How Real-World Education Preps G League Ignite Players for What’s Next
Why this matters
The Global Sport Institute has long championed the ‘post-sport journey’ as a fundamental part of the athlete experience and as a shared responsibility in the sports industry. Through a partnership with G League Ignite, the Institute is working to keep stability and future opportunities front of mind for elite young basketball players across the globe.
As a longtime recruiting reporter and a former college athlete, Brandon Jenkins was hardly surprised when the National Basketball Association announced that it would use its G League development system to establish a professional pathway for young basketball players to earn money on their way to the NBA. While Jenkins saw it as merely incremental progress toward eventually getting rid of the league’s age limit altogether, he felt the G League Ignite developmental team would benefit kids by allowing them to earn money earlier.
Still, as a national recruiting analyst at 247 Sports, Jenkins also knew that by bypassing college, these athletes were losing out on the hefty platform the NCAA offers. For the Ignite team to be worth the kids’ while, Jenkins says, it has to provide more than money. Competing against the second-best basketball league in the world is one thing, but the NBA has worked on adding other pieces to its offering at Ignite that are enticing to the top young hoopers in the world.
“When you’re talking about the top 100 kids in the country, the common denominator between all of them is getting to the league: What gives me the best chance of getting to the league?” Jenkins says.
As a result, the NBA built a high-level training facility in Walnut Creek, California, for Ignite to practice and created new tournaments like the G League Ignite Showcase Cup, where top prospects can show off before the start of the NCAA men’s basketball season or the usual G League regular season. The league has also developed a personalized course for players called the Business of Basketball in conjunction with the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University.
By investing in facilities, exposure, and education, the G League hopes it can stand above the rest of the opportunities facing athletes as they await their 19th birthdays and the chance to play in the NBA.
“This has been a unique opportunity and task to deliver on the ‘post-sport journey’ work being done by the Institute,” says Kenneth Shropshire, the CEO of the Global Sport Institute. “These outstanding young men have the unique opportunity to gain college exposure and credits while launching their professional career.”
Related: How Schools Struggle to Ready Athletes for Success After College Sports
Often lost in the debate over the age limit in professional basketball is the success rate of the career that follows. The thinking goes that in any of the United States’ metropolises, young people from all walks of life skip college or leave early in pursuit of their dreams, so why not allow athletes to make money off their talent as early as possible, too? That idea holds obvious merit, but the cottage industries that exist around professional development and wealth management are far more prolific in Silicon Valley or the Big Apple than they are in the small communities from which young hoops stars are recruited to compete on the hardwood.
As multiple new programs sprout up to offer alternatives to college basketball for young men across the country, advocates are working hard to make sure education does not slip through the cracks. At Overtime Elite, which is billed as a “transformative new sports league,” young athletes learn virtually through Xceed Prep, an internal life skills curriculum, and dual-enrollment credit at the University of Pittsburgh. And with the fledgling Ignite team, the squad full of high-profile recruits earning up to $500,000 per year, athletes are required to take the Business of Basketball course to prepare them for their next chapters.
“The thing I wanted to make sure of is, it wasn’t a proposition where they were sacrificing education for basketball, so I thought that there was an opportunity to do both,” says G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim. “To start their professional careers but, at the same time, continue their path of learning, educating themselves, and learning as young people.”
In the Business of Basketball course, students learn financial literacy as well as the nuts and bolts of sports business, from what percentage of their salary an agent will be owed to how state and local taxes work to how to manage a brand online and in a community. It’s a more practical approach to education that understands the goals of the Ignite players and the journey they will take in sport.
“I’ve learned a lot,” says Michael Foster, a top-25 recruit in his class who initially considered ASU before committing to Ignite. “It (isn’t) just about studying. It’s about how (sports executives) going to treat you, everything in the business, the taxes in states, financial literacy goals – all these different things like that.”
As last year’s inaugural Ignite team showed, the reality is that many of the team’s top players are destined for the NBA. Professional Pathway players Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, and Isaiah Todd were selected in the top 33 picks of the NBA Draft in July, and this year, Foster, Jaden Hardy, and Fenbo Zang highlight a crop of likely NBA picks. This means that where a 100-level English course may not generate excitement for players with their eyes on the NBA, a more customized course like the Business of Basketball can.
Head coach Jason Hart, a former NCAA and NBA player, knows how important it is to plan for what comes after a pro career. As he neared the end of his playing days, Hart quickly set his sights on coaching and, having already hired a financial advisor, put together a plan to stay in basketball as a teacher after retiring.
“Every young athlete needs to know that you have to have an end game,” Hart says. “You can’t play forever, although at 18 you feel like you can, so with that comes the financial literacy and learning the business of basketball – how this whole thing works, how you get paid, how this whole thing gets generated, just understanding the business that you’re in as opposed to just coming in and playing basketball. Once you understand that part, you’ll understand the significance of taking care of your money and giving yourself longevity after basketball.”
Related: An NBL Star On Life After Basketball
Despite everyone’s best intentions, of course, a class is only as effective as what students put into it. The Professional Pathway players on Ignite know they have a great chance at ending up with their names called at the NBA Draft next year. Understandably, much of their day-to-day life is geared toward actions that maximize their chances of getting there.
“I wouldn’t like to say that education doesn’t matter for any of these kids, but at the same time, they know what their ultimate goals are,” Jenkins says, “and I feel like that goal of putting the ball in the basket and achieving financial freedom via that opportunity separates itself from the rest.”
With athletes’ post-sport lives at heart and the state of sports today in mind, the Global Sport Institute has crafted a curriculum that is as relevant as possible for tomorrow’s NBA stars. The knowledge they gain can be hugely impactful as they make their paths through their careers in ways that even some college courses may not. By tying book smarts and street smarts together, the Business of Basketball aims to give Ignite players a lift on their way to the big time.
Says Abdur-Rahim: “You’re catching them at an age and at a time where they’re really focused and really interested in learning, and I think that if nothing else, we can start to, no pun intended, ignite that in them. The idea, process of learning, and being curious and being successful.”