Trio of former G League Ignite teammates heading to NBA's Central Division

Former G League Ignite teammates Ron Holland, Matas Buzelis and Tyler Smith will begin their NBA careers as Central Division rivals while the program that developed them disappears

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Former G League Ignite teammates Ron Holland, Matas Buzelis and Tyler Smith will begin their NBA careers as Central Division rivals while the program that developed them disappears.

The Detroit Pistons selected Holland with the fifth overall pick in the NBA draft on Wednesday night. The move surprised the 6-foot-8 forward, who said he didn't have any contact with the Pistons before the draft.

“It’s a huge shock to me,” Holland said.

Six picks later, the Bulls took Buzelis, a Chicago-area product and 6-9 forward whose parents played professionally in Lithuania. In Thursday's second round, the Bucks took Smith with the 33rd overall pick.

“Me being born and raised there (in Chicago), it just makes it so much better,” Buzelis said. “I mean, it means everything to me.”

Holland, 18, averaged 19.5 points in 14 games with the NBA G League Ignite before a thumb injury knocked him out for the rest of the season. Buzelis, 19, averaged 14.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in 26 games. Smith is a 19-year-old, 6-11 forward who averaged 13.4 points in 27 games.

The NBA announced three months ago that the G League Ignite program wouldn't exist beyond 2024.

The Ignite provided an opportunity for NBA prospects who weren’t yet draft-eligible to play pro basketball and prepare for the draft without having to attend college. The NBA determined that rule changes enabling college athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness made college basketball more appealing for players who typically had chosen the Ignite.

Buzelis said he benefited from his Ignite experience.

“Playing against the best players in the world,” Buzelis said. “Getting trained by the best coaches in the world and having some vets that have been on NBA rosters and know what it’s like to go through the route that we went on. So I think I gained an advantage by being there.”

Trajan Langdon, the Pistons' new president of basketball operations, bluntly described the distinctions in scouting Ignite players versus college guys.

“It’s just different," Langdon said. "Look, they’re playing against grown men.”

With a team full of younger players adjusting to life in the pros, the Ignite took their lumps by going 2-32 in the G League this past season. Yet the team had enough talent to produce three draft picks.

“That Ignite team just got beat up,” Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas said. "A lot of those guys came from winning programs, but this year, they didn’t win that many games. But they competed against grown men. I think physicality and as close as you can get to the NBA game — that’s what they experienced in G League. Hopefully, that translates into the NBA for (Buzelis) faster. But he has a lot of things to work on, and I think he’s looking forward to it.”

Chicago Bulls

Needs: Shooting. The Bulls were 27th in the NBA in 3-pointers made and 26th in attempts last season, and they weren’t all that accurate, either. Chicago was 20th at 35.8% from beyond the arc.

Who they drafted: G League Ignite F Matas Buzelis at No. 11.

NBA comparison for Buzelis: A Chicago-area product whose parents played professionally in Lithuania, the 6-foot-9, 197-pound Buzelis has drawn some comparisons to Orlando’s Franz Wagner and Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren. Buzelis is known as a good ballhandler for his size and ability to finish at the rim. He’s also a versatile defender.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Needs: Now that they've found their coach ( Kenny Atkinson's hiring isn't yet official), the Cavs, focused on adding a young player to their established roster that got them to the Eastern Conference semifinals. There's little pressure to add immediate help, so Cleveland was likely to pick a player it can develop or use as a future trade asset. They've coveted a two-way wing for some time, and there's always room for another shooter.

Who they drafted: California F Jaylon Tyson at No. 20.

NBA comparison for Tatum: Miami’s Caleb Martin. The 6-foot-6 Tyson played at three schools in three years, going from Texas to Texas Tech to Cal, where he averaged 19.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season.

Detroit Pistons

Needs: Frontcourt players, outside shooters and strong defenders.

Who they drafted: G League Ignite F Ron Holland at No. 5. The Pistons also agreed in principle to acquire the draft rights to F Bobi Klintman after the Minnesota Timberolves selected him at No. 37. Klintman played at Wake Forest in 2022-23 but spent the 2023-24 season with Australia's National Basketball League “Next Stars” program.

NBA comparison for Holland: Andre Iguodala. One of the best defensive forwards in the draft is similar in size and style to Iguodala, a one-time All-Star, two-time All-Defensive Team player and four-time NBA champion.

Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers didn't have a first-round pick after making the deepest postseason run of any Central Division team, losing to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers had three second-round picks Thursday.

Needs: The Pacers could stand to build some long-term depth with center Myles Turner and valuable backup point guard T.J. McConnell eligible to hit free agency after the upcoming season.

Who they drafted: The Pacers agreed in principle to acquire the draft rights to Kansas F Johnny Furphy after the San Antonio Spurs took him at No. 35. The Pacers also selected UConn G Tristen Newton at No. 49 and Akron F Enrique Freeman at No. 50.

NBA comparison for Furphy: Kansas coach Bill Self noted during the season that Furphy's size drew similarities to former NBA swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr. Furphy is long and lean, just as Dunleavy was upon entering the league in 2002. Furphy also shares Dunleavy's ability to score from 3-point range.

Milwaukee Bucks

Needs: The Bucks could use some wings. With Malik Beasley and Patrick Beverley potentially leaving as free agents, the Bucks also may need to find a new shooting guard and backup point guard. Milwaukee also needs to find an heir apparent to 7-foot center Brook Lopez, who is 36 years old.

Who they drafted: G AJ Johnson at No. 23 and Smith at 33. Johnson is a California native who played most recently for the Illawarra Hawks of Australia's National Basketball League. Taking two 19-year-olds was a bit of a surprise for a team in win-now mode.

NBA comparison for Johnson: Bucks GM Jon Horst said Johnson is an athletic 6-5 combo guard with a 6-8 wingspan. Chicago's Zach LaVine arrived in the NBA a decade ago with similar dimensions and characteristics. But there's one major difference. LaVine was a double-figure scorer from his rookie season. Johnson didn't play much in Australia and may need plenty of time to develop into an NBA rotation player.


AP Sports Writers Larry Lage, Michael Marot, Andrew Seligman and Tom Withers and AP freelance writer Phillip Wilson contributed to this report.


This story has been corrected to show that AJ Johnson was taken with the 23rd overall pick



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