NBA G League: Ignite veterans moulding youngsters like Princepal Singh with locker room mentorship

Coach Brian Shaw and veterans Jarrett Jack and Amir Johnson have been showing the Ignite's youngsters like Princepal Singh the myriad nuances of the game, and explaining to them the obsessive details that go into surviving as long as they have in the trade.

Amit Kamath February 10, 2021 09:09:16 IST
NBA G League: Ignite veterans moulding youngsters like Princepal Singh with locker room mentorship

Ignite's Princepal Singh defends during practice on 4 February 4 at AdventHealth Arena in Orlando, Florida. Image courtesy: NBAE/Getty Images

Every once in a while, coach Brian Shaw likes to tell his players a Kobe Bryant story.

Shaw, who has been part of five NBA championship winning teams, met Bryant for the first time when he, just like Kobe’s father, Joe, was playing in the Italian basketball league and the junior Bryant was barely 11. The two then shared a locker room for many years at the Los Angeles Lakers, initially as teammates before Shaw transitioned to an assistant coach’s role under Phil Jackson with the LA franchise.

Jarrett Jack, who played almost 900 games in the NBA over 14 seasons, has been called a “big influence” on his career by Golden State Warriors superstar Steph Curry. In fact, when Kevin Durant was weighing up a move to the Oakland-based franchise, Jack was one of the handful that he consulted with.

Amir Johnson too has 14 years of NBA experience on his bio, his stint seeing him sharing the locker room with the likes of Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups and Allen Iverson.

In a league which holds great regard for the concept of veteran leadership, Princepal Singh and his fellow elite draft prospects at Ignite are surrounded by battle-hardened veterans like Shaw, Jack and Johnson as they begin their G League season with the NBA Draft on the horizon. The trio has been showing the youngsters the myriad nuances of the game, and explaining to them the obsessive details that go into surviving as long as they have in the trade. As the cliché goes, breaking into the NBA is difficult, but it’s tougher staying there.

Shaw, Jack and Johnson’s mentorship style also means there are plenty of tales from league legends like Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Curry in the locker room.

“One of the things I learnt very quickly with this team is that most of these players don’t know a lot about my playing career. If I was a Kobe Bryant they would know about me in my playing days. But I was a role player, not really a household name, so talking about myself and what I did in my career won’t be appealing for them. But what they’re impressed by are some of the players I have played with like Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Or players I coached, like Paul George,” said Shaw.

As the coach of Ignite, Shaw holds individual film sessions with the team’s young players on particular NBA players that he feels they may be able to learn from. “I will pull a Jonathan Kuminga aside and talk to him and show him footage from Jalen Brown.”

The presence of veterans like Johnson and Jack in a team like Ignite helps because youngsters sometimes tend to tune out coaches, added Shaw.

“When that happens, you have to reach the players in a different way. These veterans are constantly reinforcing a lot of things the coaching staff is showing them. Johnson came into the league straight out of high school, so he can tell them what it was like when he was their age. That resonates with them, which is why they pay attention when he talks.”

Questions aplenty

Jack and Johnson said they had been deluged by questions from the youngsters.

“I’m amazed at how many questions they ask on a daily basis on anything and everything,” said Johnson. “I wasn’t like that as a youngster. I was a listener and learner. But they’re actually knocking on doors to ask you questions.”

“My job as a veteran on this team is to help the young players with the learning curve. These guys are very inquisitive. They want to learn about the game, they want to learn what it takes to be a pro,” added Jack.

Spacing the floor

For the Ignite’s highly-rated draft prospects, the constant insights into the game before they are even in the NBA is priceless. But it’s even more critical for an outsider like Princepal, who is an NBA India Academy graduate but still hasn’t had the same exposure to competitive basketball from a young age as the rest of his teammates like Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd, and Daishen Nix. Consequently, he has a lot more to catch up with.

“I want to applaud Prince more than the other young players,” said Jack. “Coming into this situation with the language barrier and still being able to go out there and compete is amazing. If the shoe was on the other foot, I don’t know how I would be able to do that. He’s a very young kid, he’s still getting acclimatised to the pace and physicality of the game over here. It’s going to be an adjustment process for him.”

With the game constantly changing, the role of the big man — centres and power forwards — has changed too. They are now required to stretch the floor during possession by creating space, an aspect that Princepal is constantly curious about.

“Prince is always asking me how to manoeuvre and get himself open in space. He has asked me about picking up on defensive coverages,” said Jack. “The one thing about him is that he can be too unselfish at times, I keep telling him to take a shot when he’s open.”

Like Jack, Johnson, too, has taken a liking to the Indian player.

“Prince is just a workhorse. He’s the type of guy who works on his game before practice and afterwards. I think he knows that he has room to get a lot better. He’s a player who knows his own capabilities,” he said.

More than anyone else, Johnson is perfectly placed to help Princepal given that they play in a similar position. The 33-year-old veteran has been polishing Princepal’s basketball IQ with handy tips on how to “steal points” in games.

“I think he can work on his positioning: knowing where to be to catch the ball. As big men we’re usually standing in the dunker’s spot. I always tell him to keep his hands ready cause a pass may come to him at any time. I’m just giving him advice on how to steal points in the game like when you’re not getting the defensive rebound, be the first to the other end of the floor so you can get easy buckets.”

It is not unusual to see the two guarding each other during practice scrimmages — sessions where Princepal’s lack of bulk becomes evident.

“Prince needs to work on his physicality. We’re in the weight room together, so I know he’s been working on that,” said Johnson.

Throughout the NBA G League season — which starts on Wednesday with the Ignite taking on Santa Cruz Warriors — the eyes of front office executives from 30 NBA teams will be tracking the growth of draft-eligible prospects like Green, Kuminga and Todd. But the real growth will be happening behind the scenes, thanks to veterans like Johnson and Jack, and a coach who knows how to use his own career to push these prodigies.

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