NEW YORK – A smiling Matas Buzelis was filming on his cellphone and dreaming big with his G League Ignite brothers from Suite B7 when their big bro Scoot Henderson’s name was announced on Thursday night. “With the third overall pick in the 2023 NBA draft, the Portland Trail Blazers select guard Scoot Henderson from the G League Ignite.” Shortly afterward, an Ignite prospect told Buzelis as he walked out of the suite, “That could be you next year.”
Buzelis, ESPN’s top prospect in the 2024 NBA draft, turned back and humbly said, “We shall see.”
For the second year in a row, the Ignite brought future prospects to the draft to add to their motivation to make the league.
The Ignite’s Class of 2024 is projected to have five drafted players next year, led by Buzelis. After Buzelis, ESPN’s NBA analyst Jonathan Givony projected that forward Ron Holland will 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 in attendance. The Ignite also sent recruits who rank among the nation’s top high school prospects.
“It’s crazy. The dreams come true to today,” Buzelis told Andscape after Henderson was selected. “It doesn’t matter where he [Henderson] is. He’s going to strive for the best. It’s exciting, man …
“It could be me in a year. It’s really exciting. I do think about being No. 1, but I don’t want it to take over my head. I haven’t accomplished anything yet. I look forward to this season and being a No. 1 pick.”
In a short time, the Ignite have become as productive at sending talent to the NBA as any U.S. college. And nights like this add to the motivation.
On Oct. 18, 2018, the G League announced the ability to offer contracts of at least $125,000 to elite teenage prospects. The G Ignite, which was started in 2020, offered the ability 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). The Ignite has had six players drafted and two undrafted free agents make NBA rosters 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 off with the Ignite,” Ignite coach Jason Hart said. “There has never truly been a story about what we are doing. I like that, but I want people to know that we are turning them out. And we’re turning out good human beings, too. And they’re going to school. People think they’re just hooping all day. No, they’re going to class and learning about some very important things. It’s a good thing that they are doing.”
In order to dare their players to dream bigger, the Ignite started sending players to the NBA draft last year. Last year, all the Ignite players who visited the draft were dressed in suits.
“This is a business trip for our players,” Hart said.
Perhaps the highlight is going on the draft floor before it begins and visiting the mammoth green room area, which 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 in 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 picked 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 attended last year’s draft included Henderson, Leonard Miller, Sidy Cissoko and Mojave King. Looking back, Henderson told Andscape that he was motivated by watching the 2022 NBA draft in person.
“It was great for me to see what it was like, especially behind the scenes,” Henderson said. “That was good. And just being around the [drafted] guys and seeing how they took in the moment, that is what I am going to bring into this year as well, to embrace the moment.”
Buzelis was in the Ignite’s suite as a recruit during the 2022 draft. What Buzelis recalls the most was Henderson’s reaction after Daniels was selected.
“I saw [Henderson] out of the corner of my eyes,” Buzelis said. “He was excited. He really locked in. He was having a good time. 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 the feeling go. He’s back here 12 months later. I’m very proud of him.”
After Henderson was selected, the Ignite were far from done. The G League Ignite had a draft-high four players selected. Arkansas and UCLA had the most among U.S. 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 picked 47th overall in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers.
For Sane and Darlan, attending the NBA draft was surreal since 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 and dream about bringing their families from the continent to the green room.
“It’s a great experience happening,” Sane said. “It’s going to help me a lot seeing my brothers get drafted. It’s going to help me a lot to work hard to get better to be the best I can be one day.
“I’m thinking about bringing everyone out next year. Last year, I was on the phone with my coach back home talking about what I am going 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 is a great 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 about making their first trip to New York City. The Ignite players worked out 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 received 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 the work in, and we have the ability to put the work in just like him to get to where he is getting to …
“It shows that this is unique, and we definitely treat each other like family. For him to give time out of his day, especially as a busy man — top five, two to three, wherever he goes — for him to make time for us and give advice to get to where we want to get to means a lot.”
The Ignite also lifted weights and took part in a two-hour workout at the National Basketball Players Association’s gym in Manhattan on Wednesday. Once they completed their work, Brooklyn Nets star forward Mikal Bridges and free agent guard Will Barton took to the gym. The workout offered the Ignite players an opportunity to view the players’ union offices and workout facility.
Like Henderson, Miller made 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 and compete. Coach likes dogs, so you have to go out there and give it your all. Give a lot of effort out there. You have to be ready. Coach is going to push you the time. In the G League, you play against grown men. It’s not like what you’re used to playing against in high school and other places where you guys are at.
“You can’t let them go out and punk you. Fight back. Punch them before they can hit you. And every night in the G League there is competition. You have to be prepared for that. In practice, push yourselves to get better. You guys are going to want the same goal. You have to earn your minutes. Play the right way.”
After Miller’s speech, the rising Ignite players gave him a round of applause and shook his hand. Miller and Beauchamp also visited the Ignite’s suite at 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 kept in touch with Henderson, said, “Seeing a former Ignite player getting drafted, that could be you next year. I think is a great experience being here. The next year can be your time if you have a good year.”
Holland described the Ignite’s 2024 NBA draft class as a “special” one that is being overlooked. Hart tells his Ignite players to make sure after they leave “to put the ladder back down.”
Henderson and Miller did. Expect Buzelis and Holland to do the same one day.
“We definitely have to come back here,” Buzelis said. “It’s a family.”