and let them show off their skill set while not trying to handcuff them or put too many restrictions on them. Once they understand that you have the best intentions and you’re not trying to take anything from them, they go out and play their hardest.
SI: These players are 18 or 19 years old, and they’re navigating the year before they are going to get life-changing money in the NBA draft. What does the year look like off the court for them and how do you think you can help them through that?
JH: The challenge is just being able to adapt to the pro game. Their athletic ability will take care of itself, but it’s also about learning to be a pro on and off the court and being able to have that consistency on an everyday basis. That’s the difference between college and pro. You play every day or every other day [as a pro]. Also, understanding that this is just a temporary stop but you have to understand what you are getting into and prepare them for each obstacle that they are going to have. I try to give them some of the answers to the test before they take the test.
SI: How do you envision what recruiting looks like to Ignite compared with college?
JH: Shareef [Abdur-Rahim, G League President] and Rod Strickland [G League Players and Coach Relations Manager] have already done a good job of recruiting. I’ve already seen the players that they’ve already recruited [while at USC]. In college, you’re usually recruiting 50 or 60 kids per recruiting session. With Ignite, we may only recruit 10. So the pool is much smaller. I think when recruiting for college, you’re looking for guys that you can develop over three or four years, so you’re looking at their development a few years down the road. With the G League, we’re trying to find the next Jalen Green, the next Jonathan Kuminga.
SI: Ignite doesn’t just have elite recruits. It also features NBA and G League veterans. Have you thought about the balance between developing the young players while also giving the team the best chance to win games?
JH: We’ll put the best talent, the best product on the court. The goal is to win. Every organization wants to draft a winner, and every player should want to be part of a winner. So, I think with us, we’ll have a development stage during the year but we will put winning in front, and that will challenge both the older guys and the younger guys to play harder and have a little bit more focus. It might be a hard transition for them, but winning will always be the priority.
SI: There’s been some talk that allowing college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness will make professional pathways less attractive than they were in the age of amateurism. How would you respond to that?
JH: Well, there are a lot of players in the world. Even with the name, image and likeness, you still have a great brand in college basketball, but you’re also going to have players that don’t want to go to college and want to take their talents to the next level. It’s good to have options. But I don’t think the [NIL] will stop players from wanting to come to the G League. Everybody’s different.
SI: What’s your vision for what Ignite looks like in two to three years?
JH: My vision is for a program that will allow student-athletes that don’t want to go to college to showcase their talents and try to get to the NBA, but also a brand and a style of basketball that’s exciting and complementary to how players want to play and how they see their NBA futures. I think it’s a great opportunity for those that have the talent and who are willing and ready to become pros. I want to attract players not just from the United States but all over the world. I want to be a part of that. As long as we keep everything positive and we’re honest and diligent with our athletes, then it will be a great place to come.
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