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Matas Buzelis survived his NBA audition. Now he’s ready for the show

2024 NBA Draft Content Circuit, Media Availability and Portraits
Photo by Dylan Goodman/NBAE via Getty Images

Matas Buzelis is the NBA Draft’s most confident prospect

Matas Buzelis is used to auditions. Before the 6’10, 19-year-old was flying cross-country for workouts and interviews ahead of the 2024 NBA Draft, he was going up against veterans and some of the toughest athletes in professional basketball night after night on G League Ignite. In the G League, with its 10-days, two-ways, and players looking for a path into the NBA, every night is an audition.

“Everybody’s trying to kill you. You’re a young prospect — you’re on NBA TV playing, they’re not on NBA TV — so they’re trying to go at you every night,” Buzelis says via video chat from his current training home base, in L.A.’s sprawling suburb of the Valley, “That’s the separation, I think, between colleges and playing in the G League.”

There’s an intrinsic unflappability to Buzelis, a mix of self-possession and perspective that’s rare in anyone, let alone someone so young. Of the barrage of tryouts he’s gone through in the last few months, less than nerves or second-guessing himself, he smiles and says it’s been crazy and an honor to meet so many former players, many who are part of the franchise front offices he’s met with.

As a young athlete, his composure on the floor was evident in his senior year of high school, when he transferred to Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, and during his McDonald’s All-American Game. There, the majority of his peers were on their way to Division I colleges (Buzelis had considered Kentucky, UNC, Wake Forest, and Florida State), but Buzelis saw the G League as an opportunity to fast-track his development — physically, and through higher-level competitive reps.

“I think I was mentally prepared for it, to walk into the G League. When people go and they underestimate what [G League players] can do — I knew it was going to be tough walking in,” Buzelis says of his jump to the pros. “I just knew I had to work hard, plain and simple.”

Buzelis was one of the athletes the G League docuseries, The Break Presented By The General, focused on in its second season. In one of the episodes his coach, Dimitri Pirshin, recalls a moment where it felt as if something “switched” for Buzelis. The young prospect started calling Pirshin regularly, pushing for the two of them to get into the gym more. Asked now if he recalls what that switch was, or why it happened, Buzelis can place it exactly — his sophomore year.

“Just honestly, the love grew so much more,” Buzelis says. “I love unlocking things, things that I didn’t do before. I love to learn. That switch happened fast. I feel like when you love something you can beat anybody in anything, and you believe it.”

Growth would be a theme of his inaugural season. Riddled with injuries, the Ignite finished with a 6-44 overall record. They were a young team, new in the scheme of the league, and their inexperience was apparent in the physical grind of the G League. For someone as competitive as Buzelis, it was a season full of surprises and disappointments, but also exactly what he’d signed up for.

“Facing the challenges of losing, struggling playing against these high level veterans, it built us. It built the character, the discipline on the court,” Buzelis says. “People look at it as, we were losing games. But I’m looking at it like, Okay, we lost this game but we were close. We kept building. We lost by 40 in the beginning of the season, but at the end the deficit is 10,” he pinches his fingers closed to emphasize. “I know the season was difficult for everyone, but if we’re learning, we’re winning.”

NBA: G League-Next Up game-Team Giraffe Stars at Team BallIsLife Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the mental fortitude and physical toughness the G League offered a crash course in, Buzelis felt a plethora of those little “switches” unlocking almost every game as his skillset improved.

“Second half of the season the defense got so much better than the first half. That comes in watching film and learning positioning and timing to block shots. Little things like that,” he recalls. “And I already had it, I just never knew I had it. Once you find out you can do something, it’s just,” he snaps his fingers. “It just clicks.”

Asked to elaborate on what that feeling is like in real-time, when your brain unlocks a new level for your body, Buzelis offers the example of his younger brother, Vincas.

“My little brother right now, he started to dunk, and he realized he can dunk, so now, he goes in trying to dunk everything. When a basketball player finds out he can do something—” Buzelis smiles, “it’s hard to explain, and it might be a little corny, but that’s how it works.”

It isn’t corny because in or outside of basketball, it’s a feeling every person can relate to. A sense of something that once seemed off-limits or impossible, suddenly at hand. While the Ignite season didn’t go the way Buzelis or his teammates hoped for, experiencing such an accelerated learning curve was made all the more memorable because the team, so young (10 of them under 22), went through so many realizations together. While Buzelis is rooting for all his teammates to make it to the NBA — whether through the Draft or the other potential pathways — he grew especially tight with Ron Holland.

“We grew really close,” Buzelis says of the bond the two formed. “We pushed each other in practices, we went through the same battles, so we had to stick together.”

The two are projected to be picked within the same high range, but Buzelis makes it clear neither of them takes the qualifier without a grain of salt, nor have they had all that much time to talk about it: both have been working hard. Buzelis has been training with three-a-day practices, plus shooting sessions at night, determined to improve in each aspect of his game.

As far as a profile, Buzelis is something of a basketball magpie — picking out a little bit of everything. He’s been compared to Jaden McDaniels (who he says stood out to him defensively in the playoffs, for how McDaniels embraced his role as a defender), compared himself to Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady and Franz Wagner, and has workout routines based on Paul George’s game. Though player comps are the most comfortable “metric” for scouting reports — which Buzelis admits he sees, occasionally finds funny, but tries not to pay attention to — they are often ill-equipped for athletes like Buzelis, who don’t fit into one particular category.

He’s long and explosive, with something of a guard’s sense of the court, and while he knows he needs to put on weight to muscle his way to more spots, he’s fearless. A quality he had through natural confidence but honed within the G League’s physicality. His shooting is deft and frequent, his numbers only taking a dip this past season as he adjusted to the team and the team tried to adjust to their setbacks, and he’d been working extensively off the dribble.

“I’m working on a lot of different things,” Buzelis says of his pre-Draft process, “I don’t like to put myself into a box so I like to work on everything, and sharpen every one of my tools. I’m just working, it’s what I’ve loved to do.”

Some athletes improve most significantly in a vacuum, taking entire off seasons to work with one or two trainers in private facilities, determined not to cross any wires. Buzelis isn’t one of them. He thrives in live action and stressful situations that test his decision making. That calibration was on display at All-Star Weekend, when Buzelis clinched the win for the Team Detlef with his fadeaway jumper. In the frenetic pace of the night’s games, he went up against NBA rookies and second year players and found the matchups most exciting for what they laid bare.

“You get to compare yourself and feel the physicality of who you’re playing against, and how much better you need to get,” Buzelis notes.

He was nervous only briefly, stepping onto the All-Star court, but as soon as the game began it came down to feel, playing like he always has. His nerves, it mostly seems, come down to wanting to get started. The feeling applies to the Draft. Buzelis is emotionally candid, he’s sure if his mom or dad cry once his name is called, he’ll cry. He’s also grateful for The Break, whose filmmaking team led by Taylor Sharp and Holland Gallagher will be trailing him once again on Draft night for a behind-the-scene supplemental, because he’ll be able to look back on the whirlwind of the night and the past year of his life in “10, 15, 20 years”, he says. Otherwise, his mindset hasn’t fundamentally changed that much since everything first began to click for him.

“I believe I’m born for this,” Buzelis says simply. “That’s how I look at the game. I don’t look at what’s going on on the floor, who’s watching. When I’m in the zone, I’m in the zone.”

When the stage — in Buzelis’ case, any hardwood court — is where he’s most comfortable, what’s one more audition, after all?

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