G League or college? Matas Buzelis, Dink Pate explain why Ignite was ‘best choice’

With the future of the program in limbo, G League Ignite's Matas Buzelis and Dink Pate explain why the pro route was their best option.

Ron Holland, Matas Buzelis, Panini Rising Stars Game
Ron Holland, Matas Buzelis, Panini Rising Stars Game / Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The G League Ignite program has experienced some turmoil in the 2023-24 season. Over All-Star weekend, NBA commissioner Adam Silver vowed to "reassess" the future of Ignite in the wake of NIL and college athletes getting paid. Meanwhile, professional pipelines the world over are beginning to gain steam — most notably the NBL 'Next Stars' program in Australia.

It has been a challenging season front to back for Ignite. At 6-31, the team has by far the worst record in the G League, and by far the worst net rating (-12.7). Now, to add insult to injury, top scorer Ron Holland is expected to miss the remainder of the season with a thumb injury, turning his focus toward June's NBA Draft.

How the G League Ignite program evolves from here is an open-ended question. It's unclear whether or not Silver even plans to keep it going. But, despite the turbulence, several prospects have emerged from the Ignite program prepared for NBA success. Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, Dyson Daniels, and Scoot Henderson were all top-10 picks. Holland, as well as Chicago native Matas Buzelis, are expected to join that list in 2024. In 2025, Dallas-area star Dink Pate will enter the fray as well.

Buzelis and Pate both spoke to FanSided from the Panini Prizm Lounge at All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis.

For Pate, who has never been much into trading cards, it was a whole new experience.

"I think I’ll be more excited when I actually see myself on a card in person. But, when I was younger, I actually never [collected cards]. I had friends who had cards they would collect, especially baseball cards, but me, nah. I’ve never collected a card, but I always thought they were cool."

The G League stars went on to explain why they chose the Ignite program over going to college or playing professionally overseas.

Matas Buzelis, Dink Pate on why G League Ignite was the best pre-draft option

When G League Ignite was established four years ago, college athletes weren't allowed to profit off of name, image, or likeness. The program was meant to fill a hole in the marketplace — a hole that no longer needs filling. But, even as the amateur sports ecosystem changes, Ignite offers a unique opportunity for NBA Draft prospects. Nowhere else can prospects play against current, former, and future NBA players, or be coached by NBA coaches.

"[How much better] can you have than all those guys who have been in the league, and they know what to do, they know the steps it takes," Buzelis said. "They’re just putting that on me and showing me what I can do."

Pate echoed a similar sentiment, noting the inherent benefits of committing 100 percent to basketball, rather than balancing sports and school.

"My plan was I always wanted to be a pro. That has always been my mindset. There was nothing wrong, or me going against college, but I would rather wake up and go to the gym 24 hours instead of waking up and going to campus."

Pate, at 17 years old, became the youngest professional basketball player in U.S. history. He followed in the footsteps of 2023's No. 3 overall pick Scoot Henderson, who spent two years in the Ignite program before becoming draft eligible. That, however, wasn't even on his mind.

"I didn’t know who Scoot was until his second year [with Ignite]," Pate said. "I never thought of college, nothing. I just told myself I wanted to go the pro route."

When asked if he talked to Henderson or received advice from the Portland Trail Blazers point guard, Pate shared a few valuable nuggets of wisdom.

"He was just like, ‘this is going to be a good fit for you.’ He was in the program for two years. ‘It’s going to be a big adjustment, because you’re not playing against players that just came out of class, you’re playing against players that were in the NBA... whenever your name gets called, just go in there and play hard.'"

Ultimately, that is why Pate believes the Ignite pathway is so benefical. It separates him from other potential peers in the 2025 draft class.

"So that’s type of scouting report that we give. Like, we played against players like Josh Primo, we’ve played against people that have been in the NBA."

For Buzelis, Ignite offered him the chance to avoid the "box" of college basketball, as he once told J.J. Redick on the Old Man and the Three podcast. Buzelis considered Duke, but ultimately viewed the G League as a better place to showcase his skill set in a modern, pro-style offense.

"Ignite was the best choice because I want to play against the best players and I want to be coached by people who are in the NBA, who have coached in the NBA," he told FanSided. "Something that sets me apart [from other prospects] is that I’ve got the experience playing in the G League and being around NBA guys."

The obvious conundrum, of course, is balancing the desire to showcase one's skill set and the need to fit within a team context. To contribute to winning basketball. Team Ignite has a young core, with several prospects vying for prominence in NBA Draft circles.

Buzelis said the approach is simple: listen to coach.

"For me, it’s whatever the coach tells me to do, I’m going to do to the best of my ability. If he tells me I just need to play defense, that’s what I’m going to do. If he tells me I just need to shoot 3s, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll try to be the best at that."

It was much the same for Pate, who expressed the need to control what he can control.

"I do what I know I can do. I’m a point guard, I don’t to go out and do other things I know I’m not good at. I’m a very good passer, so that’s one thing I showcase, whether scouts are there or not there. I just want to showcase the things I know I can do well."

One key element that sets Ignite apart from college, or even other professional leagues around the world, is the presence of NBA vets on the roster. Norris Cole went to the NBA Finals. John Jenkins and Jeremy Pargo both have over a decade of professional experience.

Both Buzelis and Pate spoke glowingly of their veteran teammates and the knowledge they've imparted.

"John Jenkins and Jeremy Pargo — they have all the advice," Pate said. "The tools and the keys that they give to us and tell us how it is when we get up there. I just listen to them and soak it in. I never let it go in one ear and out the other."

Buzelis said he literally follows Jenkins around, trying to figure out what makes the 32-year-old sharpshooter tick.

"He’s so locked in, so I follow him and see what he does at practice, what he does off the court. I hang around and he teaches me new things every day. So, that’s what has made me better."

In the end, the NBA Draft process transends team success. While both Buzelis and Pate want to win — don't get it twisted — it's clear both prospects have gained a lot from the Ignite program, even if victories have been hard to come by. It has even allowed them to get a head start on the NBA learning curve.

"For me, [the toughest adjustmen] was the conditioning part," Buzelis said. "The pace of the game. The game is so fast now, you know, because everyone’s trying to spread the floor and everyone’s so mobile nowadays. So, the conditioning part was the hardest for me."

Pate made the same point, comparing the endurance necessary for 12-minute NBA quarters opposed to eight-minute high school quarters against kids fresh out of class.

"It’s gotten to a point where I’m comfortable now, but when you first get [to the G League], you need to get in a certain type of shape, you need to learn how to eat right. Even off the court, a massage can be one of the most important things after a practice or after a game, especially after a back-to-back game. But it’s just the knowledge and the wisdom that you need to take heed to and learn, especially with this being my first year."

Not every NBA Draft prospect gets that experience. Few do, actually. That alone makes a strong case for sustaining and building off of the Ignite program. While it has been a rocky stretch for the team, there are avenues for improvement. Roster construction can change. Schedules can change.

What shouldn't change is the existence of Ignite. Even if the on-court development hasn't always been linear, it's clear these prospects gain an advantage from being in the professional environment, surrounded by former NBA players and aspiring prospects alike.

"You’re playing against players that want to feed their family," said Pate. "That’s something coach always tells us; you have to have a heart, you have to be happy when you play. You can’t play with an attitude or you can’t play real mad. So it’s learning about being comfortable. You have to be comfortable in every situation. It’s been really good for me and I see the development in my process."

Only time will tell how Pate and Buzelis translate to the next level — the leap from high school to G League is huge, but so is the leap from G League to the NBA.

That said, the value of the G League experience is abundantly clear. The on-court product needs to improve. The team needs to play better. And yet, at the end of the day, it's clear neither Buzelis nor Pate regret their decision to endure the trials of professional life.

That is the end goal, after all. To go pro.

Panini America hosted Matas Buzelis and Dink Pate, along with other NBA players and legends, at the Panini Prizm Lounge in Indianapolis during NBA All-Star Weekend.

Panini is the Exclusive Trading Card Partner of the NBA. You can get Panini NBA Trading Cards at Walmart, Target and hobby stores nationwide, and you can also start collecting your favorite NBA players as Digital Collectibles on the Panini America platform at www.PaniniAmerica.net.

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