A wild optimist could look at the NBA standings on Dec. 11 and say, "The Portland Trail Blazers are only five games back of a postseason play-in tournament spot in the West." A realist, meanwhile, would say, "Sure, the Blazers have been playing better lately, but who should they pick in the 2024 NBA Draft?"
Portland has shown growth across its first 21 games. Shaedon Sharpe continues to play at a high level. Scoot Henderson has found a niche leading head coach Chauncey Billups' bench unit. Players such as Toumani Camara and Jabari Walker have been pleasant surprises. Anfernee Simons returned from a thumb injury and immediately started scoring at an all-star level.
Still, that theoretical optimist is aiming for stars that are impossible for this team to reach. The Blazers are far more likely to land in the draft lottery than the postseason. Their improvement, though, has them picking at No. 5 in a recent 2024 NBA mock draft rather than some earlier mocks that had them in the No. 1 spot.
In a class without a consensus top prospect, though, Portland could still land its first choice at No. 5. Who might that be?
Trail Blazers pick G League Ignite's Matas Buzelis in 2024 NBA mock draft
With no Victor Wembanyama-type sure thing in this year's class, drafting for need rather than taking the best player available is less of a sin than it would be in most seasons. That could have Portland leaning toward adding to its frontcourt rather than taking another guard to fit in an already crowded backcourt with Scoot, Sharpe and Simons.
That's the case in Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman's latest mock draft, which has the Blazers taking Matas Buzelis of the G League Ignite with the fifth-overall pick.
Wasserman lists Buzelis at 6-foot-8, while other sites have him at 6-9. The G League lists him at 6-10. His offensive skillset and projection, though, point to a player who could slot in as a guard in big lineups or power forward in small lineups, regardless of his official height.
Buzelis' pro comparison, according to Wasserman, is Orlando Magic standout Franz Wagner. The Ignite forward projects as more of a scorer than Wagner and not as natural of a playmaker. Still, their size and versatile offensive games make that comp legitimate.
The 2022-23 Gatorade Player of the Year in Kansas hasn't gotten off the ground in the G League yet. He dealt with an ankle injury in the early portion of the season and has only played three games for the Ignite. His traditional stats aren't great - 10.3 points per game on 41.9 percent shooting and an unsightly 9.1 percent from three - but they come on a very small sample size.
He did score 11 points in 16 minutes in his first game back from injury, but he hasn't lit up the G League the way you might expect a five-star high-school prospect to.
Buzelis' upside as an offensive player is tantalizing, however. Wasserman described his skills as those of a "jumbo guard" because of his ability to drive and finish at the rim - sometimes rather explosively - along with his shot-making ability and shot-creation projection.
Buzelis' shooting percentages should rise as the season progresses, especially from three, where he shows a smooth, aesthetically pleasing form.
Buzelis' attractiveness as a prospect lies in his projection as a big, athletic offensive player who could score at all levels. He needs to tighten his handles and get stronger - he's a very thin 210 pounds - but the makings of a combo forward that could, at the very least, spot up at the 3-point line and knock down triples off kick-outs from Simons or Henderson are there.
If he develops the way most scouts believe he will, he may turn into a second-side playmaker and a positionless scorer who could carry the Blazers offensively for stretches or fit sweetly into lineups with Simons and Sharpe to add balance and another threat that defenses would need to account for.