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Scouting G League Ignite: Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga Leave Debut Impressions

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The NBA got its first real look at the G League Ignite team last week, with projected top-five picks Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga taking part in a pair of closed-door scrimmages against a team of older, experienced G League players. The Ignite team, which also includes projected lottery pick Daishen Nix and draft-eligible bigs Isaiah Todd and Kai Sotto, has been training together in Walnut Creek, Calif., since August. The team’s selected veterans, including longtime NBA forward Amir Johnson, arrived in November, and full-team practice began in turn. Ignite lost both scrimmages, the first 113–107 and the second in a 125–99 blowout, but there was plenty to take away from watching these prospects in this setting.

The program was envisioned as a pathway for top U.S. high schoolers, allowing them to turn professional early and play and train domestically, forgoing college but keeping them away from alternative leagues, including Australia’s NBL. These scrimmages were technically the Ignite team’s second round of play against external competition, following what was described to me as simulated action involving professional opponents (primarily players with G League experience) in previous weeks. NBA scouts were not allowed in the gym last week due to local COVID-19 regulations, but teams have access to the footage from both scrimmages as well as select practice footage.

Per league sources, the Ignite team is expected to be part of a forthcoming G League bubble. I’m told plans for that event are still being finalized, but it would take begin in late January or early February. As has been previously reported elsewhere, it’s expected to be held in Atlanta and feature about half the NBA’s affiliate franchises. There’s a belief among teams that part of the impetus behind holding G League competition at all, amid the pandemic, is to ensure the Ignite team has games on its schedule during its inaugural season. Ensuring players have a platform to compete will be essential to the program’s ability to keep attracting talent, and that bubble would likely be the next opportunity to check in on these prospects.

Sports Illustrated received access to the full game footage from both of last week’s scrimmages. Here’s what you need to know about the Ignite team right now.

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— This platform looks like it could significantly boost leaguewide perception surrounding Kuminga, who was Ignite’s best player in the first scrimmage (26 points on 11-of-15 shooting, eight rebounds) and is clearly the most NBA-ready prospect in the group. Kuminga rated as the No. 4 prospect on our initial Big Board, with a great frame at 6' 8", 220 pounds and a 7-foot wingspan, and developing ball skills that have come a long way over the past two years. Due to the fact he reclassified, was injured at last summer’s Nike Academy and could not attend the Basketball Without Borders global camp in February, and high school All-Star events were canceled due to COVID-19, NBA teams have had less opportunity to evaluate Kuminga than many other top prospects. No matter what happens with the Ignite team, it’s likely going to be the most meaningful piece of teams’ eval process with him. And after a series of high school transfers, it’s worth noting that this is also the most stable, consistent opportunity Kuminga has had to train and improve at this stage of his career.

It would be hard to watch these scrimmages and not come away feeling better about Kuminga than you did before, given the way his size and athletic ability immediately play up against older competition. He shot 3-of-10 on three-pointers over the two scrimmages, was generally efficient and bullied his way to the rim on several occasions, also shooting 10-of-13 from the foul line combined. He’s a capable passer, but his preferred style of play, unfortunately, is to stop the ball, which can sometimes kill the flow of the offense. His level of interest and effort tends to wane when the play is going on away from him. He floats from time to time as a result. And in practice, Kuminga isn’t quite as good a finisher as he should be given his size and athletic advantage, occasionally getting held up on his way to the basket and struggling to get extension and easy finishes in traffic. Learning to better attack defenders’ bodies, as well as gaining separation with the ball in his hands, will be a key piece of his development.

Still, Kuminga is rarely tentative and looked mostly comfortable playing at this level. A big piece of his appeal comes on the defensive end, where he should be able to defend two through four and can use his length and strength to bother ballhandlers. He needs to play harder on a consistent basis and sit lower in his stance to maximize his lateral agility, but there’s a strong likelihood Kuminga will add value on the defensive end in the NBA. The fourth quarter of the first scrimmage in particular was a strong showcase for him, thanks to pronounced effort on both ends, as well as an obvious physical advantage when the other team deployed a small lineup. He has the size and skill level to play as more of a hybrid forward long-term, capable of attacking switches and mismatches on offense, and defending whoever you need him to defend. Clearly, Kuminga has a ways to go in refining his approach, but he’s very much tracking as a top-five pick.

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— Green, the No. 3 prospect on our Big Board, was mostly as advertised, showing flashes of the high-level scoring talent that has long piqued the interest of scouts, but also floating for long stretches of both games, settling for too many jumpers and looking particularly lost on times on defense. As he acclimates to the professional level, Green is going to have to get uncomfortable and start doing smaller things that had never been an emphasis for him in high school, where he was able to get away with a lot thanks to his impressive run-jump athleticism, long strides and ability to create space for himself off the dribble. Pitted against longtime pros, it was apparent that Green isn’t far removed from high school basketball, looking his age much of the time and getting sped up and forced into bad decisions by more experienced opposition. He’s also not overly tall and has always appeared a bit shorter than his listed 6' 6". His lack of elite size was easier to spot on film against older players.

Scoring the ball has always come easily to Green, and while his jumper didn’t fall much (he shot just 1-of-8 from distance over two scrimmages), he was able to get into the paint and show off his leaping ability around the rim. He’s very light on his feet, with the type of quick-twitch burst and pace in tight spaces that help him beat defenders on the perimeter. It’s apparent that Green needs add physical strength, which shouldn’t be a major challenge, but will enable him to more confidently attack shot-blockers in the paint, rather than try to navigate around length in midair the way he often does. Although he does project as an above-average shooter, he remains overly reliant on pull-up jump shots. He’s shown the ability to make simple plays in pick-and-roll and is learning to cut and come off screens, but Green still struggles to impact the game when he isn’t touching the ball. There are scouts who have wondered whether he projects best somewhere in the vein of Zach LaVine, which is a compliment when it comes to his budding offensive game and illustrates concerns about his ability to contribute in other areas.

Green’s biggest area for improvement right now comes on the defensive end, where he tends to ball-watch and zone out, and he is still grasping basic help principles. He isn’t the first or last high school prospect to have those types of issues, but it’s markedly more difficult to hide a bad defender at this level than it is in college. Green’s effort on that end could be much better, and as simple as closing out on shooters with intent and learning to anticipate the next pass. His tendency to be reactive, not proactive, led to a number of open shots for opponents. Green covers ground too well naturally to have any real excuse for being late to the ball. This is something that should, in theory, come with time, but NBA teams will want to see improvement. When he’s defending on the ball, he has the foot speed to guard the perimeter and make a difference, and he has the tools to block some shots once he gets a better grasp on where he needs to be at a given time.

The good news here is that Green’s primary issues are fixable, and with the number of boxes he checks physically and skill-wise, it’s hard to see him slipping too far atop the draft. He’s firmly in the mix for a top-five selection.

— It was particularly useful to see Nix, the No. 10 prospect on our board, perform in this setting, where his innate feel for playmaking shone, but his average physical tools were somewhat laid bare. Nix has great size for his position at 6' 5", so he’s capable of seeing over defenders with a knack for throwing perfectly timed passes and hitting runners in stride. He’s the quintessential quarterback in transition, with his passing ability covering for what he lacks as a run-jump athlete. As he adjusts, he’ll be a capable ball-screen playmaker. His jump shot is still questionable, as he tends to shoot a bit flat-footed and made just one of eight attempts from distance in the two games. But he also totaled 11 assists (nine in the first game) and only five turnovers, an admirable showing from an 18-year-old point guard, dropping in many difficult, NBA-caliber passes to get teammates open. Nix’s basketball IQ is extraordinarily advanced, and he’s mature and naturally unselfish. He should have a long career in the NBA one way or another.

However, Nix’s lateral quickness was an immediate issue on the defensive end, where his limitations become a bit troubling. He had issues sliding to keep up with smaller ballhandlers in space. Nix is naturally built pretty wide, with a strong base and nimble feet, but he’s listed at 229 pounds right now and will need to drop weight and get into better shape. He’s tall and smart enough that he can be hidden away from the point of attack, but he was exposed when opponents went directly at him, and will need to show more effort and fight on that end, where he had some degree of success in high school. Given his level of coordination and balance, losing weight might make a big difference for Nix, and teams are going to want to gamble on his level of feel. Overall, there’s reason to be optimistic, and particularly with this shaping up as a somewhat thin point guard draft, Nix is firmly the conversation as a first-rounder. This is a good situation to showcase his skills, but he likely needs to show a bit more to land in the late lottery, where we last had him projected.

— It’s not a huge surprise, but Todd and Sotto will both require patience. Todd profiles as more of a two-way contract guy and potential second-round pick at this stage, with some appealing skill flashes, but a limited feel for playing team basketball. He’s listed at 6' 10", but he’s very slender and has always fancied himself as more of a finesse player than a big. Todd struggled to impact the game in any way beyond a handful of mid-post catch situations, and even then, he’s rather raw. He needs to add strength and show a better understanding of his potential role moving forward, and the expectations here should not be as high as those for his U.S. peers. The former Michigan commit will have to work to better define his role prospects.

As for Sotto, it looks like the 7' 2" Philippines native is facing an uphill battle as he tries to scale his game up to the professional level, where he’ll have to find a way to impact the game without being fed touches. Sotto has some appreciable skill and shooting touch for his size, but he’s slow-footed and gets lost easily in an up-tempo game. He did well by not forcing much in these scrimmages, but his lack of physical strength made it tough for him to make a difference as a screen-setter or rebounder. Sotto’s heavy feet and slow reaction time will be an issue defending ball screens, which is a must for any player his size trying to survive as a situational piece at the NBA level. It’s going to take him some time to parlay his legitimate size into meaningful contributions, and, if he’s drafted, much like Todd, it will come in a developmental context.