Matas Buzelis and the Path to Big Money | The Prospect Overview
Between his size and skill, G League Ignite prospect Matas Buzelis looks like a big money player! Maxwell breaks down his game. PLUS: Weber State vs. Eastern Washington in MMGOTW and Quick Hits!
Feature: Matas Buzelis and the Path to Big Money
The NBA Draft is about finding value.
Rarely do NBA decision-makers get to say, “I would like to have that player on our basketball team,” and simply get to have them. There is typically a negotiation, whether it’s a trade or over the terms of a contract in free agency. However, on draft night, that’s not the case. Obviously, sometimes teams have to trade for their picks, but by and large, the players are captive to the process. There’s a labor ethics debate about the fairness of that process, but that’s another story for another day. Additionally, there is a little bit of chicanery here on occasion—whether that’s players withholding medicals (now a thing of the past), agent-player steering to preferred destinations, or a more favorable second-round contract, and so on. But on draft night, generally speaking, if a team wants a player that’s on the board, they can take them.
This should heavily inform one’s draft philosophy. Getting to handpick a player is a rarity, and teams should understand the weight of that predicament. As such, they should seek value. That can look different for different organizations. For example, a contending team like the Nuggets aimed for more instant role players in lieu of upside swings this past year. For them, getting innings eaters who could eventually become solid rotation players on cost-controlled contracts made the most sense given their financial predicament. For rebuilding teams, it’s a different animal.
These organizations need guys who can change the course of their franchise. This is their chance to get the players that will become difficult to acquire in the future on a team-controlled contract. A player like Andrew Nembhard is a tremendous talent who had a great college career, and few doubted that he would be able to hang around the league for a long time. He has good positional size, he doesn’t make many mistakes, and he’s as savvy as they come. But the reason he went 31st instead of 12th is because as talented as he is, he’s going to be easier to acquire down the road than someone like Jalen Williams. Both were great at the college level, but Williams had an other-worldly frame and destroyed the combine’s athletic testing process.
That’s not to say that every bet on potential is the wisest, as teams do miss. I’d imagine Nembhard likely has more trade value than Johnny Davis, who went 10th, or Wendell Moore, who went 26th. The allure of upside is why TyTy Washington went ahead of Nembhard, and he didn’t even make it through his rookie contract. But looking back, many of the guys who went ahead of Nembhard would still go ahead of him in a re-draft. He’s a good player who gets 20 MPG on a good team, but for a team like Oklahoma City, finding exceptional value was more important when they were on the clock. But at 31, where most players don’t even stick around the league, Nembhard provided exceptional value relative to his draft spot.
Teams making their selections at the top of the draft need to consider what will be costly to acquire in the future. Looking at guys who make a ton of money in the NBA, a few things stand out. Generally, these players are exceptionally talented and came into the NBA with a productive track record. But they also brought with them genuine upside through some combination of their outrageous skill level, feel, positional size, length, strength, versatility on both ends of the floor, and athleticism. When I look at Matas Buzelis, I see someone who should be in consideration at the top end of the draft. The G League Ignite’s 6’10”, 19-year-old prospect has the tools to become one of those big money earners that teams have to give up a lot to get down the road. He’s not a perfect player, but he’s extremely enticing. Let’s get into the value he brings now, as well as the value he could bring down the road.
Coming into the season, Buzelis’s notoriety stemmed largely from his play on the offensive end. With that being said, he’s actually done quite well on defense. From a measurables standpoint, Buzelis doesn’t fly off the page. His wingspan is nearly flat with regard to his height at 6’10.25”, and his 8’8” reach is smaller than one might expect given his size. Tipping the scales at 209 pounds, he’d actually be on the lighter side of the NBA if he was playing in the league this season. While he may not be outrageously long or strong, Buzelis is one thing, and that’s productive. In fact, he’s posted a higher “stock rate” than any wing prospect (and I used this definition in the loosest sense possible to widen the data pool) in the history of the Ignite program thus far.
*Buzelis stats as of 1/19/24
Buzelis has been doing great work off the ball. Does he have the occasional missed rotations and lapses that most prospects his age have? Sure. But he more than makes up for it with his activity and production. Buzelis understands the game on an instinctual level and knows where to go at a moment’s notice. His long legs and speed allow him to cover ground quickly, and he has the balance to combat directional changes in space. His sharp sense of awareness allows him to nab steals, tip passes, and collect loose balls. When he rotates to the rim, his ball-tracking skills and leaping ability enable him to swat finishing attempts. Buzelis can explode off one or two feet and doesn’t need to load up to do so. With his mental sharpness, quickness, balance, length, and weakside rim protection skills, Buzelis is built for the modern NBA when it comes to off-ball D.
There’s some good stuff on the ball, too. He knows how to use his arms to his advantage, whether that’s by funneling players to bad spots or by getting into opposing handles. He knows the scouting report. The way that he jumps high with ease makes his jumper contests more potent than most of his peers.
Still, there’s work to be done. A lot of his issues come from his skinny frame, as he’s easy to move and push around. Strong players find themselves able to get inside against him, and that leads to high percentage looks. Even when opponents miss, they can get a second chance against him on the glass at times by bullying him out of their way. He’s probably never going to be a guy that can throw his chest on someone to wall them off. At times, he can be too heavy on his feet, and he doesn’t have the quick-twitch reactive speed that’s common in elite defenders. He’ll need to work on his hips and initial lateral agility to better contain speedier opponents.
Getting wrapped up in those issues would be a foolish endeavor, though. Buzelis isn’t going to be putting together perfect tape on defense—he’s a young player competing in a professional league. And given his age, it’s more than reasonable to assume Buzelis will get stronger going forward. Heck, he already looks bigger than he did last year. He probably won’t end up being built like Giannis, but in five years, it’s hard to imagine opponents consistently targeting him for a physicality advantage like they do currently. It’s fixable. And instinctually, Buzelis brings everything a team could ask for. He knows where to go, he knows how to take away advantages, he moves well, and he’s still long for a wing. Plus, his production relative to past Ignite peers shouldn’t be ignored, nor should the fact that he has one of the best block rates among wings in the entirety of the G League. Buzelis should round into a savvy, multi-positional defender in time. And those guys get paid, especially if they bring something to the table on offense. Speaking of offense, let’s get to that!
Buzelis has a level scoring upside. Let’s start with the shooting, because that’s what he was most known for coming into the season. During his senior season at Sunrise Christian Academy, he was electric, knocking down 43.1% of his threes in 29 games tracked by Synergy. Unfortunately, that level of success has not been sustained with the Ignite. Across all games with them, he’s converted only 26.6% of his triples on 3.6 attempts per game. Most of these looks have been spot-ups, so while he doesn’t get a ton of uncontested looks, the degree of difficulty hasn’t been out of control, either. It appears as if he’s struggled to adapt to the NBA line, with many of his shots coming up short.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it’s a pretty, balanced jumper with a pure, high release. Given Buzelis’s 75% mark at the charity stripe, his prior track record, and the fact that he’s battled injury this season, I’m optimistic. Plus, he’s already on the upswing. The G League season is broken into two chunks—the Showcase Cup and the regular season. The Showcase Cup came first, and Buzelis was only at 22.2% during those games. In the time since, he’s been at 29.7%. It’s still not ideal, but it’s better.
Buzelis is helped by the fact that he’s not just a three-point specialist. He’s a talented mid-range scorer with a smooth pull-up and soft floater. If a defender flies by on a closeout and needs to take a shot off one or two dribbles, he’s more than capable of doing that. But what makes him even more appealing is his polish generating space in this area of the floor. Buzelis boasts great deceleration, and his ability to stop quickly often catches defenders off balance and gets him some extra room. He also has some junk to his handle and footwork, with various setups and combinations he can string together going east-west or for a stepback. Per Synergy, he’s converted 41.2% of his off-the-dribble twos this season, which is a rock-solid mark. This also gives him a solid opportunity to expand that type of scoring to the three-point line in the future.
He’s been solid at the rim, too, converting 58% of his shots at the basket in the halfcourt with 32.7% of his shots taking place there, per Synergy. These numbers grade out pretty well relative to past Ignite peers, as demonstrated by the chart below:
*Buzelis stats as of 1/19/24
Even better, there’s a clear path to Buzelis improving, and that involves him continuing to get stronger. Right now, his touch doesn’t hold up that well when he’s met with contact at the rim.
Otherwise, there’s a lot to like. He has the gravity, strides, and off-the-bounce creation to get to the rack on a consistent basis. His bounciness and length are a sublime pairing that allows him to finish above the rim. When defenders are in his way, he has the coordination to contort and convert. Even without the ball, Buzelis has the intellect to know when and where to cut to get easy buckets. Given that he’s already a solid finisher in spite of his frame, I’m excited about this area of his game going forward.
Buzelis’s playmaking acumen was another part of the sell coming into the season. Similar to his jumper, it’s had some ups and downs, but let’s start with the positive.
There’s carryover from other elements of his game when it comes to feel, processing, and coordination. Everything feels fluid. If he’s running the break, he can operate at top speed and lob the ball to a high-flying teammate. If a defender suddenly takes away a clean look at the rim, he can screech to a halt and make the dump-off pass to an awaiting big man. He continually has the floor mapped in his head, accounting for where defenders are going and where his teammates have moved. Add in his ability to create unique passing angles with his length, and there’s a lot to like. Even if it’s a simple swing to the next man, Buzelis can be counted on to get the job done.
Buzelis is a trustworthy operator. His head is always up, and it never feels like he hoists a bad shot because he is too determined to score himself. He doesn’t overwhelm with pizzazz or try to force balls through small windows chasing a highlight play. For those reasons, I was a little surprised when I started to work on this piece and noticed his negative assist-to-turnover. So, I rolled the tape, watching every single Matas Buzelis turnover on the year. And no, my wife wasn’t annoyed when she asked what I was doing and I said, “I’m watching every Matas Buzelis turnover from this season.” She thought it was charming and it reminded her why she fell in love with me in the first place.
Nevertheless, here’s what I found while watching through his 37 turnovers as of Tuesday night. I broke them down into five categories: handle-related turnovers, traveling violations, turnovers caused by contact, passing turnovers, and miscellaneous turnovers.
Buzelis’s biggest issue with regard to ball control is his handle. Right now, the ball comes too wide from his body too often. Both his point-of-attack defender and help defenders are able to dig in on him and take the ball away. This should be his primary focus point as far as improvement goes. Next up was traveling violations. Buzelis gets “happy feet” a lot, taking too many steps off the catch in a spot-up setting without putting the ball on the deck. This was the cause of all nine of these turnovers. He needs to slow himself down in this respect, but I can live with it for now. I’d rather have a player who is thinking too fast and is ready to go than a stop-and-survey player who lacks the urgency to make a move with the ball in a timely manner.
Next up, contact-induced turnovers. Again, while not ideal, I’m optimistic about future improvement here as Buzelis grows into his body. He tends to cough it up or pick up his dribble when met with serious physicality, but he’s continued to play tougher, and there were fewer of these in recent outings. The passing turnovers were few and far between, and they didn’t bug me. A couple of times, he got too sped up or didn’t anticipate a defender properly. I can live with six of those across a 17-game sample from someone his age playing a sizeable role in the G League. The miscellaneous turnovers were sort of odd or rare occurrences, like committing an offensive foul, bobbling a pass, or losing his balance. Ostensibly, “stuff that just sort of happens sometimes.”
I left this exercise (which again, my wife did not think was stupid or annoying) optimistic about Buzelis as a playmaker. He does need to make serious refinements to his handle and make sure to keep the ball tighter to his body in traffic. But otherwise, I can see these issues diminishing in time. It’s understandable that he’s been over-eager in spot-up settings, given his age and the situation at hand. He’s trying to produce in his pre-draft season, missed time due to injury, and has a poorly constructed roster around him. Given how under control he is everywhere else, I don’t think it will be a problem that persists. He’s already done a better job of playing through contact in recent outings, and that will progress as he grows stronger. Plus, he’s rarely making bad decisions with the ball. My big takeaway here is that while the assist-to-turnover numbers may seem scary on paper, I feel good about Buzelis being a positive playmaker for his position at the next level.
The Path to Big Money
There are a lot of different avenues for where Buzelis’s career can go. My high-end projection would see him as a second or (more likely) third option on a good team. There’s always the chance a player could make unforeseen, rare developments. But for Buzelis to become a leading man on a great at the NBA level, a lot would have to go right. He would have to fill out his frame to an impeccable degree, become an excellent three-point shooter, and make outlier improvements to his handle. But if Buzelis can simply “turn the dial” in a big way, that’s an awesome player. It’s possible that he can develop his frame to the point that he isn’t pushed around as easily on defense, becomes a good-to-great three-point shooter, and gets his handle to a point where he can run second-side actions without issue. It still requires a lot of things to click, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic. And if Buzelis can be a second or third option at 6’10”, we’re talking about boatloads of money flowing into his bank account. That’s the type of players teams picking at the top of the draft should be eyeing in this class.
Even a more median outcome still profiles well financially for Buzelis while still bringing value to an NBA organization. If he’s a solid shooter who hits open shots, it’ll open up driving lanes for his above-the-rim finishing and slick on-the-go passing. Plus, given his size and versatility as a defender, he’d be one of the most plug-and-play guys in the league who could fit into—and start—in almost any system. This is where I believe he’s most likely to settle, and it’s a lucrative outcome. 6’10” starters, and even good bench players if Buzelis falls a little bit short of this mark, get paid. Every team wants size, shooting, and defense on the wing, and there’s a very attainable avenue for Buzelis to deliver all three. If Buzelis isn’t a consistent or reliable three-point shooter, still struggles with turnovers, and the strength doesn’t come along, things get more precarious. But based on the growth we’ve seen from Buzelis in these respects over the last year, I’m more optimistic about his future than that. And still, the “lesser” versions of Buzelis are good NBA players in important positions.
We never know what the future will hold. But in a class that is perceived to have fewer high-upside prospects, keep an eye on Matas Buzelis. The Ignite’s poorly constructed roster and the stop-start nature of his season while scaling up in competition have made this year far from ideal for him. Still, when I watch his recent games, it feels like it’s starting to come together. If he keeps improving, Buzelis is going to make a lot of money during his NBA career. And for teams picking on draft night, that should matter. The draft is about finding guys that will be costly to acquire later on, and Buzelis is on that path.
Mid-Major Game of the Week
This week’s Mid-Major Game of the Week was a battle between the Eastern Washington Eagles and Weber State Wildcats! As is a theme in the MMGOTW this year, this one came down to the wire. Ultimately, Eastern Washington prevailed, 80-78.
I know you probably came here for Dillon Jones, but it was Cedric Coward who owned the night. I covered the Eastern Washington junior wing over the offseason during my No Stone Unturned series. Prior to this season, I was drawn to Coward because he was a ball of chaos on the basketball court. He profiled extremely well statistically in a smaller role as a sophomore, but the eye test had me fully convinced that Coward could cut the mustard in a bigger role and land himself on NBA radars.
This year, his role is much different, but I am happy to report that he is still doing a fantastic job. He was the game’s leading scorer on Thursday night, posting an efficient 24 points on 10-13 shooting. Most impressively, Coward was 3-for-5 from deep. Last year, Coward was 39.4% from deep, but he only took one attempt per game. This year, he’s at 42.0% on 4.2 per game. Here’s what he told me this offseason:
“My jump shot is a great weapon. Last year, it wasn’t as key for me to take jumpers as much as it will be next year. I want to do it as efficiently as possible, but I know I’m a great shooter. I’ve been working, and I know the number of hours I’ve put in to perfect my jumper.”
Welp, he was right. He’s been more assertive with his shot in every sense. He’s letting it fly even when he’s coming off of movement or further behind the line. His motion is pretty quick, too, which is always good to see. But his touch extends inside the arc, too. He hit a nice mid-range pullup, a mid-post turnaround, and converted multiple non-dunks around the basket.
Coward still profiles well defensively, too. He was communicating off the ball. When players go at him on an island, it’s often a fruitless endeavor. His feet are up to the task, he does a great job of staying long, and he’s strong enough that there isn’t a path through him. He gets where he needs to go fast when it’s time to rotate or help. In the closing moments, he used his bounce to leap off the floor and block a Dillon Jones’ three ball that could have tied the score. There’s a lot of versatility here.
At this stage, Coward is a real deal prospect. He’s scoring 14.2 PPG on 54.3/42.0/85.4 splits. He’s 6’6” and a good run-and-jump athlete. He plays as if his life depends on it. If he were to test the draft waters, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Ultimately, my hope is that he will return for a senior season. While he thrived as a connective passer with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season, he’s at 2.0 APG to 2.2 TOV so far this year. Now that he’s on the ball more, it’s evident that he does need to tighten up his handle and work on his dribble game a bit. But everything else is right where it needs to be. He can shoot, he can finish, he can defend, and after interviewing him, I love his intensity. He’s a focused person who has improved where he needed to, and that’s meaningful. If he hasn’t been on your radar, it’s time to change that.
Before we hop over to Jones, a few other EWU dudes caught my eye—namely, redshirt freshman LeJuan Watts, who reminds me a lot of what Coward looked like last year. He’s 6’6” with a pro frame at 225 pounds. Watts concluded the game with 11 points, five boards, two assists, and two steals. He’s a high-energy defender who flies all over the place, using his length and activity to disrupt passing lanes. His 10.0 PPG isn’t anything crazy, but much like Coward last year, the shooting splits are incredible—65.4/55.6/70.6. Again, similar to Coward, the volume is so low from three (1.1 per game) that it’s hard to trust. But with an awesome advanced stat profile (21.0 DREB%, 15.9 AST%, 2.3 STL%, 2.3 BLK%) and an NBA body, I’ll be keeping an eye on him.
6’10” junior Ethan Price was also a big contributor. Weber State led at halftime, but Price’s second-half scoring explosion turned the tide. He ended the game with 22 points, three rebounds, five assists, a steal, and a block. Offensively, his skill level is off the charts. A career 36.6% from deep, he backpedaled into the corner to knock down a three. His touch in the paint is beautiful, but he still has the ups to finish above the rim with a big dunk. He sees the floor well. A pro projection becomes a bit tricky on defense. He’s far from being a poor mover, but he doesn’t quite offer NBA strength, rebounding, or rim protection at this stage. Those are going to be the swing skills for him going forward, but he profiles as a guy who will play pro ball somewhere.
Alright, let’s get to Dillon Jones. This was a rough one for him. He finished with 14 points on 5-15 shooting, 12 rebounds, four assists, three turnovers, and two steals. His three-ball betrayed him, finishing the night 1-6 from distance. He forced a few tough looks with a good amount of time remaining on the shot clock. The biggest “translatability” issue that stood out was his lack of vertical pop, but that’s something I’ve taken into account for a while. When he is the low man on defense, guys can elevate and finish over him. At the rim, he has to settle for tougher angles.
Still, this felt more like an “off night” than a bad performance. He still used his handle effectively to create for himself and others. His passing vision popped, even if he didn’t get rewarded with an assist for some of his better finds. He used his power advantage to bully smaller players for easy buckets any time he got a favorable matchup. On defense, he did have some good possessions using his strength on the block. One of his steals came from straight-up bullying an opposing player into losing the ball on the perimeter. Given his leaner physique and strength, I feel good about him holding his own on wings at the next level.
Sure, Jones didn’t get the win, and he had a poor shooting performance. But the flaws that popped up here weren’t anything new that dramatically change my evaluation of him as a first-round talent. In a reduced role, I still believe in him as an efficient three-point shooter, second-side creator, and intelligent passer. While his defense has some occasional rough spots in a high-usage role, I buy his combination of strength, length, and feel enough that I think he’ll be solid on that front in the NBA. It wasn’t his best night, but he was still his team’s best player, and I’m not losing any faith over it.
Next week’s Mid-Major Game of the Week will be UMass vs. St. Joseph’s! Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter/X to vote in future Mid-Major Game of the Week polls!
-I know what the three-point percentage suggests, but I still can’t quite quit Stephon Castle. UConn’s 6’6” freshman may be a paltry 20% from deep on the year, but he does everything else. He’s selfless and competitive, constantly making hustle plays on both ends of the floor. Castle is a defensive playmaker, using his feel, grit, and strength to make things happen. He’s an unusually productive offensive rebounder with a 9.0 OREB%, a number more common for big, athletic fours. Despite being given Andre Jackson Jr. levels of space, he’s still finding ways to get to the rim with his quickness, handle, and power. Plus, he’s tough at the rim and good through contact, converting 57.7% of his halfcourt shots at the basket, per Synergy. The jumper is scary, to be certain. But if I’m going to gamble on a guy who needs to shoot, give me the guy who already does everything else.
-Look, I get it, Kevin McCullar is old. But Kansas’s 6’6” graduate wing might be the highest motor guy in the country, and he has loads of savvy at his disposal. Despite a big offensive workload, he’s still flying all over the place on defense. He’s always been a savvy connective passer and downhill creator who knows when to mix in a little bit of misdirection or trickery. It seems as if the NBA is moving back toward older players in the draft, and McCullar should be one of them on draft night. He’s ready to plan a role right now, even if his three-point percentage continues to come back to earth.
-Don’t write off Kyshawn George as this year’s late riser. Miami’s 6’8” freshman can do a little bit of everything. The most exciting element of his game is his shooting—he’s at 42.6% from three on 10.9 attempts per 100 possessions. George is willing to let it fly and can get it done from deep in a variety of ways. If teams give him room, he has no issue pulling up with it from the logo. He’s only been okay inside the arc, but his ability to change speeds while taking big strides to the cup has me intrigued. George also sees the floor well, competes on the glass, and uses his size to create problems for opposing guards on defense. At worst, he’s an intriguing guy for next year. But if he goes on a heater during conference play, don’t be surprised to see George start popping up in the first round of mock drafts.
-Ariel Hukporti is still doing his thing down in Melbourne. The 7’0” big man is still near or at the top of the NBL in block percentage, offensive rebound rate, and defensive rating. He’s a vicious screener, a high-level glass cleaner, and a defensive anchor. But what stood out in a recent game I watched against the New Zealand Breakers was his patience and touch in the post. As I wrote in my feature on him earlier this cycle, he’s good at the simple things now, but adding that level of polish is what could take him to another level.
-Quiet improvement alert! Arthur Kaluma is shooting a career-high 41.1% from three on the highest volume of his career (4.3 per game). The 6’7” junior from Kansas State has also been a ball of energy on the glass this year, posting 7.9 RPG. He hasn’t gotten a lot of attention this season, and the mid-season departure of Nae’Qwan Tomlin likely diminished the number of draft sickos watching Kansas State regularly. But if Kaluma can continue to produce throughout conference play, he should climb back up boards.
-A multi-year name to watch: Solomon Washington. Texas A&M’s 6’7” sophomore is an absolute force on the defensive end. He’s big, long, and physical. It’s tough for anyone to create an advantage or gain any sort of separation from him. He skies for blocks and has strong rim protection instincts. Offensively, there are some questions about his role at the next level, as he’s only a 28.6% three-point shooter. That said, he’s a solid mid-range shooter and effective free throw shooter (77.0% through two seasons). The mechanics are extremely funky and need to be reworked, but a version of Washington that’s an average jump shooter would get serious NBA looks.