NEW YORK – A smiling Matas Buzelis filmed on his cell phone and dreamed big with his G League Ignite brothers from Suite B7 as their big brother Scoot Henderson’s name was announced Thursday night. “With the third overall pick in the 2023 NBA draft, the Portland Trail Blazers select guard Scoot Henderson of the G League Ignite.Soon after, an Ignite prospect told Buzelis as he walked out of the suite, “It could be you next year.”
Buzelis, ESPN’s top prospects in the 2024 NBA draftturned back and humbly said, “We’ll see.”
For the second year in a row, the Ignite brought forward prospects to the draft to add to their motivation to enter the league.
Ignite’s Class of 2024 is expected to have five players drafted next year, led by Buzelis. After Buzelis, ESPN NBA analyst Jonathan Givony projected forward Ron Holland to be selected sixth, Senegalese forward Babacar Sane 24th, guard London Johnson 31st and Central African guard Thierry Darlan 45th Johnson, who was in Atlanta with his family , was the only one of the five not present. The Ignite also sent recruits who rank among the nation’s top high school prospects.
“It’s crazy. Dreams come true to this day,” Buzelis told Andscape after Henderson was selected. “It doesn’t matter where he is [Henderson] is. He will strive for the best. It’s exciting, man…
“It could be me in a year. It’s really exciting. I think about being No. 1, but I don’t want it to take over my head. I haven’t achieved anything yet. I’m looking forward to this season and to be number 1.”
In a short time, Ignite has become as prolific in sending talent to the NBA as any American college. And nights like this increase motivation.
On October 18, 2018, the G League announced the ability to offer contracts of at least $125,000 to elite teenage prospects. Started in 2020, G Ignite offered the opportunity to play in exhibition games against the other G League teams, as well as development in an NBA environment, life skills classes, mentoring and academic scholarships.
The G League Ignite’s first drafted players came in 2021 – Jalen Green (second overall to the Houston Rockets) and Jonathan Kuminga (seventh to the Golden State Warriors). Ignite has had six players drafted and two undrafted free agents on the NBA roster in the past two years.
“[Former Ignite head coach] Brian Shaw, [G League president] Shareef Abdur-Rahim and [former G League program director] Rod Strickland started it with Ignite,” said Ignite coach Jason Hart. “There’s never really been a story about what we’re doing. I like that, but I want people to know that we’re knocking them out. And we’re going to be good people, too. And they’re going to school. People think they’re just jumping around all day. No, they’re going to class and learning about some very important things. It’s a good thing they’re doing.”
To dare their players to dream bigger, Ignite began sending players to the NBA draft last year. Last year, all the Ignite players who attended the draft were dressed in suits.
“This is a business trip for our players,” Hart said.
Perhaps the highlight is walking the draft floor before it begins and visiting the mammoth green space area that includes projected first-round picks and their loved ones. The Class of 2023 Ignite players all visited the green room and watched last year’s draft from a suite at the Barclays Center. Henderson watched intently as the New Orleans Pelicans selected his Ignite teammate Dyson Daniels with the eighth overall pick in the 2022 draft. The Ignite Class of 2022 also included MarJon Beauchamp, selected 24th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks, and Jaden Hardy, who was selected 37th overall and his rights acquired by the Dallas Mavericks. Former Ignite forward Michael Foster Jr. signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Philadelphia 76ers after going undrafted.
The Ignite group that participated in last year’s draft included Henderson, Leonard Miller, Sidy Cissoko and Mojave King. Looking back, Henderson told Andscape he was motivated by watching the 2022 NBA draft in person.
“It was amazing for me to see what it was like, especially behind the scenes,” Henderson said. “It was good. And just being around [drafted] guys and seeing how they took the moment in, that’s what I’m going to bring into this year as well, to embrace the moment.”
Buzelis was in Ignite’s suite as a recruit during the 2022 draft. What Buzelis remembers most was Henderson’s reaction after Daniels was selected.
“I saw [Henderson] out of the corner of my eye,” Buzelis said. “He was excited. He really locked in. He felt good. It’s important for us to see because we can be here.”
Said Hart: “[Henderson] saw it, he ate it up, and he never let go of the feeling. He is back here 12 months later. I am very proud of him.”
After Henderson was elected, Ignite was far from finished. The G League Ignite had a draft-high four players selected. Arkansas and UCLA had the most among American colleges with three players each, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Miller was selected 33rd overall in the second round by the Minnesota Timberwolves (via San Antonio). Cissoko was selected 44th overall in the second round by San Antonio. King was drafted 47th overall in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers.
For Sane and Darlan, participating in the NBA draft was surreal as they watched it last year from the NBA Africa Academy on a computer in Saly, Senegal. A year later, the two African NBA draft hopefuls were in the house dreaming of bringing their families from the continent to the green room.
“It’s a great experience happening,” Sane said. “It will help me a lot to see my brothers get drafted. It will help me a lot to work hard to get better to be the best I can be one day.
“I’m thinking about getting everyone out next year. Last year I was on the phone with my coach at home talking about what to wear and everything. I think about it in my imagination.”
Said Darlan, wearing a Senegalese suit, “It’s very exciting. I feel like a big prospect. For me it’s a big experience.”
Buzelis, Sane, Holland, Darlan and the Ignite coaching and development staff flew from Las Vegas to New York City on Tuesday. Darlan and Holland, a Duncanville, Texas native, were excited to make their first trip to New York City. The Ignite players practiced Thursday at Long Island University, whose men’s basketball program is now led by Strickland. The Ignite players had dinner Wednesday at the popular Brooklyn Chop House, where they got a surprise visit and pep talk from Henderson.
“When he came to see us, he had a big smile on his face,” Holland said. “He was happy to be here. His message to us was that we had to put our heads down and grind. It wasn’t easy at all. He put in the work and we have the ability to put in the work just like him to get there , where he comes to…
“It shows that this is unique and we definitely treat each other like family. For him to take time out of his day, especially as a busy man — top five, two to three wherever he goes — for him to making time for us and giving advice to get to where we want to get means a lot.”
Ignite also lifted weights and participated in a two-hour workout at the National Basketball Players Association gym in Manhattan on Wednesday. After they finished their work, Brooklyn Nets star forward Mikal Bridges and free agent guard Will Barton hit the gym. The training gave the Ignite players the opportunity to see the players’ union offices and training facilities.
Like Henderson, Miller took time during his hectic draft schedule to offer some words of wisdom to the players after being introduced by Hart.
“You have to work every day,” Miller told the players. “Go compete. Coach likes dogs, so you’ve got to go out there and give it your all. Put a lot of effort out there. You’ve got to be ready. Coach’s going to put the time on you. IG League you’re playing against grown men. It’s not like what you are used to playing against in high school and other places where you are.
“You can’t let them go out and punk you. Strike back. Hit them before they can hit you. And every night in the G League there’s competition. You have to be prepared for that. In practice, you have to push yourself to get better. You guys want the same goal. You’ve got to earn your minutes. Play the right way.”
After Miller’s speech, the rising Ignite players gave him a standing ovation and shook his hand. Miller and Beauchamp also visited Ignite’s suite during the early part of the NBA draft. Henderson and Beauchamp also had some extra words of wisdom for their Ignite little brothers.
Beauchamp, who has stayed in touch with Henderson, said: “When you see a former Ignite player get drafted, it could be you next year. I think it’s a great experience to be here. Next year could be your time, if you have a good year.”
Holland described the Ignite’s 2024 NBA draft class as a “special” class that is being overlooked. Hart tells his Ignite players to make sure after they leave, “to put the ladder back down.”
So did Henderson and Miller. Expect Buzelis and Holland to do the same one day.
“We definitely have to get back here,” Buzelis said. “It’s a family.”