NBA drafts are often remembered for different reasons. That they would produce a Hall of Fame player or three. That they were bad, and most of the good players came from late in the draft, or even the second round. That they offered a number of quite good, but not great players. That one barely remembers anyone from the draft.
Sometimes a draft will bind a group of players together, men who will be evaluated not just by the standards of the NBA, but by who was picked where; careers linked and locked to their draft peers.
The 2018 draft features such a group, a Five Pack, if you will: Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. (forgot about him being picked before Young, I’d bet - Ja Morant would fortunately fall to the Grizzlies in 2019) and Trae Young. These five, come what may, will never escape comparison to others in the Five Pack.
Two of those players appear to be upon a path to make the Basketball Hall of Fame, one the Hall of Very Good, one is an analyst darling but not much of a player thus far, and one is, sadly, a King.
The fans of two teams will always read the name Luka Doncic and wonder “Why not us? If only we were bolder and didn’t make the ‘safe bet’ on a traditional big man.”
The 2021 NBA draft is already, less than 20 games into the season, trending in the same direction as the 2018 NBA draft. The top group of 2021 players will be forever linked, forever compared.
Judgements about those players are being made far too early, far too enthusiastically, and far too decidedly, for good or ill. That fervor speaks to the tight link between the players, the closeness of their evaluation by nearly all parties in terms of who might be the best over their NBA careers.
Jalen Green is undoubtedly the boldest of the three top players I’ll name The Troika of the 2021 NBA Draft. (Yes, let’s make Troika A Thing.)
Will he be the best horse pulling his team through the hills and valleys of NBA seasons? That remains to be seen, but it won’t because he lacks the will, the talent, or the bravery to be the best.
Consider Green’s entrepreneurial path to the NBA. The other two top three picks went the traditional route, the usual route, to the NBA. Cade Cunningham attended Oklahoma State for a year of basketball. Evan Mobley, similarly, played hoops for USC. It’s a tried and true path, and the two of them were top three picks. It’s hard to argue with success.
Jalen Green chose something different. Green is the first pick ever selected from the G-League Ignite, from the inaugural year of that program. Ignite is a new program, a new direction for the NBA — intriguing, but untested. No one knew how it would work, how the players would be evaluated, ranked, or more importantly to them, drafted.
It looks good in retrospect, and the G-League Ignite program appears to be thriving. The teenage players in it now have a big data point for future success: Jalen Green.
The first teenagers of the G-League Ignite, however, had no data. They would make a multi-level jump from high school to a real pro league, with no history, no school reputation, no safety net. No one really knew how it would turn out, but Jalen Green ventured into the G-League anyway.
Green chose not to pit himself against the likes of UT Arlington or California Baptist, but against grown men — real professionals — every game in the G-League. Whatever you might say about the competition in the NCAA, you cannot say that anyone competing there has played a single minute of NBA basketball.
Certainly the G-League pays its Ignite players, but is such a payday terribly relevant when compared to the NBA draft and career earnings? Why not take the safe route, the traditional way, and go to a powerhouse school, to a basketball factory with long standing connections in every front office in the NBA? It’s not as though Green wasn’t a top prospect. He had his pick of schools, of the safe road.
You might compare Green’s path a bit to LaMelo Ball, who went overseas to a pro league, but Green’s path appears harder. The NBL of Australia and New Zealand was ranked 12th in the world by the most recent data found, below the Adriatic League, but above Israel. Young players might come to the NBA from some of those leagues, but effectively no one in the NBL will spend much time in the NBA at any point in their careers. G-Leaguers sit on the tantalizing fringe of the Big Show, and it regularly starts careers (like Garrison Matthews currently on the Rockets).
Thousands and thousands of players have been drafted to the NBA from the NCAA. Jalen Green’s boldness made him unique. He will, now and always, be the first one to take a leap into the unknown, to be the first player drafted from the first year of the G-League Ignite.
I’ll leave you with Jalen Green’s pinned tweet:
i’m workin to rewrite my goals, and my story. learning to be the best version of myself for myself— Jalen Green (@JalenGreen) March 17, 2021
Jalen Green has been bold from the beginning, and his career is just getting started.