Jarrett Jack’s principal job with the NBA’s G League Ignite is to make sure his young, impressionable teammates are not blown off course by hubris or anxiety. He was hired, so to speak, in part to be the on-court, wise counsel to Ignite’s 5-star high school talents who shunned major college basketball to get started on their professional careers.
Jack, 36, has been given many nicknames by his young teammates, including “OG” for original gangster. But the 14-year NBA vet and glue of Georgia Tech’s 2004 Final Four team isn’t ruling out a return to the show — and this current opportunity could jump-start that comeback.
“This is just the healthiest I’ve ever felt as a professional,” said Jack, who last played in the NBA in the 2017-18 season with the N.Y. Knicks when he was coming off knee surgery.
“I feel like I can come out here and play my game and also direct some of these young guys and put them in the right position, and also try to play winning basketball.”
The Ignite is a developmental team of NBA draft prospects unlike any other in the G League and plays exhibition games against other G League teams. It has four players who rank in the top 21 of ESPN’s 2020 high school recruiting rankings, including top-ranked Jalen Green, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Fresno, Calif., and No. 4 Jonathan Kuminga, a 6-foot-8 power forward from the Democratic Republic of the Congo via Elizabeth, N.J., who was rated No. 4. Both could be top five picks in the 2021 NBA draft.
Ignite also includes potential 2021 draft picks Isaiah Todd, a 6-foot-9 forward from Richmond, Va., and Daishen Nix, a 6-foot-3 point guard from Las Vegas. All four were playing high school basketball last year and were heavily recruited by colleges before settling on the G League. Kai Sotto, a 7-foot-1 center from the Philippines, who played with Atlanta-based The Skill Factory, also is on the Ignite squad.
When the NBA realized in 2019 it couldn’t entice the best high school players to skip college for a $125,000 G League “select contract,” the league recalculated its investment and decided in 2020 to pay each player upward of $500,000. Of the 40 players who went prep-to-pro from 1995-2005, just 10 made an NBA All-Star team, others cratered.
Jack believes the G League pathway could replace the NBA-instituted one-and-done, in which draft rules leave players feeling forced to attend college for one season while they wait to gain draft eligibility. The Ignite, led by longtime NBA player Brian Shaw, will participate in an 18-team tournament beginning Feb. 10 in Orlando, Fla., that will be showcased on several TV and social-media platforms.
Jack has a point-guard mentality with the teenagers, which is to facilitate and make it about them, just as he would with an NBA team’s All-Star. His role has some of the same characteristics of what the Hawks are asking Rajon Rondo to do with Trae Young, Cam Reddish, Brandon Goodwin, Kevin Huerter, and De’Andre Hunter.
“I have told them they might walk out there one night in the NBA game and just be the fourth best player that night, and you still have to find a way to be productive,” Jack said. “That’s where the know-how comes in, the cerebral part of the game ... knowing coverages … what are the reads when I get in these coverages.”
Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said the NBA hired the right player-coach for the Ignite.
“No. 1, he’s a good player. No. 2, he loves and respects the game of basketball, and No. 3, Jarrett is a guy always looking to pay things forward,” said Hewitt, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers’ G League team. “Somebody did something for him in his life, he wants to do something similar for somebody coming behind him. That’s why he was such a great leader for us at Georgia Tech.”
It is going to quite the balancing act for Jack, who joined the team Jan. 14. Ignite has to groom young players and, at the same time, not get blown out by G League teams with ambitious vets trying to get into the NBA.
“We’re going to be on TV a lot; they don’t want to be described as ‘they came and got killed the whole time’, or ‘they look like a bunch that hasn’t been together,’ ” Jack said.
Credit: Curtis Compton
Credit: Curtis Compton
It is ironic that Jack is the mentor figure now after a somewhat unstable high school career that saw him attend three private schools — DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina and Worcester Prep in Massachusetts.
“We checked on his character,” Hewitt said, “and there were people in his life that I had known for a long time and they all swore by him. And I’ll tell you a story about that. I knew the coach at Worcester, and I went up there and talked to Jarrett and the coach. Jarrett leaves, and I talk to the coach some more. We come out of the office and here is Jarrett playing a game of indoor pickup soccer with these kids, and it’s an international community at that school, kids from different backgrounds. Mo, the coach, looks at me and says, ‘That’s why everybody here loves this kid’.”
Added Hewitt, “We were fine with his character; there were no character issues.”
Jack looks forward to a reunion with Hewitt in Orlando. Hewitt, a full-time scout with the Clippers, was asked by the L.A. organization to coach the Clippers team in the G League bubble. Darryl LaBarrie, a former player at Tech (1998-2001), assistant coach at Tech (2016-17), and assistant at Georgia State (2011-16), will be an assistant with the Clippers team, which is called Agua Caliente Clippers.
“I think we play them the fifth game, and it is my duty to get coach Hewitt a technical,” Jack said with a laugh.
It is that warmth and playful vibe that Jack will use to put the budding teenage stars at ease in the tournament. Basketball is important to him, and Hewitt is right, Jack feels a sense of duty to the game.
“I honestly just love helping people,” Jack said. “I love basketball. I’m enamored with the game. I love being around it in any capacity. So, you know, getting around these young guys like Jalen and Jonathan, and Daishen and Isaiah, I remember when I was learning how to get adjusted. I was trying to get adjusted to the college system. They’re skipping right over that … so I’m trying to hip them to the learning curve as much as possible.
“With me having 13, 14 years of experience, I feel like I’m obligated to do that.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC