Basketball Prodigy Matas Buzelis Knows He's Not Normal

The tallest person I’ve ever met in my life is afraid of heights. His name is Matas Buzelis, he’s 18 years old, stands 6 feet 11, and wants to go first overall in the 2024 NBA Draft. That’s not just a pipe dream, either. Thanks to a tantalizingly modern skill set, several prominent observers have him projected to go number one, and even if he has to settle for a slightly later pick, he’ll almost certainly be on an NBA roster for 2024’s opening night.

But on this summer afternoon at One World Trade Center—where GQ has its offices—after he’s finished his photo shoot and switched back into his Vlone hoodie, he’s getting nervous about the elevator bringing us to the 64th floor. Buzelis just finished high school at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kansas—which was the third high school he attended, and is one of those schools known much more for the basketball players it produces than its academics—but he’s not packing up for life in the dorms and lecture halls. Instead, he’ll play the 2023-2024 season with G League Ignite, a professional team that will allow him to compete against grown men rather than sociology majors.

His mom, Kristina, is also on hand for her son’s big day in the GQ photo studio. She played professional basketball in her native Lithuania—as did her husband—before the family moved stateside, settling in the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook. She’s the type of mother who likes to make sure everyone in the room is okay, not just her own offspring, and takes interest in the little things. As we start chatting, she asks about my tattoos and, upon learning I’m from the Seattle area, starts making small talk about Nirvana. She also tells me that Matas (pronounced like “modest” without the t) is one of three children, and wasn’t exactly the biggest fan of school. Perhaps that explains why he passed up offers from collegiate blue bloods like Kentucky and North Carolina to start playing professionally right away.

“High school is fun, but boring. I remember sitting at my desk and zoning out because I was just thinking about basketball,” Buzelis tells me. “‘How do I do this move?’ ‘Which player should I look up on YouTube?’ School wasn’t really my main focus. No disrespect to any of my teachers, it just wasn’t for me! Some of my teachers understood and respected it. Some people want to be doctors. Not me.” Buzelis has many of the same qualities as his mom: politeness, inquisitiveness, self-awareness. But I’m struck by his incredible focus, a word that he uses again and again during our 45-minute conversation. All this kid wants to do is play basketball, something he prioritized above the standard childhood experience. He shares a story about leaving middle school games—where he’d have “a decent amount of points”—in order to see his trainer, Dmitry Pirshin, a 45-minute drive away.

Shirt by Le Pere. Tank top, his own. Jeans by Y-Project. Sneakers, his own. Socks, his own.

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