G League Ignite, Overtime Elite, and the Future of Alternative Pathways | The Prospect Overview
The G League Ignite and Overtime Elite aren't going anywhere, but how viable are they for prospects and as businesses in the long run? Plus, extensive coverage of the Tampa Bay Pro Combine!
When the NBA officially closed the high school-to-NBA pipeline before the 2006 NBA Draft, the pathways players took to the league were bound to change. It happened slowly at first, as we saw players like Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay play professionally overseas for a year instead of attending college. For the most part, though, high-end prospects went to college for a single season before heading to the NBA so they could reap the financial rewards that their skill level deserved as soon as possible. Still, given that players couldn’t make money under NCAA rules, there was bubbling frustration among fans and players. If a player is good enough to be a professional, why can’t they make money off their game?
The first true solution emerged in the form of The G League Ignite program. Though the NBA’s developmental league first introduced the concept of “Select Contracts” in 2018, nobody bit. However, in 2020, the tides turned, and the NBA fielded a team centered around prospects who had graduated high school but chose to forgo college in lieu of professional opportunities. The team was called The Ignite and featured elite prospects Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, Daishen Nix, and Isaiah Todd. Seasoned veterans filled out the rest of the roster, putting the young guns in a position to succeed. The next season, more great young talent was brought in, though those young talents were provided with a lesser supporting cast.
Overtime Elite (OTE) was the next alternative pathway to pop up, though with a different concept. OTE targeted high school age players (juniors and seniors), as well as post-graduates with a minimum salary of $100,000, combined with bonuses and equity in the organization. This opportunity gave young prospects the chance to bypass not only college but also high school as well to cash in on their talent. They recently completed their first season and have secured more big-name prospects for the next one. With $80,000,000 in funding, they have a serious war chest at their disposal.
While we won’t get to see an OTE prospect play in the NBA until next season, they have a ridiculous catalog of young talent. We saw G League Ignite prospects Jonathan Kuminga and Jalen Green look the part of future NBA stars at moments during their rookie seasons. Even as the NCAA has opened up Name, Image, and Likeness financial opportunities for college players, it doesn’t seem like OTE or the G League Ignite will be going away any time soon. With that being the case, I feel it is important to look at what these organizations are doing well and where they could improve.
G League Ignite Strengths
-Level of Competition: Simply put, the G League Ignite’s prospects get to play against better talent than college players. Sure, it does hold their players’ feet to the fire, but it is to their benefit. The NBA has become increasingly talent-rich over the last few seasons, with more “Sub All-Star” level players than ever before. The bar to become a starting-caliber player has never been higher. Playoff basketball has reached another level; players and coaches have gotten smarter, and weaknesses are exploited at every turn. As a result of the NBA’s talent surplus, we are now seeing more first-round picks playing in the G League out of the gate. This is no longer seen as a bad thing or a demotion but rather as a necessity and powerful growth opportunity. These guys aren’t going against scrubs and nobodies; they’re playing against prospects who were among college basketball’s elite rather recently and other skilled, grown men. If you watch college basketball after watching a high-level NBA game, the difference in play is stark. By competing in the G League, Ignite players become acclimated to the faster, stronger, smarter game earlier in their development.
-Player Development: As I mentioned previously, this year’s Ignite squad was given a weaker mix of veterans than last year’s team. In the end, I believe it ended up being for the best. Jaden Hardy and Dyson Daniels both took notable steps forward as the season progressed. Hardy was having an awful time gaining separation from defenders and finding open teammates. While his increased shooting percentages have gained most of the attention, his footwork is night and day better than what it was at the beginning of the year. Hardy has learned how to dance with the ball, hesitate, and keep defenders off-balance, creating easier looks for himself and opening up clearer driving lanes. His passing vision on the go improved, and while you wouldn’t confuse him for LaMelo Ball as a passer, he’s doing a much better job of making primary and secondary reads. With Daniels, he began to knock down shots on the perimeter at a high clip, but he also significantly sped up his shot preparation and release time. It’s clear that the coaching staff with the Ignite is willing to engage with the players on the parts of their game that need improvement, and they are getting the talent to buy in on putting in the work.
G League Ignite Weaknesses
-Lack of Marketing and Visibility: If you were a casual NBA fan, it would be easy not to know that the G League Ignite exists. Outside of Warriors and Rockets broadcasts (where last year’s Ignite stars play), you hardly hear the program mentioned on commentary. It’s understandable, as the job of the broadcasters is to focus on what is in front of them. However, I feel that it would behoove the NBA to make a bigger push to make note of the product. Part of the issue here is also that the Ignite rarely play on television. Sickos such as myself are left to watch the games on ESPN3, YouTube, or InStat. If the NBA could work out a way to get a few of these games broadcasted by their more premier partners, it would do wonders for them. It’s a win for everybody: it would make the program more appealing to potential players, but it would also give players more buzz among fans before they are drafted. I know a Rockets fan who shrugged off their selection of Jalen Green last year because “they took some guy I’ve never heard of.” That was a shame, because Jalen Green was one of the most exciting players during last year’s draft cycle! He’s a fan now, but it would’ve been beneficial for the NBA and the Rockets to promote him as a future star before he even stepped on the court. The NCAA is still leaps and bounds ahead of the Ignite and OTE when it comes to giving players a visible runway to stardom.
-Product Presentation: This one is a rough fix. Given that the G Leauge is the NBA’s minor league, the perception that it is minor league is almost impossible to shake. The Ignite’s home games were played in a cavernous Las Vegas venue this season. The dark court, black-and-white color scheme, and largely empty stands (because this isn’t a true “Las Vegas home team”) made for a hollow, sad environment. Road games are similarly played in small gyms, often with sparse attendance. Ignite games rarely feel big or important, but instead like “just a thing that is happening.” The NBA as a whole could stand to do more to promote the G League, but they specifically need to find a way to generate more excitement around the Ignite.
Out of the Box Suggestion
-Player Options: It seems like, among this year’s slew of draft-eligible players, only Jaden Hardy, Dyson Daniels, and MarJon Beauchamp are sure to get drafted. I’d be surprised if Michael Foster doesn’t at least end up on a two-way deal, but he doesn’t feel like a guarantee to get drafted. I rarely, if ever, see Fanbo Zeng listed as a Top 100 prospect. Despite that, Michael Foster has been productive, and though Fanbo Zeng is raw, I still have interest in him as a long-term prospect. What I am proposing is a one-year player option for Ignite prospects to remain in the program after their first season with the team. Foster has put up good counting numbers, but he still needs to do a lot of work on his perimeter defense, balance, and quickness. If he ends up on an NBA team, he’ll be lower down their priority list. Another year on the Ignite with more attention would do wonders for him. The same could be said for Zeng, who may end up in basketball purgatory after this year. Plus, Scoot Henderson is set to star on next year’s squad, and I think he would benefit from getting to run it back with a few teammates who are better acclimated to professional basketball with another year under their belt.
Overtime Elite Strengths
-Infrastructure: OTE’s facilities are phenomenal. They have a 103,000 square-foot building with courts, exercise equipment, and classrooms. Every reporter who goes there raves about their setup and notes how truly professional the organization is from the top down. The arena that they play games in looks exceptionally cool and bright despite being smaller, giving them a leg-up on the G Leauge Ignite from a presentation standpoint. Another refrain commonly echoed by those who have visited the program: they take education seriously. They offer an outstanding 4-to-1 teacher-to-student ratio while giving players both a traditional education and more basketball business-specific instruction. It appears as if OTE players are getting everything they need both on and off the court, and OTE is doing it while giving the viewer a pleasant aesthetic experience.
-Contract Flexibility: This is a new development, but its implications are seismic. A big knock on Overtime Elite has been that by signing there, players are compromising their future college eligibility. If a prospect reaches the end of their high school years and isn’t headed toward an NBA future, then what? Are they stuck traveling the globe as a basketball nomad at 19-years-old? That may be the case for some, but they are working on a fix. OTE recently inked Naas Cunningham, the top-ranked prospect in the 2024 high school class. His contract is different; he will not take a salary, but instead, he will be able to receive compensation for his name, image, and likeness. As a result, he will maintain his college eligibility. This opens up a big door for players who want the OTE experience but fear they may not be ready for the NBA after their first post-graduate season. Now, the door is open for them to move on to college with no harm done. This has given OTE a gigantic competitive advantage against high-end prep schools and schools in states where players can’t collect name, image, and likeness money as high school students.
Overtime Elite Weaknesses
-Product Exposure: Similar to the G League, OTE does not have a major television contract. To make matters worse, they do not live stream their games. This was an absolutely stunning development to me when their season started up. Why not at least give viewers the opportunity to watch live? Though the games eventually end up on YouTube as polished products, it feels like they are leaving buzz on the table. A part of the reason sports do great television ratings is that it’s a communal experience; people all over the world can watch the same thing as it happens. Social media has intensified this experience, as viewers from all over the world can spout their hot takes and interact while partaking in the same product. OTE’s “watch it in post” approach cuts off the amount of conversation they can generate around their games. Although their Finals game had about 216,000 viewers, a handful of games have netted under 10,000. They also did a poor job of making their statistics available during the season. Though they can now be found on their website, I used to have to find the stats via photos on the Twitter accounts of various reporters, which was an unnecessary pain. The lack of live content and the lack of easily accessible statistics were both large whiffs in their first season.
-Marketing Through Commentary: OTE’s commentary is much different from that of a traditional basketball broadcast. I want to be upfront about this: though it’s not for me, I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. The OTE viewing audience seems to skew younger based on their YouTube comments (this is the perfect, most flawless way to assess data). A more casual, relaxed, and fun style of commentary works for that audience. I’m a big nerd— that’s not who they’re targeting! Still, I feel that money is being left on the table when the game becomes a complete afterthought, and I think it does a disservice to the players on the court. What am I getting out of playing in a league if the commentators don’t even utter my name during the entirety of the broadcast? Commentators seemed to know the names of top players, but that was about it, particularly early on in the season. I think there is a happy marriage to be made here. They can keep the content light and amusing while still hyping up the players and telling us about what they can do. I know the commentary style drove some (mostly older) viewers nuts. Still, I think it’s important to be open about what a different style of broadcasting for a new generation should try to accomplish. OTE is very close to nailing it if they can keep the excitement level where it is but do it in a way more beneficial to their players and in turn, their company. As the season progressed, the commentary got better, but it’s still not where it should be.
Outside the Box Suggestion
-Tryout Reality Show: In 2005, the UFC began airing “The Ultimate Fighter,” a competition reality show where a group of fighters lived in a house together while duking it out to earn a UFC contract. The show was a gigantic success that launched the sport into the mainstream. Part of the reason it took off was that it gave viewers a more intimate relationship with the fighters— we got to learn about who they are and what motivates them. It gave us a true connection to the athletes. I think OTE could benefit from doing something similar. They could leave the final OTE roster spot open and do a week-long tryout for that spot while covering the players vying for the opportunity. The player who wins will have built up a following because of the show, and even those who come up short will benefit from the exposure wherever they go next. It’s a win-win that would bear fruit for all involved.
Combine Sicko Prospect Coverage
This week, we had the Tampa Bay Pro Combine! Last year, four players at the event ended up playing NBA minutes: Jordan Goodwin, Micah Potter, Brandon Williams, and most notably, Terry Taylor (who just signed a contract extension with the Indiana Pacers after a fantastic rookie campaign). This year, the event focused on simulated pre-draft workouts for two days, then a three-point and dunk contest the next day, and two games on the final day. Though it was a small sample for the general public, there were still some interesting performances worth touching on.
The first game was dominated by two players. We’ll start with Amadou Sow. The 6’9” forward from UC Santa Barbara was physically dominant, posting 26 points and 12 rebounds. Six of those boards came on the offensive glass, as Sow was uncontainable and gobbled up second-chance opportunities. His 9-for-14 performance was low maintenance but effective, and he showed the motor and willingness to do the dirty work that should appeal to teams looking to fill out the back ends of a roster. At 6’9” with a 30.1% three-point percentage on low volume, Sow is still primarily an undersized big who averaged under a block per game his senior season. I don’t think he’ll warrant draft consideration, but this outing should keep his professional hopes alive and well.
The second player who knocked it out of the park was Kentucky’s redshirt graduate Davion Mintz. Mintz had a bit of a down year for the Wildcats, but he was exceptional in this game. For my money, he looked the most like an NBA player on the court. He led the offense well, showed a ton of shot-making prowess, got himself open off the ball, read the defense, moved quickly, and was pesky at the point of attack on defense. Mintz finished with 24 points on 13 shots, and his team’s offense looked the best when he was the one initiating it. I doubt he’ll hear his name called on draft night as he turns 24 on June 30th. Chris Duarte was drafted as an older prospect last year, but there is an ocean between where Duarte was as a college performer and where Mintz was throughout his career. Still, this game made me believe he has a strong chance to be on an NBA roster at some point. Every year, there is discussion around Kentucky guards being poorly utilized and how that should be taken into account when evaluating their NBA future. Why doesn’t Mintz deserve that same benefit of the doubt? He’s a real combo guard with a ton of juice as a scorer.
Nate Johnson played a solid composed game. Jaylen Sims couldn’t get his outside shot to fall, but he still impressed me. He did a great job of keeping the ball moving, which bodes well for his transition to a more tertiary role as a pro. Savion Flagg knocked down some nice jumpers and handled physicality well. Jacob Young’s passing performance was exciting to watch. Davion Warren put up a gaudy 22 points, but he did it on 22 shots. He showed way more as a ball-handler and passer than I had seen from him in the past, but the ball stuck with him too much, and he seemed way too intent on proving he could make threes in a shaky 3-12 outing from distance.
The second game featured a better group of prospects, in my opinion.
Malik Curry was the biggest surprise of the event. If you’re not familiar with Curry, that’s understandable, as he was a 6’1” backup point guard for West Virginia who only hit 25% of his threes. He didn’t exactly scream “NBA prospect.” I still don’t think he is one, but he deserves an immense amount of credit for his performance. He mucked it up on defense, immediately getting into the ball for steals any time anyone on the opposing team got sloppy with their handle. He threw some slick dimes in transition and had a wild highlight-reel block in transition. Curry finished with 24 points, seven rebounds, five assists, four steals, and two blocks. His lack of shooting ability still greatly concerns me, but he’s going to make money somewhere if he can play with that level of defensive intensity on a consistent basis.
Noah Horchler looked the most like a player you could throw onto an NBA floor tomorrow. Horchler showed poise, acting like he’d been there before and not forcing anything in an environment where players tend to overdo it in an effort to show out. His athleticism was clearly a cut above many other players, he rebounded, he made a few clever passes, he cut well, and he made a few threes. He’s not a high-ceiling proposition, but he doesn’t feel like a player who would embarrass himself if you threw him to the wolves.
The same could also be said for Justyn Mutts. Much like his college teammate Keve Aluma who I raved about last week, Mutts is an unselfish player with a better passing game than you’d expect at 6’7”. At 230 pounds, he has a strong frame that he utilized well to rebound and set screens. His 4-for-4 shooting performance (paired with his four assists, a block, and a steal) gives you a perfect picture of who he is: a smart player who dissects the game, doesn’t force anything, and makes plays on defense when they are there. I put Horchler ahead of him simply because he has a larger sample of better three-point shooting.
Clemson’s David Collins also deserves a deeper look. The 6’4” combo guard stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, six rebounds, and five assists. His body is pro-ready, and he used it to finish through traffic. Collins showed some nice craft getting to the basket and was fearless of physicality around the cup. His aggressiveness to get to the rim, paired with his 38% three-point percentage (albeit on low volume), gives him a chance to get an NBA roster spot at some point.
Taze Moore stood out as an athlete (no surprise there). He was a bit erratic with his passing early on and had a few bad misses but ultimately settled into his game well. I still think he’s worthy of two-way consideration due to his defensive prowess and explosiveness. I have no idea how Kaleb Ledoux is draft-eligible after spending five seasons in college and last year in the G-League, but he is. EDIT FOR CLARIFICATION: I spoke with someone close to the situation. Ledoux did not use his extra year of COVID eligibility, nor did he declare for last year’s NBA Draft. He is now auto-eligible for the 2022 NBA Draft. He was shaky in Tampa but still knocked down some off-the-dribble threes that were eye-catching. He scored almost 13 PPG in the G-League and made over 40% of his threes on 6/game last year, so he’s likely to get a two-way opportunity at some point. Ronaldo Segu will face the classic “small guard” conundrum at 6’0” and 160 pounds, but boy, can he make shots. The Buffalo product was 4-for-6 from three and finished with 20 points. His shot-making and touch are enticing, and he has solid passing vision, but he’s prone to forcing unnecessarily tough looks at times.