Walnut Creek, an East Bay town of roughly 70,000 perched at the junction of two major highways, certainly doesn’t look as if it would have any real significance to basketball’s elite.
But in addition to being the hometown of recent No. 1 WNBA draft pick Sabrina Ionescu and a popular workout destination of two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry, it is now the training hub of NBA G League Ignite — a team loaded with lottery hopefuls created in April as an alternative to college basketball. Over the past two weeks, players have trained individually at the Ultimate Fieldhouse, a 40,000-square-foot facility that boasts four courts and plenty of office space.
When news surfaced last month that the Pro Pathway program would be based in Walnut Creek, many took to Twitter to ask a variation of the same question: Why? Early reports had indicated that the team would be based in Los Angeles, which, given its reputation as a haven for the rich and famous, seemed a logical place for a group filled with future millionaires.
But after taking several months to conduct a national search, NBA officials chose the Ultimate Fieldhouse over at least five other serious contenders. The facility, perhaps best known as home to the annual Under Armour “Stephen Curry Select Camp” that brings together some of the nation’s top high school recruits, came ready-made for Ignite’s purposes.
It already featured a private court, which is in the process of being lengthened from high-school dimensions to regulation NBA size. There are also skills stations where players can work on ballhandling and passing; shooting machines that provide analytics and feedback for every shot; and a nearby training center where athletes can test everything from their speed and coordination, to the efficiency of their nervous system.
Thanks to the facility’s partnership with John Muir Health, the Ultimate Fieldhouse offers free COVID-19 tests to players. There is a film room for players to study game and practice video. In recent weeks, extra rooms were converted into office space for Ignite head coach Brian Shaw and his staff.
Once the team is cleared for contact practices, players will get dressed in their own locker room at COPA Soccer Training Center, which is next door to the Ultimate Fieldhouse. Should athletes get hungry, they can choose from a number of restaurants within walking distance.
“When we looked at all the different factors at play, it just came out that Walnut Creek — and, specifically, the Ultimate Fieldhouse — kind of rose to the top of the pile,” G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim said. “So far, it’s been a good experience for our group.”
Shortly after the Ultimate Fieldhouse was founded in 2015, it began to partner with Jr. NBA for camps and events. It didn’t take long for Curry, who lived in Walnut Creek before moving to Atherton last year, to become a regular at the facility. In addition to hosting youth camps there, he invited fellow NBA players such as Trae Young and Matthew Dellavedova to train with him.
But when Ultimate Fieldhouse CEO Mike Samuels learned this past spring that the G League was looking for a facility for its select team, he knew that he’d need more than a recommendation from Curry to land the contract.
His pitch to Abdur-Rahim highlighted the shooting technology that can only be found at eight gyms world-wide, the partnership with COPA Soccer Training Center and Walnut Creek’s tight-knit community. To make sure Ignite’s six players would have the best housing possible, Samuels partnered with the city’s chamber of commerce to identify high-quality homes within a few miles of the Ultimate Fieldhouse.
Last month, when he learned he’d landed the contract, Samuels was giddy — not just because of what it meant for his non-profit, but because of what it would mean for young players in Walnut Creek to know they’re sharing a facility with potential NBA All-Stars. Among Ignite’s half-dozen players are Jalen Green (ESPN’s No. 1 recruit in the 2020 class) and Jonathan Kuminga (ESPN’s No. 4 recruit in the 2020 class).
Over the next year, NBA scouts will flock to the Ultimate Fieldhouse to scout Green, Kuminga and others for the 2021 draft. By joining Ignite instead of a college powerhouse such as Duke or North Carolina, players can focus exclusively on basketball, sign endorsement deals and earn a salary of up to $500,000.
“Bringing something like this, a venture like this, into Walnut Creek is monumental,” Samuels said. “It’s really been a true community effort. I think that speaks to how important it was for the city to have this here, because we do see it as a feather in the cap of the city.”
Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron