Name a basketball level and Jason Hart either played or trained at it.
The Los Angeles native played in Syracuse in the late 1990s when he was named to the program’s all-century team. He then played for nine NBA teams and spent a short time in Europe before moving to coach. He coached AAU and high school basketball in California shortly after retiring and has been a USC employee for the past eight years.
These experiences, he believes, make him the right person to lead the G League Ignite team into its first non-pandemic season. Hart was named the team’s second head coach on Saturday, replacing Brian Shaw, an NBA lifer who left Ignite after a season to become an assistant with the Clippers. He is tasked with coaching a group of elite prospects as they prepare for the draft that will compete against G League teams. The first Ignite team came up with a pair of lottery picks in Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, and the league has signed three top 20 recruits in the 2021 class (according to 247Sports) to lead Ignite’s squad for 2021-22.
Sports illustrated spoke to Hart about his new job, the differences between Ignite and college basketball, and his vision for the program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sports Illustrated: In the past, you’ve been in the mix for college head coaching jobs. What attracted you enough with this opportunity to leave the college ranks?
Jason Hart: I’ve been a college assistant for 10 years. College job is difficult and I just didn’t want to sit around waiting for an opportunity to lead a program. The Ignite program seems to be on the rise right now and I want to be part of something special. It gives me the opportunity to lead college-level young men and coach many high school-aged talent. And partnering with a brand like the NBA was hard to turn down.
SI: You have been to practically every level of basketball. How did you prepare all of these different experiences to run this program?
YH: I come full circle with my journey. With each new addition, I’ve played at each of their levels. I saw it through the eyes of the player and from a coach’s perspective. When you put these two together, I can see the mindset of young, talented players, but also the respect for how to become a pro on and off the pitch.
SI: For the past three years, you’ve each coached a player at USC that matches the types of players you’ll be coaching and recruiting with Ignite: Evan Mobley last year, Onyeka Okongwu in 2019-20, and Kevin Porter Jr. in ’18 -19. What did you learn about what elite prospects like them need at this stage in their development that you will be using with Ignite?
YH: It’s about building relationships and trying to gain trust. Don’t try to do too much and get in the way of your talent. Find things they are good at and let them show their skills while not trying to handcuff them or impose too many restrictions on them. Once they understand that you have the best of intentions and are not trying to take anything away from them, they go out there and play their hardest.
SI: These players are 18 or 19 years old and control the year before they get life-changing money in the NBA Draft. What does the year away from the pitch look like for them and how can you help them with it?
YH: The challenge is to simply adapt to the professional game. Your athletic skills will come on by themselves, but it’s also about learning to be a professional on and off the pitch and having that consistency in everyday life. That’s the difference between college and professional. You play every day or every other day [as a pro]. Also understand that this is only a temporary stop, but you need to understand what you are getting yourself into and prepare them for any obstacle they will face. I’m trying to give them some of the answers on the test before they take the test.
SI: How do you see Ignite recruiting compared to college?
YH: Shareef [Abdur-Rahim, G League President] and Rod Strickland [G League Players and Coach Relations Manager] have already done a good job in recruiting. I’ve already seen the players they’ve already recruited [while at USC]. In college, you typically recruit 50 or 60 children per recruiting session. With Ignite we are only allowed to recruit 10. So the pool is much smaller. I think when you’re recruiting for college you’re looking for people you can develop over three or four years, so you look at their development a few years later. With the G League we’re trying to find the next Jalen Green, the next Jonathan Kuminga.
SI: Ignite doesn’t just have elite recruits. It also features NBA and G League veterans. Have you thought about the balance between the development of the young players and the best possible chance of winning for the team?
YH: We bring the best talent, the best product to the field. The goal is to win. Every organization wants to work out a winner, and every player should want to be part of a winner. I think we will have a phase of development over the course of the year, but we will put victory first and that will challenge both the older and the younger to play harder and have a little more focus. It may be a difficult transition for them, but victory will always be the priority.
SI: There have been some rumors that college athletes who benefit from their name, image and likeness would make careers less attractive than they were in the age of amateurism. How would you react to that?
YH: Well there are many players in the world. Despite the name, image, and likeness, you still have a great brand in college basketball, but you will also have players who don’t go to college and want to take their talents to the next level. It’s good to have options. But I don’t think so [NIL] will prevent players from getting into the G League. Everyone is different.
SI: What is your vision for Ignite in two to three years?
YH: My vision is a program that will allow undergraduate athletes who don’t want to go to college to show their talents and try to get into the NBA, but also a brand and style of basketball that is exciting and compliments what the players want to play and how they see their NBA futures. I think it’s a great opportunity for those who have the talent and who are ready to become professionals. I want to attract players not just from the US but from all over the world. I want to be part of it. As long as we keep everything positive and we are honest and conscientious with our athletes it will be a great place to come.
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