Former NBA head coach Brian Shaw has felt pressure before. He's coached an NBA franchise and been on the hot seat. He's played meaningful minutes in an NBA Finals game.
Now is perhaps the most pressure-filled situation of his career. The future of the NBA's developmental plan, and, in turn, college basketball's one-and-done marketability to top prospects, all hangs on the success that Shaw and his staff can have at priming four NBA prospects in the midst of a global pandemic.
A lucrative path for top pros, the NBA is trying something new: giving those guys the opportunity to circumvent college and work on their game in a way that's specific to NBA success. What Shaw and his staff need to deliver, therefore, is a greater level of preparedness for the NBA lifestyle. In a normal year, that might include more pro-like practices and travel. It will certainly include better competition against seasoned veterans, grown men and some NBA veterans.
Most importantly, it must include skill development tailored to the pros. The whole idea behind the program is that these players don't waste time learning habits that are only designed to help their college team win but will need to be broken or reshaped a year later. That their pathway gives them a clear leg up on those who stayed in college.
In the inaugural campaign of this G-League Ignite program, four top prospects have taken the leap of faith: Jonathan Kuminga (#4 on the Box and One Big Board), Jalen Green (#9), and Daishen Nix (#22) and Isaiah Todd (#31). All four have first-round talent and upside and must find a way to balance showcasing their own skills and making each other better. It's a unique challenge, as at no point before has the result of a game been so individually transactional -- at least transparently so. For Shaw and his staff, balancing winning, showcasing their individual guys and proving to future generations that this is a preferred method to the college route is a tall task.
Regardless, play starts this week for the Ignite group, and we are looking forward to seeing the youngsters for the first time. Here's what we're looking for from each prospect when they take the floor to prove that the developmental aspect has been worth their time.
Jonathan Kuminga: Shooting Improvement
Initially, most readers of our big board were surprised by my placement of Kuminga ahead of Green, or that Green is at the bottom-half of the lottery in general. A lot of this speaks to the modernity of Kuminga's game and my belief that he'll be a high-level off-ball player. At 6'8", he has great size and athletic traits to go with a frontcourt handle that is hard to find.
âBut at 6'8" as a non-big, the absence of a reliable jumper can really hurt Kuminga. He's only 18, but on the EYBL 17-U circuit was 0-9 from 3 and under 50% from the free throw line. Since then, there have been mechanical improvements and times when he looks comfortable. We want to see more of this:
From what we've seen so far in the Ignite bubble, which is mainly scrimmage highlights that are heavily controlled and hide some of the flaws, Kuminga has been used more as a mismatch post option, an isolation scorer and a guy who runs off screens to get momentum towards the hoop.
Those are pretty accurate NBA comps for him, and that lightning quick first step and freak athleticism can be on display in those areas. In the highlights below, you'll see a couple of catch-and-shoot jumpers, a step-back on the perimeter that looks pretty comfortable and fantastic defensive instincts that shows he's farther along on that end than many would have thought. But shooting in games, against real competition, and in the moments when others have the ball in their hands in the half-court, will be the true test.
He still has the instinct to re-penetrate, slow down and isolate or take the air out of the ball to go at his matchup, which are habits he'll need to break when surrounded by this level of talent:
Shaw has been known as a shooting guru of sorts, so this may be a direct reflection of his tinkering if Kuminga shows up in the G-League bubble and is a competent shooter. It's the biggest swing skill that could keep him in or remove him from the top-five. He's a physical freak, gifted athlete and has a pretty good body for someone his age. But the progress of the jumper being legitimate is important.
From a team context, it's also vital. The Ignite will need to share touches between several of their top prospects and even their veterans like Jarrett Jack. If Kuminga is a poor off-ball scorer and has negative gravity on the perimeter, that harms everyone else.
âWhich leads to our next guy...
Jalen Green: Playmaking for others
A 6'5" guard with a 6'7" wingspan, Green has all the athletic tools to be a top-three pick. He's a pretty reliable shooter and might be the most athletic guard in this draft class. All natural skills that are really workable that NBA teams love on the surface, even if his shot is a little low and Tyrese Maxey-esque for my liking.
My critique of Green has been, through his AAU and high school film, a lack of feel as a playmaker. He has been more of a scorer who relies on his athleticism inside and hits shots when played off on the perimeter. In trying to compare where he is on big boards, the feel as a passer is going to be pretty important for me.
Cade Cunningham and Jalen Suggs have already shown elite feel and playmaking ability in their college seasons. That's why Suggs is ahead on boards for me: both have size and good shooting, but the IQ and competitive streaks from the Gonzaga point guard have already been on display. Meanwhile, I hesitate to still call Green a point guard instead of a combo guard.
Green made a few good reads in the scrimmage highlights that were released, especially out of the pick-and-roll. His instinct is still to be a scorer/ driver first -- and there's nothing wrong with that instinct. He just needs to find the right balance between the two if he'll earn my trust as a guy who plays with the ball in his hands at the next level:
The long strides and athleticism are tantalizing. The shot-making upside is there. But if he's not the guy who you want to put the ball in the hands of, or at least is farther away from developing those skills, it'll be hard to take him in the top-four for me. He has to be able to show growth as a pick-and-roll playmaker and know when to go for himself to keep on task with Cade and Suggs, who have been pretty mistake-free in both areas thus far.
Daishen Nix: Defensive impact
Of the four prospects in the Ignite program, Nix is the one who can see his stock take the highest leap with his play. And I wouldn't be surprised if he gets lottery discussion after the month of play. He's a strong bodied guard (6'5", 230 pounds) who can play on-ball or off-ball. When it's not in his mitts, he's a good secondary driver who knows how to get downhill quickly and finish in the lane.
But Nix is best with the ball in his hands. He's a wonderful creator with a flair for exciting passes in transition, as well as great pick-and-roll maturity. That bowling-ball physique scares guys to playing a bit off of him, and his pull-up jumper looks like it has lasting power. He knows how to drag out a hedge, is always hitting ahead in transition and is just a genuinely fun guy to play with.
The question for me is whether he can guard NBA-caliber point guards.
Nix looks bursty enough in small samples to get the job done, but he's more choppy with his footwork than built on long strides. He's active for deflections and makes some heady plays, but I worry about his hips and angles in isolations/ pick-and-rolls.
For Nix, it's less about whether he's capable in the long-term as much as it is about seeing where he's at now. Both that and the consistency of his jumper will be integral in his draft stock rising or staying put in the early second-round. He has definite potential to shoot up draft boards with a strong February.
Isaiah Todd: Interior defense
To me, there's no position that can stand to benefit from this Ignite program more than big men. In college, the post-up is still a prevalent part of how teams try to score. Coaches will work with a big man for long stretches on how to guard the post-up, how to do it themselves and frequently bang in the paint. Those college programs will run different pick-and-roll coverages that don't translate to the NBA or are rarely seen at the next level. It's a lot of skills and time spent that don't fully prepare for the modern NBA game.
That's where Isaiah Todd's development needs to show a leg up on the competition. Shaw is going to install a modern NBA offense that clearly showcases how a big man prospect will translate to the pros. He'll have to create out of pick-and-pops to the middle of the floor, get reps in the short roll, master the dunker's spot and perhaps stretch his range to the dead corner.
But defense is most important here. The aptitude of Shaw and his staff to teach Todd the terminology, development of his voice to quarterback a defense and mastery of angles is vital to him climbing up draft boards.
In those areas, Todd's performance from the scrimmage highlight film didn't pop. And it likely wouldn't: those aren't usually cut-ups you see on a YouTube highlight. But they're what scouts will watch for and are important in evaluating the efficacy of the G-League pathways program. There's a lot more riding on Todd's play in the G-League bubble than just his draft stock.