The 2022-23 NBA G League season tips off on Friday, Nov. 4. In many ways, this will be a landmark season for the league — all 30 teams will be full participants, player salaries are at an all-time high, the Showcase Cup is back for a second year, and the league will again experiment with innovative rule variations.
Growth and evolution have been common themes within the G League over the last several years, a span in which the overall product has continued to improve despite the complications that have come with navigating a global pandemic. Leading the charge of the recent evolution is G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who enters his fourth full season in the role after taking over in January 2019.
In an exclusive interview, Abdur-Rahim provided valuable insight into the state of the league and the ever-evolving ecosystem that has fostered a symbiotic relationship between the NBA and the G League.
“It speaks to the investment in the G League from NBA and NBA teams,” Abdur-Rahim told The Sporting News. “I think the proof of concept is that players see the G League as a step towards continuing their journey to make it to the NBA, and just how important the G League has become to the overall ecosystem.”
To simply call the G League important might be underselling the league’s impact. On opening night of the 2022-23 NBA season, 47 percent of players on NBA rosters had G League experience. That’s nothing to gloss over.
Abdur-Rahim expounded upon those numbers by explaining that the ecosystem is dominated by, but not limited to, the players. In addition to nearly half of the NBA having G League experience, six head coaches and over 75 assistant coaches also had G League experience, something that Abdur-Rahim says speaks to the level of talent present throughout the league.
Among the overwhelming talent in the G League are the prospects of G League Ignite, the first-of-its-kind pathway program that begins its third season after its inaugural campaign in 2020. In two short years, eight members of the Ignite have gone on to the NBA, with more to come.
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This season, the Ignite, along with the Mexico City Capitanes will be fully integrated within the league, competing in a full 50-game season after their participation was limited to showcases last season, something that Abdur-Rahim spoke of as one of a number of things to look forward to this year.
As the NBA G League continues to grow, so does its talent and visibility to basketball fans across the globe. All signs indicate that the best is yet to come.
Below is a partial transcript of the conversation with Abdur-Rahim about the league’s evolution and what to expect during the 2022-23 season.
(Note: Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
From your vantage point, what does the number of G League alumni in the NBA say about the G League?
It speaks to the level of talent. Obviously, in the G League, there’s a lot of really good players. It speaks to the investment in the G League from the NBA and NBA teams — the integration.
Now, all of the NBA officials — I think we had three or four NBA officials that were called or signed into the NBA — all of the NBA officials that graduate to NBA start in the G League. We have six head coaches. Now, with G League experience that were once G League head coaches now leading NBA teams. So just the impact across the overall ecosystem continues to grow and we continue to be a huge part of that.
How has the league grown despite having to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic?
First and foremost, I acknowledge the support we receive and the connection we have to the NBA. It’d be hard to imagine getting through the pandemic the last two and a half years without that connection to our teams.
A lot of what we have been able to accomplish were initiatives that were in play or we had been working on prior to the pandemic and I would just say we took a mindset that they were too important to stop. Playing in a bubble where our players needed to be able to continue to develop and grow and be a part of that system.
We started Ignite — that’s such an important initiative for us to keep going. Capitanes — Mexico City is a long time coming. There’s so much we have been planning and working on that we just did not allow the challenges to prevent us from continuing to grow and we’re excited about where we sit now. We start the season with close to 50 percent of NBA players with G League experience and we start the season with 30 teams. That includes Ignite and Capitanes — we’re the first professional league in North America to have a team from Mexico City playing completely in our season.
What has been the strategy behind building the Ignite program — from prospects to veterans to support staff?
The focus is to create an environment that takes care of the players that’s conducive to their growing, being empowered, learning and getting a glimpse of professional life and, in the case of the veteran players, continuing to further their professional career. We start with that thought and that mission and everything else takes care of itself.
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Player development is what we do best as a league. We have 20-plus years as a league of doing that. And then beyond the program is the needs of the players because there’s a younger demographic of players that continues to evolve. Players come from different parts of the world now, and you look at Dyson Daniels and this year, players like Mojave King, Babacar Sene — the needs of the players and how integrated the team is into the G League, all of that continues to evolve and we just continue to learn and try to do better but we want to always have an environment have a structure that’s about supporting the growth and empowerment of players.
Do you see it as competition to land prospects between the Ignite and new alternate pathways to become a professional?
We never thought of it as like, having competition against any other choice. I think the impetus of Ignite from the very beginning was that there should be an option for young men that wanted something different ahead of playing in the NBA. That’s kind of the mindset that we started with.
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From a league standpoint, we’re not competing with anyone else. You see the diverse talent that comes from around the world. I think there’s enough opportunity for everybody to grow and develop. For young people, if they choose Ignite and they think Ignite or the G League is the right path for them to grow and develop — that’s awesome. If they choose another route, that’s great, too.
What are the next goals for the league with respect to expansion and increased visibility?
30 for 30 — 30 teams connected to NBA teams has been our goal for a while. I think it’s inevitable that we get there.
Portland and Phoenix are the two teams without G League affiliates currently and they’re working on their timetable. Where we spend the large majority of our time is thinking about how we continue to provide exposure to the league, to our players, and how we grow awareness. We continue to have more nationally televised games. I think we have 20 plus on ESPN this past season 30-plus on NBA TV and another 200 or so, across the ESPN networks. Where we spend a lot of our time is continuing to just educate fans and bring fans into the G League game. That’s what’s the most important thing.
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We get a lot of calls about other markets outside of markets connected to NBA teams that have interest in the G League and we’re just not in that mindset currently but at some point, it will be the right time for that.
What should fans be looking forward to in the upcoming G League season?
It’s always our talent. There’s gonna be a story or a player that people have no awareness of. You think of someone like Craig Randall, who was literally an open tryout player and played two outstanding seasons with the Long Island Nets and became popular recently because he had an outstanding game against the Phoenix Suns during the preseason. He’s a G League alum.
For us, it’s Capitanes and Ignite being fully integrated. This is the second year that we’ll have our Showcase Cup during the Winter Showcase. The first portion of our season is tournament style and we have a $100,000 prize for the team that wins that.
And then, the rules. We’ve been testing rules through the G League. One really cool element that we’re going to try this year is that all of our overtimes this year will have a target score. We see that somewhat in the All-Star Game. In the 30-plus games in our Winter Showcase — every game, fourth quarter, and overtime will have a target school. So that’s something really different. We want to keep doing that. Innovation and being creative are in the lifeblood of the G League.