For young phenoms, The G League Ignite is a new pathway to superstardom. For veterans like Reggie Hearn, it’s an opportunity to pass on what they’ve learned in a career on the margins.
Coming off his seventh season in the NBA G League, Reggie Hearn was searching for the next option in his professional career. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, it left very few options to travel abroad and even less here in the United States.
Hearn’s former team, the South Bay Lakers informed him that they would be opting out of the 2021 G League season and his chances of playing this year began to look bleak. The Northwestern alum would later receive a call from USA Men’s Basketball director Sean Ford, informing him about the league’s newest initiative, The G League Ignite.
The Ignite is the NBA’s plan to provide an alternative route to the current preps-to-pro model, which does not allow high school players to enter the NBA Draft directly out of high school. Through its Select Contracts, The G League Ignite offers a one-year plan for the top high school prospects to play professionally in the G League for a season, be paid up to $600,000, and an opportunity to earn a college degree at Arizona State University following or during their playing career.
Hearn, along with a host of former NBA and G-League veterans were brought into The Ignite to provide the prospects with the veteran mentorship needed as they pursue their professional careers.
“Anytime you want to teach something the best thing to do is put them around experts around that thing,” said Hearn. “If I want to learn how to fish, I’m going to go talk to a fisherman. If I want to learn how to become a professional bowler and learn all the different angles, I should spend time with someone who knows what they’re doing.”
The Ignite were led by the top-ranked 2020 high school player, Jalen Green, and other standouts that include Johnathan Kuminga, Dashien Nix, and Isiah Todd.
What is Reggie Hearn helping teach the young stars of The G League Ignite?
“A lot of these guys are used to playing one-on-one, playing in a simplified offense [I’m] just trying to give them little nuggets here and there about some of the more fundamental and skill aspects of the game,” Hearn added. “The parts of the game that receive less fanfare and praise–cutting, boxing out, [and] finding the right spot on help defense. Those are the things that win games and the common fan doesn’t know about. Just trying to impart that knowledge and the importance of those things to the young guys. They’re under a lot of scrutiny and a lot of pressure. Just building them up with strong words of affirmation and encouragement.”
Green, Kuminga, Nix, and Todd are all at the top of draft boards for 2021 for a good reason. But it wasn’t the talent of his younger teammates that Hearn was impressed with, it was their character.
“They’re coachable and they’re humble,” said Hearn, who also goes by the moniker of Uncle Reg. “Guys who are elite prospects, you don’t always find that much. It doesn’t seem like the fame has gone to their heads.”
Coming out of R. Nelson Snider High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Hearn wasn’t highly recruited. He received no Division I scholarship offers and walked on at Northwestern. The Ignite swingman pondered on whether he would have made the same decision to join his current team if he were one of the elite prospects in high school.
“That’s a tough one,” said Hearn. “I think that at that point I would’ve relied heavily on the advice of my parents and those around who I knew loved and cared about me. I would consider making the move myself because there’s somewhere I want to go and can help and show me how I can get there.”
While Hearn is teaching his teammates, he is still put in the same position as his younger teammates. The Ignite has seasoned NBA vets like Jarett Jack, Amir Johnson, and Bobby Brown. At the age of 29, Hearn is the living embodiment of the J-Cole line, “I’m dead in the middle of two generations/ I’m little bro and big bro all at once.”
“It’s good to have guys like that Jarrett, Amir, [and] Bobby Brown, who I can still learn from,” said Hearn. “They have a wealth of experience. Guys who have been playing for that long are pretty easy to gel with. They know how to play; they’ve played with a lot of different types of players. They’re mature, make the right plays, and play hard. I think that’s a great motto of consistency, not only for me to play with but for the younger guys to see and imitate as they continue to grow.”
In their first season, The Ignite finished 8-7 in the G League’s shortened bubble season in Orlando, Florida. Their season ended in the G League playoffs when they were eliminated by the Raptors 905 127-102 in the opening round.
Despite the downtick in minutes and games played, Hearn used this season to learn and mold like a true vet. The Ignite guard is looking towards the end of his career and thinks this opportunity could lead to coaching after he retires. While the G League Ignite has been beneficial to his own growth, Hearn also believes that the Select Contracts can be the solution for getting high school athletes the proper development before entering the NBA.
“You could look at a lot of people that have success at the college level,” said Hearn. “But these guys whose long-term goal is to get to the NBA, the earlier you can have them around NBA players learning NBA terminology, learning from NBA coaches, NBA-style offenses and defenses I think that can only be beneficial. As long as the NBA is willing to put the money into this program, I think it’s very valuable for these young prospects and for the league itself.”