LAS VEGAS — Last fall, over 100 NBA scouts filled the Dollar Loan Center to watch a pair of players who were already bona fide stars and would go on to be the Nos. 1 and 3 picks in the NBA Draft in June. It was a matchup of the ages as Victor Wembanyama solidified himself as the best player in his draft class, while Scoot Henderson looked like a future franchise point guard in a pair of exhibition games between the G League Ignite and Paris-based Metropolitans 92.
It was 10 months from the NBA Draft and everyone knew who the top players in the draft were. There were several teams that made strategic moves to position themselves in a favorable spot for the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery.
The 2024 NBA Draft class is significantly different with no surefire No. 1 player, and the top of the draft is considered wide open.
"I wouldn't call this a weak draft, there's always going to be players, but I can tell you there will be a ton of movement on everyone's draft boards throughout the season," one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports.
Over the summer, the Ignite signed seven young players to the program, including two of the top players in this senior high school class, Matas Buzelis and Ron Holland. Buzelis is a 6-foot-10 versatile forward who shows glimpses of tremendous upside as an inside-out player and perimeter threat. Holland was the best player on the court during the McDonald's All-American Game in March and generated a ton of early buzz with NBA scouts after a strong performance.
"This is our youngest team ever and probably our most talented team we’ve had," Ignite head coach Jason Hart said. "We have eight draft-eligible guys and they know what they’re coming here for and what sort of competition they’re going to get."
This week, Australia's National Basketball League champions, the Perth Wildcats, traveled over 9,000 miles to Las Vegas to play the Ignite in a pair of exhibition games. The Ignite easily won the first matchup Wednesday night, 124-105, with several NBA scouts and executives in the arena.
It was a slow start for both Holland and Buzelis, but both players settled down after a rocky first half and started to let the game come to them, finding a more comfortable rhythm and not forcing things.
"The first half was tough," Buzelis said after the game. "I was just shaking off the nerves and trying to get into the game. By the third quarter, it kind of felt like a normal game to me."
Holland led all players with 23 points (9-for-13 from the field, 1-for-3 from 3-point range), and Buzelis scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half, adding five rebounds and two assists.
Even with strong performances in their professional debuts with the Ignite, scouts left a little underwhelmed and not nearly as excited as what they saw a year ago with Wembanyama and Henderson. Both Holland and Buzelis understand the expectations and pressure that are already on them and are taking advantage of going against each other and other veteran players in practice every day.
"We got, possibly, the projected top-two picks in the draft on the same team and iron sharpens iron," Holland told Yahoo Sports. "Every day in practice, me and him, we have something that’s understood and we can make this happen. If anyone’s going to go No. 1 and No. 2, it needs to be us. We’re both fighting for that No. 1 spot, for sure. For me and him, if we don’t go No. 1 and No. 2, we didn’t do our job this year."
For the Wildcats, 7-2 forward Alex Sarr, 18, got things going for Perth early on and showed promising potential as an NBA prospect heading into next year's draft. Sarr played all over the court, whether that was down low as a rim protector (recording six blocks in the loss) or knocking down long 3s in transition and in the pick-and-pop situation. Sarr finished with 17 points and added seven rebounds in 29 minutes.
"He's a really good player," Hart said after the game. "He earned himself some money today. He's talented and looked like a first-round pick."
Said Sarr of his performance: "It's definitely more of a physical game. The pace is faster and there's a lot more possessions. I was just hoping to showcase how competitive I am, my motor and what I can do on both ends of the court."
It's still extremely early in the draft process and a lot can, and will, happen between now and June. There will be college players who take the spotlight and rise to the occasion on the biggest stage in college hoops, the NCAA tournament. The NBL has a handful of players this season who could be lottery and first-round picks with Sarr, A.J. Johnson, Trentyn Flowers and Bobi Klintman, with the NBL Blitz (a tournament with every NBL team) taking place Sept. 16-22. The Ignite also have potential first-rounders with Thierry Darlan, Tyler Smith (who had 25 points and four steals in the win), Babacar Sane, London Johnson and Izan Almansa.
"What you see on the court today is completely different than the player they're going to be by this time next year," Hart said. "From now until March, they’re going to change two or three different times on their development."
The second game between the Ignite and Wildcats is 9 p.m. ET Friday. It's another chance for each player to try to separate themselves and make a lasting impression on scouts prior to the start of the regular season in November, with no consensus No. 1 pick on the board.