Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: G League experience paying off for several rookies

Scottie Barnes rises to the top as Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga explain the lessons they learned with the Ignite last season.

Jalen Green, the No. 2 overall pick, has been sidelined for the past 13 games with a hamstring injury.

With the G League Winter Showcase held this week in Las Vegas – beleaguered as it has been due to replacement call-ups by NBA teams and COVID-19 concerns of its own – it seemed an appropriate time to check in on the Class of 2021 players who opted for the professional rather than college route to the NBA.

The early assessment: Pretty good. Different from the traditional path but not necessarily worse or better.

The G League’s Ignite squad was created in April 2020 to provide a non-NCAA, non-overseas professional environment that could serve as a launching pad to the NBA for prospects not interested in or not qualified to go the one-and-done college route.

Two of the first seven players selected in the 2021 Draft in July prepped with the Ignite: Jalen Green, who went to Houston with the No. 2 overall pick, and Jonathan Kuminga, on whom Golden State used the No. 7 pick it cashed in from a 2020 trade with Minnesota.

Joining them as NBA rookies this season were two Ignite teammates: Isaiah Todd, who was picked by Milwaukee with the first pick of the second round, then got traded twice before ending up with Washington. And Dashien Nix, an undrafted free agent who has a two-way contract with the Rockets.

Given their status as pioneers of sorts – a few players such as Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay and LaMelo Ball have gone off to play internationally before becoming draft-eligible – the first threshold seems to have been met: They’re no worse off for going straight into the developmental league, drawing salaries and skipping all the test scores, classes and other challenges of campus life.

“The setting, the atmosphere that we were in got us ready for this,” Green told this week. “And the attitude of getting better every day. … It was great just being on that stage.”

Green’s transition to the NBA was dialed up to 11 until he suffered a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for 13 games. The 6-foot-4 guard, still 19, was averaging 14.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists while shooting 38.2% overall and 27.8% from the arc in a robust 30.8 minutes for the Rockets. His layoff coincided with an uptick in the team’s fortunes – Houston was 2-16 with Green, 8-5 since he went out – but he hasn’t taken those results personally. He is slated to return to action this week.

“It’s been frustrating, but there are ways to still learn too,” Green said. “See what’s going on and how I can affect the game when I come back.”

Kuminga’s opportunities have been more scarce, but he has shown enough to draw praise from Warriors coach Steve Kerr and teammate Draymond Green. In 21 appearances, the 19-year-old is averaging 4.3 points, 1.5 rebounds and 0.3 assists in 8.4 minutes, and making 47.9% of his shots (though only 6-of-25 on 3s). His big game Saturday at Toronto – 26 points in 36 minutes in a protocols-thinned contest – was followed by another start Monday that he exited after six minutes due to a lower back issue.

Jonathan Kuminga scored a career-high 26 points against Toronto.

Asked last week about his G League experience, where top prospects reportedly drew salaries ranging from $100 up to $500,000, Kuminga said: “It was mostly how to be a professional. That was the biggest goal. I feel like the transition to the league has been successful, because of things we learned playing for the Ignite.

“We were the first group to do this, so there was going to be a lot of support. I think a lot of us being successful will help with more kids going to the Ignite.”

As current Ignite power forward Michael Foster Jr. told The Ringer recently: “Seeing them made my decision easier. I loved what they did with Kuminga and Todd. They’re my positions.”

Todd, 20, a 6-foot-10 big, has appeared in five games for the Wizards, averaging 2.6 points in 2.8 minutes. Nix, 19, a 6-foot-5 wing, logged only two NBA minutes in his sole appearance with the Rockets.

In Kuminga’s case, his sturdy 6-foot-8, 210-pound build and eagerness on defense have earned him some minutes and approval.

“A lot of people are going to say you’re young,” said Kuminga, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then attended high schools in West Virginia, New York and New Jersey. “But you’re here, even if you are young. You have to try to man-up or do something that will help contribute to the team. That’s what makes all the people around you feel good about you.

“So even if it’s two minutes, three minutes, I have to come in and help as much as I can.”

Kuminga and Green both gave credit to Brian Shaw, the former NBA guard who tried to set an atmosphere as much like the NBA as possible, from drills and practices to travel and team functions. The players built camaraderie from living in the same apartment complex in suburban Oakland and absorbed a lot of indirect lessons from competing with grown men for whom the G League wasn’t simply a green room.

Take an inside look at G League Ignite practice last season.

“Some people were looking to win. Others were trying to feed their families,” Kuminga said. “Nobody wanted to just let you take their place. When I played against the grown men, y’know, you had to do what you had to do. We all went hard.”

Jama Mahlalela, the Warriors developmental coach who works closely with Kuminga, said: “The NBA is a lesson in learning the NBA itself and how it operates. Practice structure and travel, and the Ignite team mirrors that in many ways. Having teammates like Amir Johnson and Jarret Jack who had been through it, and learning from them, helped Jonathan as he’s come to us.”

None of the 2020-21 Ignite players is on this week’s Ladder, though the season – like them – still is young.

The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, Dec. 20)

1. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Season stats: 15.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 3.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 22.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 5.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Scottie Barnes scored 21 points against Golden State last week.

Barnes had a strong pair of games that nudged him ahead of idled Evan Mobley … before the Raptors rookie also got sidelined by the league’s Health and Safety Protocols Tuesday. Positive tests have swept through Toronto’s locker room, with more than a half dozen teams also yanked from the court. Barnes continued to impress at both ends and posted a cumulative plus-56 in his team’s recent 5-2 stretch. His shooting has perked up, owing to his solid mechanics, as Barnes is averaging 16.3 points in December on 51.7% shooting.

2. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 13.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

The former holder of the Ladder’s top rung slips only because he hasn’t played for more than a week. Mobley first was hobbled by nagging right hip pain, then went into the league’s Health and Safety Protocols. In lieu of stats, Mobley did generate praise, as mined by The Athletic. Such as Miami coach Erik Spoelstra: “He has a game and defensive ability, and IQ, that’s beyond his years.” And Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer: “Just his versatility stands out. His ability to guard both on the perimeter and in the paint, and offensively really to play, on the perimeter and still be able to go to the basket, get things done.” He can’t get back soon enough for the Cavs.

3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 5.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 8.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Cade Cunningham scored 21 points against Houston last week.

Even as opponents find ways to contain Cunningham as a scorer, the rookie has countered by getting the ball into teammates’ hands and contributing in other ways. He has had 29 assists and 19 rebounds in his three most recent performances, despite dipping into single digits (11 points on 4-of-17 shooting) in the past two. Through Cunningham’s first 24 games, his 375 points, 147 rebounds and 121 assists had been matched or surpassed in NBA history only by Magic Johnson, Alvan Adams, LeBron James, Ben Simmons, Chris Paul and Oscar Robertson.

4. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 10.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 6.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 9.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Josh Giddey tallied 19 points and 11 assists against Memphis on Monday.

Giddey missed that 73-point spanking from Memphis early this month, then chips in 19 points and 11 assists Monday as the Thunder win 102-99 even with Ja Morant back for the Grizzlies. Coincidence? The Ladder committee thinks not. That came one game after Giddey became the first rookie since Larry Bird in 1979 (and only the sixth ever) to have at least 18 rebounds and 10 assists, hitting those numbers against the Clippers last weekend. He missed a triple-double by one bucket.

5. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 14.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Draft pick: No. 8 overall

Franz Wagner has been exploring his potential as a secondary ballhandler and 'getting after it' defensively in an impressive rookie campaign.

Wagner’s shooting drooped in a 1-2 week for the Magic – 20 for 51 (39.2%), including 0-for-8 on 3s. But the 20-year-old otherwise keeps playing beyond his years on a team with nine guys 23 or younger. Wagner ranks in the Top 6 among rookies in scoring, rebounding, assists, field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free-throw percentage, steals and minutes played.

The Next 5:

6. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers 

Season stats: 12.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Four-day break came at right time after 15 games in 27 days.

7. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Deserves more PT – he ranks 8th on Rockets (18.6 mpg).

8. Herb Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 7.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9
Draft pick: No. 35 overall

Pels are 8-9 when he starts, 3-12 when he doesn’t.

9. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 9.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 5.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Draft pick: No. 9 overall

Also snagged by the virus protocols last week.

10. Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets

Season stats: 9.0 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 24.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A
Draft pick: No. 26 overall

Twenty-four points in 26 minutes at ATL.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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