G-League Ignite hope to have found a comfortable home

HENDERSON, Nev. — There’s something to be said for putting down roots. Especially when the town you reside in has a motto which says: “A place to call home.”

The G League Ignite, a basketball team of future and hopeful NBA players, have decided their nomadic days are over. The team, which would train in Walnut Creek, Calif., then fly to Las Vegas to play at Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay, now has a permanent address at the Dollar Loan Center, home of the American Hockey League’s Henderson Silver Knights. They’ll play a full 50-game G-League schedule, beginning Nov. 4 against Oklahoma City Blue. And if history is any indication, come next June when the NBA Draft is held, expect a number of Ignite players to shake hands and share bro hugs with commissioner Adam Silver. Guys like Scoot Henderson should have their tailor on speed dial and get them cracking on their Draft Night ensembles.

“Everybody is trying to get to the next level,” said Henderson, a 6-foot-2, 18-year-old guard from Marietta, Georgia who may turn out to be the city of Henderson’s favorite son when it’s all said and done. “My goal is to play in the NBA, so for me, this was a no-brainer to come here and play against pros.”

The G-League used to be called the D-League, with the “D” standing for “Development.” The letter of the alphabet may have changed thanks to a sponsorship with Gatorade a few years ago, but the mission remains the same — get these young players ready to play at the next level. That means learning how to compete on the court and just as important, learn how to be professional off it. It’s about proper diet, proper rest, watching film, paying attention in practice, developing good habits and being good citizens.

“We want to compete but the challenge is how quickly do they learn?” said Jason Hart, the head coach of the Ignite. “Fortunately, the game has educated us more. We have more training, more science to help these young men grow.”

Shareef O’Neal thought he was prepared. After all, being the son of a Hall of Fame center, you would think some of Shaquille’s basketball life rubbed off on his 6-foot-10, 22-year-old kid. But Shareef is smart enough to know he’s still got a lot to learn when it comes to being a professional basketball player and he has an open mind about being a member of the Ignite.

“It’s the perfect situation for me,” said O’Neal, whose college career consisted of 37 games over three years with UCLA, then LSU, his dad’s alma mater. “I’m playing with great players every day and I’m getting a chance to get better and hopefully realize my (NBA) dream.”

The team is embracing its new environs. The players are all housed in the same complex near the arena, which is one of two practice facilities they utilize. There are a trio of veterans — 38-year-old guard Pooh Jeter, 32-year-old forward James Southerland and 29-year-old guard John Jenkins to help in the mentoring process as the roster includes players from Canada, France, Australia, Nigeria and Senegal.

The arena itself is the perfect size for the G-League. It seats 6,000, is state-of-the-art, and should be a good fit for the league. The team is owned and operated by the NBA so funding and marketing won’t be an issue. The players won’t fly charter but they’ll get wherever they need to without the travel horror stories you’ve read about other minor pro leagues over the decades. In the G-League, checks don’t bounce. Only the basketball does.

“We want to integrate with the community,” said Anthony McClish, the Ignite’s general manager who has been involved with the team since its inception three years ago. “To finally have a home base is great. We want to make it affordable for families to go to and I hope the fans will get to know us and feel like it’s game day for them too.”

Tickets are expected to be as low as $20 and prime seats in the low $100s, though a season ticket can be obtained for as little as $11 per game.

“I think people are going to be surprised and impressed at the quality of basketball,” said McClish, who cut his basketball teeth with the Sacramento Kings and the San Antonio Spurs prior to overseeing the Ignite’s operations. “We see it as a partnership between the team and the community and we’re here to try and win a championship and at the same time develop players to play in the NBA. If we’re not putting our players in a position to learn and grow, we’re doing them a great disservice.”

Hart said: “I want our guys to enjoy the experience. This is the last stop in the process where we hold your hand. After that, you’re on your own.”

There have been numerous basketball ventures launched in Las Vegas over the decades. All of them failed either for a lack of capital or mismanagement by the team or the league itself. The G-League has been around since 2000-01. It’s on solid ground and not going anywhere. That should bring a certain amount of credibility and trust for those who might be a little skittish on getting behind the Ignite.

It should be quality, entertaining basketball and should suffice until the NBA decides to show up in Las Vegas, whenever that may be.

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