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Next Big Thing: Why NBA prospect Matas Buzelis will be Lithuania’s future superstar

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MUNICH (Germany) – There are multiple paths to the NBA for European players these days with a growing trend in elite talent from the continent making it to the big league.

You have players who stood out from a very early age like Zaccharie Risacher, and you have late bloomers like Tidjane Salaun. You have players who traveled the globe like Alex Sarr, and you have players who stayed home like Nikola Topic. You have players who went the college route like Kyshawn George, and you have players who went pro like Juan Nunez.

And, then you have Matas Buzelis – who shows that there’s not only multiple paths to the NBA, but also multiple paths to the national team.

“I HAVE HIM AS A TOP-FIVE PICK IN THIS DRAFT.”– Ricky O’Donnell, Basketball Editor at SB Nation

 

Buzelis was born in the United States and grew up in Chicago, but his bloodline runs deep in Lithuanian basketball history. His grandfather Petras played for Zalgiris Kaunas for more than a decade before eventually becoming the team’s captain. His mother Kristina was a standout prospect who played for the Lithuanian youth national team and his father Aidas played professionally for a number of teams in the Lithuanian league.

Matas played a number of sports when growing up before getting into basketball, initially playing for Hindsale Central, a high school located in the outskirts of Chicago, where he caught the attention of colleges and began rising through the high school ranks.


Later came a transfer to national powerhouse Brewster Academy in New Hampshire midway through his sophomore season, a school that has produced a multitude of NBA talent, highlighted by five-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell. The move to a more prestigious program would also bring more attention from scouts. Buzelis started his sophomore season ranked as the 46th best player in his high school class by recruiting site 247sports; by the end of the season, he was ranked in the top five.

“The first time I saw him play was with Brewster Academy during the 2021-22 season,” remembers Ricky O’Donnell, basketball editor and NBA Draft scout at SB Nation, who saw the NBA potential in Buzelis as early as his junior season of high school.  “I did think he had a chance to be a top-10 pick by the time I started watching him. The combination of size and ball handling is just not normal.”

Buzelis would announce another massive decision before the start of senior season of high school, when he committed to play internationally for Lithuania’s national team.

“Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief,” says Lithuanian scout Rob Karaznevic. “Buzelis is considered by many to be the most talented player to come out of Lithuania since Jonas Valanciunas. The entire Lithuanian basketball community was on pins and needles waiting for him to decide which country he would play for. His commitment to play for us finally gives us something to truly look forward to.”


The hopes are high in Lithuania and Matas has similarly lofty expectations of both the team and himself. “Lithuania is really good, and when I come over there, we’re going to win everything,” said Buzelis
in a recent call with European media, ahead of the launch of the Matas Buzelis Basketball Tournament in Lithuania.

While the confidence might rub outsiders the wrong way, for Lithuania it might be essential to succeed.

“I believe that kind of attitude is exactly what our National Team needs,” Karaznevic explains. “We are experiencing a medal drought in recent years, our last medal was silver in FIBA EuroBasket 2015 and I think because we haven’t won anything in so long we have simply lost our confidence and the belief that we can actually win it all — that same belief that we used to have in the golden days of players such as Sarunas Jasikevicius, Ramunas Siskauskas, Arvydas Macijauskas or Linas Kleiza wearing the Lithuanian jersey.”

“That unbridled confidence that Matas is going to bring to the squad could be the thing that makes the difference and finally makes us break through the barriers and come back with a medal,” Karaznevic concludes.

 

That confidence was certainly put to the test last season. After transferring to Sunrise Christian Academy for his senior season of high school and earning MVP honors at the 2023 Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, Buzelis would forgo his college eligibility in order to play in the G League for Ignite – an NBA-operated developmental team who was able to attract other top-level prospects and produce multiple top 10 NBA Draft picks such as Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga and Scoot Henderson.

With the leap in level of competition, going from high school to the professional level, came a period of adjustment.

“At first, Buzelis faced an uphill battle in the G League when it came to physicality,” says Maxwell Baumbach, NBA scout for the website No Ceilings. “Opponents were able to drive through him, and he had a hard time keeping control of his dribble when defenders threw their body on him.”

The challenge, however, was part of the plan for Buzelis in his preparation for the next level.

“The main thing is being physical in practice and just building calluses all over my body,” said Buzelis when asked about the physicality of the G League in a recent interview ahead of the launch of the Matas Buzelis Basketball Tournament in Lithuania. “Just playing against stronger people and having to utilize my body against them and also just being in the weight room, lifting every day.”


The work seems to have paid off for Buzelis, as Baumbach notes, “It seemed to harden him mentally. Down the stretch, he began to hold his own when bigger players drove at him. He did a better job of playing through and finishing against contact.”

His performance this season, where he averaged 14.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game, earned Buzelis an invite to the Rising Stars Challenge at the NBA All-Star Weekend where he produced one of the most memorable moments of the event, hitting the game winning shot to send his team to the finals.


While Buzelis was projected by media outlets to be one of the top players in the 2024 NBA Draft even before the start of the 2023-24 season, his play for G League Ignite only cemented his spot near the top.

“I have him as a top-5 pick in this draft,” says O’Donnell, before explaining: “The creativity he shows with the ball in his hands is really unique for someone so tall. At 6’10”, he’s comfortable playing on the perimeter but he’s also not afraid of contact.” 

Besides his versatile offensive skillset, Buzelis made strides when it came to his defense during the 2023-24 season.

“His defense beat my expectations this year. He looks good on rotations to the rim and can offer some extra shot blocking,” states O’Donnell, while Baumbach takes it a step further: “He was one of the best shot blockers and weak side rim protectors in the G League this past season.”

When it comes to his NBA projection, scouts mention his strength and his jump shot as the two aspects that Buzelis will need to improve, but if he does, the sky’s the limit for him.

“Realistically, I think he’ll be in the Deni Avdija ballpark — a multi-positional defender with some playmaking chops that teams can’t completely ignore from behind the three-point line,” Baumbach says before warning: “If his jumper really gets going, then he could be in the All-Star mix.”

“HIS COMMITMENT TO PLAY FOR US FINALLY GIVES US SOMETHING TO TRULY LOOK FORWARD TO.”– Rob Karaznevic, Scout


Scouts expect Buzelis to make an impact for Lithuania pretty soon.

“I think he should be excellent in FIBA play and it’s a really nice get for Lithuania. Just having someone with some creation ability at that size will be a new dimension for the team,” says O’Donnell, while Baumbach is positive about the fit with the two frontcourt stars of the team, Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas. “Buzelis is super comfortable moving off the ball and he’s a quick decision maker, so their offense should flow beautifully.”

The present is promising for Lithuania, but the future might be equally bright.

“Sabonis is still just 27 years old, Rokas Jokubaitis is not even close to reaching his prime, Deividas Sirvydis had a huge break out year and then we have Azuolas Tubelis, Motiejus Krivas, Augustas Marciulionis, Kasparas Jakucionis and of course Buzelis himself waiting for their turn,” Karaznevic states before concluding: “That young core has a ton of potential and Buzelis would undoubtedly be one of its centerpieces.”


Ultimately, Buzelis is proof of how vital it has become for national teams and federations to look for players beyond their own backyards.

“This is one area that I think needs to be a huge priority for every single country in Europe and beyond. It is extremely important that national federations pay close attention to what is happening in the States,” explains Karaznevic. “Not doing so is like being aware of a treasure chest that exists on the other side of the rainbow but deciding not to go open it and have a look.”

That search for players outside of the Lithuanian borders, has brought the team a potential cornerstone of the national team in Buzelis.

“Everyone in Lithuania is highly optimistic about Buzelis’ future,” says Kraznevic. “In fact, I don’t think we have ever been this excited about seeing someone put on that green, yellow and red jersey like we are with Matas.”

The hype train is running in Lithuania and Buzelis is fully on board. When asked by Ricardo Pratesi from Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport about his future with the Lithuanian national team and a potential match with Italy in the upcoming FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, his confidence shines through.

“I’m not sure if I’m gonna play this summer for Lithuania. I know I’m gonna play for Lithuania in the future,” Buzelis paused before adding with a smile: “And we’re ready to beat y’all.”

Enjoyed the article?

The ‘Next Big Thing’ series takes a look at several prospects from across Europe. Make sure you check out the other stories:

– Zacharie Risacher: the potential #1 draft pick, shining bright in Bourg-en-Bresse
– Nikola Topic: the best Serbian prospect since… Nikola Jokic?
Alex Sarr: The rapid rise of the French wonderkid – the #1 pick?

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