When Jalen Suggs banked in an overtime buzzer-beater to send Gonzaga to the national title game last weekend, he all but guaranteed that sequence would become the defining image of his lone collegiate season—and by default, his NBA draft reel. But the Final Four matchup with UCLA showcased more of Suggs’s game than just one shot. On his biggest stage yet, Suggs filled his portfolio with new material: a highlight block, stellar two-way play, and clutch scoring. It was the ideal pre-NBA showcase.
Though Gonzaga has constructed a non-power conference powerhouse over the past 20 years under Mark Few, one-and-done prospects from Spokane remain a novelty: Most of the program’s highest-drafted players—like Adam Morrison, John Stockton, and Domantas Sabonis—played there for multiple seasons. The Blazers’ Zach Collins became Gonzaga’s first one-and-done player in 2017. Suggs is set to become the second, as he’s projected to be chosen in the top five of the NBA draft in July. Yet his college-career-defining shot was less of a coronation—Gonzaga would go on to lose to Baylor in the final—and more of a culmination for a choice that worked out to perfection.
Coming out of high school, Suggs didn’t choose Gonzaga over just football, overseas basketball options, and offers from other college programs; he also opted for the college route over the new G League path that was created for players to bypass the NCAA and make money while preparing for the NBA. The G League Ignite, which featured at least two projected lottery picks this season—including another potential top-five pick in Jalen Green—approached Suggs, but he picked Gonzaga and turned himself into a household name for even casual basketball fans.
“Suggs could very well earn some extra millions just because there’s a feeling of, ‘Oh shit, everybody who watches the tournament knows him now,’” a member of an NBA front office said this week.
Comparing Suggs’s path to that of Green and other G League prospects is like comparing apples to oranges, given the differences in circumstances and player preferences. But the two avenues provide blueprints for a discussion that will only get louder as profitable routes to the NBA become more popular. Case in point: Green is expected to be in line for a seven-figure shoe deal once he’s drafted.
Even with opportunities like that popping up for players who have chosen less traditional routes, though, Suggs is a good example of why the collegiate path still holds plenty of influence. “I think it became very clear that Jalen Suggs is now a legend. He’s now more marketable, he’s a nationally known name, and you can’t replicate that in the G league,” one NBA agent said. “But it’s all situational because at the end of the day, it’s about what’s the best decision for that player.”
Suggs’s season unfolded like others we’ve seen before. A college player with plenty of name recognition inside basketball circles thrived in the ideal environment for his skill set. He had Heisman-like moments that helped him become bigger than the team he played on, and he boosted his draft stock by playing himself into the national conversation.
According to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), which aggregates all major basketball recruiting rankings, Suggs was typically seen as the no. 7 NBA prospect heading into this season. Less than a year later, most draft boards project that he’ll go in the top five, if not the top three. Suggs’s decision to go to Gonzaga was perfect for him—he maximized his strengths in the team’s system, minimized his weaknesses, and put himself in a position to get a boost from the tournament exposure. Now, he may be taken ahead of both Green and Green’s fellow Ignite teammate, Jonathan Kuminga, who is also considered a top-five talent.
“There’s a lot that’s wrong with college basketball, but the platform is still incredible,” one agent said. “I think the [Ignite] program has a lot of potential and is here to stay, but I do think a story like Jalen Suggs helps the NCAA combat it a bit.”
Other NCAA players like Evan Mobley, who led USC to the Elite Eight after rejecting an offer to play for the Ignite team, seem to have benefitted from the combination of experience and exposure too. Mobley has solidified his place as one of the three best players in this draft and showed he could immediately help a team win. But for a player like Cade Cunningham, who is widely expected to be the top pick in the draft, college was merely a formality—a choice he was able to make in part because his position in the draft already seemed like a lock.
“I think the exposure piece is more so for the public,” one Western Conference front office staffer said. “It doesn’t matter from the evaluation standpoint.”
In this conversation, vantage point is everything. If exposure is the goal, there’s no debate: College wins out every time, at least until the G League is able to shed its reputation of being a difficult watch. It also doesn’t help that G League Ignite games were played around midday—something multiple sources cited as another hindrance to exposure—while college games often have prime-time TV billing.
If the conversation is about talent evaluation and development, though, opinions differ. One agent derided the entire G League concept, saying the league features inflated stats that don’t translate to the league.
“It’s just a miserable atmosphere,” the agent said. “Nobody’s getting better down there.”
Others argue that the talent level of the G League is undeniably better than college ball, and that simply going up against older players and playing with more spacing can help make a player better suited for the NBA.
“I thought it was a big advantage for those players,” the Western Conference front office member said of the G League. “You just have a lot less translation questions, and you get a pretty raw early look at what they are within this type of game. So I love that, honestly.”
When Green announced last year that he’d be going the G League route this season, one of the biggest questions was whether the program would have the right personnel to help players properly develop. One player development coach who has worked in both college and the NBA said they watched Ignite games intently and didn’t love what they saw.
“There was nothing that you would say, ‘Oh, these guys are learning some amazing concepts,’” the coach said. “They may have been better off playing on one of the other [G League] teams because the other teams are all running better shit than they were running.”
But the coach also acknowledged that the ideal scenario—these players being coached and developed in a modern NBA system before reaching the NBA—is not plausible, and it’s not like most college programs are running NBA-level plays either. The Ignite team at least has the potential to do a better job with that.
Multiple people working with NBA teams who watched the Ignite expressed positive opinions about what they saw, and also said the bubble set-up allowed franchises to more efficiently scout players in the program. By having multiple top prospects on one team and going up against tougher competition than they would in college, scouts are able to get a better look at the prospects in an environment more like the NBA’s.
Ultimately, the people evaluating and making the decisions know it’s up to them to contextualize performances and statistics in order to make the best decision on draft day. So even though the Ignite program might simplify the scouting process in some ways, talent assessors know there are other factors they have to account for—like the fact that the Ignite played only 16 games, and not all of the top prospects played in crunch time.
“It’s good to have options. Ideally, you’d have everybody in one pool, but that’s not the case at this stage,” one Western Conference general manager said. “I’ve always said, it’s not the colleges’ job—it’s not even international teams’ jobs—to prepare players for the NBA. They’re out there trying to win games. We’re ignorant if we think that these guys are developing players for us.”
A player like Daishen Nix presents a particularly interesting case study in the ongoing debate over which path to the NBA is most beneficial. Nix had signed to play for UCLA last season before spurning the Bruins for the G League program. UCLA coach Mick Cronin was not pleased with what he called the NBA’s recruitment of Nix. But while it’s impossible to know what Nix’s draft stock would look like today had he played for UCLA, which made the Final Four, he’s still expected to be a first-round pick—and he got paid for his trouble. As one agent pointed out, no Ignite players seemed to hurt their draft stock this season in a way that would make their choice look regrettable.
Still, not all NBA prospects will be given the opportunity to be a part of the Ignite program, just as not all players will have a run like Suggs in one collegiate season. So for most, the decision between the G League and NCAA will be a personal one that hinges on many factors, including how much they’re willing to bet on themselves now and in the future. That Suggs maximized his experience at Gonzaga does not mean that Green got anything less out of his time with the Ignite. Their NBA careers will still largely depend on which team they land on and how the franchise develops them and puts them in a position to succeed.
What’s become increasingly clear, though, is that the college path is not for everyone. Having the option to choose different routes to the NBA is a net positive for players. And there’s certainly no shortage of options being added to the menu—not to mention the fact that the NCAA itself is currently facing legal challenges to the concept of amateurism.
The pre-NBA arms race has been going on for a few years now, and it will only get more competitive as more players explore their various options. Just as colleges may now be feeling the heat to become even more player-oriented, the Ignite will soon be competing against much more than just the tradition and nostalgia that college teams have on their side. If NBA development is going to be their calling card, they need to produce results.
“It’s like the wild, wild west,” one agent said. “I think [the NCAA] is going to have to open it up; they’re going to say you can do endorsements, you can sign with an agent. … They’re not going to want to lose out on the top players.”