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Matas Buzelis Q&A: Growing up in Chicago, playing in the G-League, transitioning to the NBA

G-League Ignite star and top NBA draft prospect Matas Buzelis spoke with NBC Sports Chicago

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With the 2024 NBA Draft exactly three months away, Chicago native and G-League Ignite star, Matas Buzelis, is going through some of the final stages of his first year as a professional basketball player.

He will play his final regular season game with the Ignite on Thursday before shifting his sights to the NBA Draft in late June. He is projected to be a top pick in the draft thanks to his length (6-foot-10) and versatility.

Buzelis, 19, was born and raised in Chicago. His parents are both Lithuanian-born and former professional basketball players; his father for the Lithuanian Basketball League. Initially a strong swimmer, he shifted his focus to basketball after playing one Covid-shortened season at Hinsdale Central High School in the Chicago suburbs.

He transferred to two different boarding schools before graduating. By the end of high school, Buzelis earned Gatorade Player of the Year, McDonald's All-American, and was selected to play in the Jordan Brand Classic and the Nike Hoops Summit. From there, he decided to play for the G-League Ignite team, opting against playing in college, before the 2024 NBA Draft.

In 26 games with the Ignite this season, Buzelis is averaging 14.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. He's shooting 44.5% from the field and 27.3% from beyond the arc. Buzelis is also posting 2.1 blocks and 0.9 steals per game, flexing his versatility on the defensive side of the floor, too.

Buzelis jumped on a Zoom call with NBC Sports Chicago last week to talk about growing up in Chicago as a first-generation American, choosing to play for the Ignite and transitioning to the NBA.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

NBC Sports Chicago: How was growing up in Chicago?

Buzelis: "It was good. There's a big Lithuanian population in Chicago, so it's not like I was alone. I got to go to a Lithuanian school and see how the Lithuanian culture is because I'm a first-generation American. Being in Chicago is extremely fun. It's the best city in the world, to me."

I know you have a lot of pro athletes in your family. Did that help your confidence growing up that you could be a professional, as well?

"Honestly, no. I didn't really think I was gonna be a professional athlete until my freshman year of high school. I was always a swimmer and a video game player. I didn't think I was gonna be a professional athlete."

What was that period like when you did start growing that confidence that you might be able to take your basketball career somewhere?

"Honestly, it just came from working hard in the gym and trying to get better every single day. That's where I felt I could believe and dedicate myself to basketball."

I know you used to watch a lot of YouTube highlight videos, go outside and try and emulate those moves. Who did you try to emulate the most? And what about them were you trying to execute yourself?

"I would say JR Smith and Kyrie Irving I watched the most because they're so creative with the basketball and it's like art when they play. They're like dancing on the court. That's what I try to emulate my game after."

Were there any European or Lithuanian players you looked up to?

"Not really, no. I just watch NBA basketball. But now I'm starting to watch Euroleague and stuff like that."

Why did you choose to go to the G-League? Do you stand by that decision?

"Yeah, for sure. This was the best choice by far. I'd do it again if I could. We play against the best players. It's not like college. It's way more difficult. You get to play NBA rules like you're gonna play in the NBA. We have an advantage."

Editor's Note: Shortly after this conversation, the NBA shut down the G-League Ignite team, which was designed for NBA prospects coming out of high school to abide by the league's rule of playing one year before entering the draft. It was created for high school players to avoid playing collegiate or overseas basketball before entering the NBA.

“Four years ago, we started Ignite to fill a void in the basketball landscape, and I’m proud of the contributions we were able to make to that ecosystem,” said NBA G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim in a statement. “With the changing environment across youth and collegiate basketball, now is the right time to take this step. I want to extend my sincere gratitude to general manager Anthony McClish, head coach Jason Hart and their staff and to each player who wore an Ignite jersey. As ever, the G League’s commitment to developing top NBA talent and helping players achieve their NBA dreams is unwavering.”

Do you think there are any adjustments you need to make before the draft?

"Probably just getting stronger and staying in shape. Those are the two main things for me."

What's your biggest motivator in basketball?

"Just my love for the game. I love the game and I respect the game."

What are your hopes for the draft? Do you ever visualize the moment you'll be drafted?

"I visualize it but my hopes are just to get drafted and picked by a team that believes in me."

Hypothetically speaking, if the Bulls are there in your range, how would you feel about coming back to Chicago? How often would you go to Bulls games?

"I'd feel good about it. Hometown hero! It'd be fun to play for Chicago. Just watching them when I was younger, watching Derrick Rose play. It'd be a dope experience. ... We would go to games often when the Grizzlies would play them because one of my dad's clients, who he works with, plays for the Grizzlies. We would go every time they play the Grizzlies."

How would you sell yourself to an NBA team? What are they getting when they draft you?

"I'd say they're getting a versatile player that's gonna come to work every day, even on bad days. They're gonna get a person who, whatever the coach tells him to do, he's gonna do it."

For more on Matas' journey, check out "The Break presented by The General."

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