Trail Blazers mock draft: Joe Cronin gambles on risky Ignite teammates in lottery

The G League Ignite have struggled all season, but Portland decides two high-upside prospects are worth fliers in a recent mock draft.

Jordan Usher, Perth Wildcats; Tyler Smith, G League Ignite
Jordan Usher, Perth Wildcats; Tyler Smith, G League Ignite / Ethan Miller/GettyImages

The battle for a play-in tournament spot and playoff seeding is in full swing with only five weeks left in the NBA regular season. At least 21 teams have a legitimate shot to make the postseason and a few more are still technically within shouting distance. The bottom feeders of the league, though, have already moved on and are readying themselves for the 2024 NBA Draft in June; that includes the Portland Trail Blazers.

Right now, the Blazers have the fifth-best odds at landing the No. 1 overall selection with a record of 15-42, but Portland didn't win a single game in February and has only won six times in 2024. The Charlotte Hornets, meanwhile, are 5-5 in their last 10 games, have a dramatically improved defense since the trade deadline and sit at 15-43 on the season. The Blazers are coming for them.

If the fight for the best draft lottery odds is heating up, so too are NBA mock drafts. Going by the standings on Feb. 29 for mock purposes, the Blazers own picks Nos. 5 and 13 (courtesy of the Golden State Warriors) in the lottery. In one recent mock draft, Portland General Manager Joe Cronin is taking both those picks and rolling them across the craps table hoping at least one lands on seven.

Trail Blazers take Ignite's Matas Buzelis, Tyler Smith in recent 2024 NBA Mock Draft

A mock published Feb. 28 courtesy of Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report has Portland gambling on the upside rather than production of G League Ignite forwards Matas Buzelis and Tyler Smith.

No. 5: Matas Buzelis

The only consistent thing about Buzelis' positioning in mock drafts is that there is no consistency. The 6-foot-9 forward has been a top-five pick in some and a late-lottery selection in others.

The potential is easy to see. Wasserman's comp for Buzelis is Orlando Magic star Franz Wagner. If that's the type of player the Trail Blazers can land in the 2024 draft, lock in the pick right now. But there's still too much volatility in Buzelis' game to know if he's going to be Wagner or closer to an eighth or ninth man.

The argument for the 19-year-old is that he's shown three-level scoring ability and the chance to become a knockdown shooter from three. He's shown flashes of deep range, attacking off the dribble and the athleticism to finish at the rim; a 6-9 wing with that skill set is tailor-made for today's NBA.

The problem is that Buzelis hasn't had many performances that back up those projected skills. He's scoring 13.3 points per game, but his shooting splits are 46/31/65 - not great for a player whose most attractive draw is his shooting and scoring ability.

Buzelis would have real value as an NBA starter if he does develop into a legitimate shot-maker at his size. The issue is that those skills haven't translated, even in the G League.

No. 13: Tyler Smith

Tyler Smith wasn't one of the Ignite's most heralded prospects coming into the season, but his draft stock has consistently risen throughout the year. It's easy to see why, as Smith fits snugly into the stretch-five archetype with the potential to develop into more.

Smith is shooting 38.5 percent from three on 4.5 attempts per game through 23 games this year, a promising number for a player who checks in at 6-foot-11 and 224 pounds. He's shown some ability as a roll man in pick-and-roll situations and has a few post moves in his bag, but in any other situation, he hasn't been a great finisher at the rim despite his size.

He projects as a decent rim protector - he's averaging a block a game with the Ignite - but otherwise is not a great defender. There are also some questions about his three-point shooting this season being an outlier.


Still, a player who will be 19 on draft night, has shown improvement this season and has flashed the potential to develop into more than just a catch-and-shoot big is worth a late-lottery selection in an uninspiring 2024 class.