We all want free will and choice, but deep down, many of us fear the pressure. We want our biggest decisions to be made for us.
That’s a tough way to start an NBA draft column, but this is a tough subject. This is the #1 overall pick!
On the subject of voluntariness, it feels like I was destined to write this article at this point in time. For some context, the first NBA jersey I ever bought was Shaq’s #32 Orlando Magic. I was an elementary school student from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with no NBA affiliation. My family vacationed in Orlando and Cocoa Beach, Florida every year and there was nothing I wanted more than this pinstripe jersey. I had my family take me to a mall in Orlando where they only had a light blue alternative. I didn’t care, we bought it and I wore it with pride to the playground in Pittsburgh.
Fast forward 25 years and I land a job as a sportscaster at a TV station in Orlando. First thing I do is buy a pinstriped Magic jersey (this time by Penny Hardaway), second thing I do is start covering Orlando Magic. During my tenure at Orlando, Magic made the playoffs twice, only to be quickly knocked aside in the first round by the Raptors and Bucks, who both won NBA titles (Bucks was next season). The Magic front office saw the writing on the wall and tore off the core. Orlando has won a combined 43 games over the past two seasons, eventually securing the No. 1 spot overall after a decade of bad luck in the lottery.
When I first started working at WRAL in September, I didn’t know that Orlando would win the NBA draft lottery, but it was obvious that they would be in the running. As a new reporter at Duke Beat, I pulled some YouTube clips from the Blue Devil’s freshman class. I remember typing in “Paolo Banchero”. The first thing to notice was that the “ch” was pronounced hard like a “K” (ironically not like Coach K). Second, Paolo Banchero was the best NBA candidate I had seen since Kevin Durant.
I’m not a Boy Scout, of course, but you can tell talent when you see it. I was sold within a few clips. This was the best choice. 6ft 10 with the body type of a mature Lebron James and a Guard-like skill set. He could dribble back into a three-step. He could ride on the edge and finish, and he was strong enough to overwhelm the defenders inside. I remember texting my sportscaster friends in Orlando saying, “You guys better pray for that guy Paolo Banchero’s Magic draft.”
Banchero was an NBA eligible player out of high school. I didn’t need to see anything anymore, I was convinced of that. I hadn’t seen a prospect like him in years, so what could change my mind?
The season begins and confirmation or you could argue that confirmation bias has begun. Friday, November 26 No. 5 Duke plays No. 1 Gonzaga in Las Vegas. Banchero leads all scorers with 21 points and especially outshines Chet Holmgren.
If Banchero is love at first sight, Holmgren shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Listed at 7 feet, 194 pounds (just after a baconator burger and a chocolate shake), Holmgren looked like an alien created in a lab sent to Earth to redefine the center of strain. He could shoot the three, handle the quick break, move off the ball and had incredible defensive instincts.
Holmgren’s odd body type and unique abilities had made him a YouTube sensation long before I heard about Banchero. I knew Holmgren was special but when I saw him play on the same pitch as Banchero there was really no comparison. It felt like the whole country was watching this show and Banchero embraced the moment. He came out and scored 20 of his 21 first-half points, which could have been more if cramps hadn’t limited his second half. Luckily, as the season progressed, Duke established his hydration needs.
Holmgren did little to nudge me from my banchero position, but then came the buzz from Jabari Smith Jr. Auburn had another great season under Bruce Pearl and was fueled by another 6ft 10+ forward.
My first impressions of Smith Jr. were that he was a video game that created a player and was designed for the modern game. It’s as if you’ve taken all of its properties and put them in the properties most valued by analytics. The height to shoot over everyone and the lateral quickness/length to be a defensive threat. The kind of player who could defend any position from the mythical switch. Not only did this design have one generational talent, it had two, possibly three.
History tells us that not all three of these guys will score. It’s hard for a design to come close to 2003, but I definitely see the similarities. Lebron James goes to #1 after Cleveland, Darko Milicic to #2 to Detroit, and Carmelo Anthony to #3 to Denver. (SIDE NOTE: Dwyane Wade came in at No. 5 this year, that could be Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, believed to be the fourth-best prospect in this year’s draft). What you want to avoid at all costs is being the team that kidnapped Milicic. You obviously want to get away with superstardom, but your franchise depends on you not going bust.
For me, Banchero is the safest choice of the three. I say that and it almost sounds like a knock, it’s not. Banchero has tremendous potential and I’m not sure if that’s being emphasized enough in pre-draft talks. With Holmgren, it’s “what if his body develops?” At Smith Jr. “Think of the defensive potential and what if he adds a hold?” Banchero is almost penalized for being the most polished of the three. Has he always been defensively engaged, has he hit some bad shots? Yes, but imagine if he had improved in both areas.
“With a guy like Paolo, they’re going to screw him up,” said Duke Associate head coach Chris Carrawell when I asked him why he thought Banchero’s potential wasn’t discussed as much as that of the other top prospects.
“This guy is 19 years old. 19. They all have flaws,” Carrawell continued. “Look at Paolo and his body type, he’s the most physically developed. Really no holes in his games, except you could say the shooting, he needs to become a more consistent shooter but these guys aren’t finished products, it takes time. “
Carrawell also didn’t believe the Smith Jr. and Holmgren hype, calling Banchero and Ivey the best players in the draft.
“You know I feel like I’m the best player in the draft,” Banchero said of an NBA zoom on Carrawell’s comment. “I feel like I’ve shown that all year, I feel like I’ve shown it all with my skills, the intangibles. So I definitely agree with what he said.”
Carrawell even compared Banchero to former Duke forward and 2017 No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum.
“Tatum, these guys can make their own shot at this size,” Carrawell said. “Tatum is 6ft 8, 6ft 9. Palo with that height who is able to create his own shot, you can post him, put him on the elbow, in the middle of the ground, he can get the rebound and initiate as soon as that shot becomes more consistent and you have a guy who can score on all three levels. You have to be able to defend, but you get paid to put the ball in the hole. I just think his game is tailor-made for the NBA, it’s the most complete, and if I draft a guy to be number one overall, he has to be able to get it.
Tatum is an interesting comparison, not only because of his skills but also because of his position in the draft. Tatum was third overall from the Celtics, who were actually traded from first pick. The 76ers brought in Markelle Fultz from Washington as the overall winner and the Lakers brought in Lonzo Ball for runners-up from UCLA. The Celtics saw what the group at the time didn’t think, Tatum was and still is the best player. Scouts fell in love with Fultz’s shooting ability (which vanished due to a mysterious injury) and Ball’s passing game, and overlooked Tatum’s size and polished offensive play.
Eventually, downgrading Banchero became trendy and smart. Analysts love Smith Jr. and Holmgren. Heaven help anyone with a basketball opinion that violates math. I don’t think years ago this would have even been a debate, Banchero would have been the undisputed No. 1, but the game has changed and with it the way we rate players. I can understand why an NBA front office would want a computer to be the basis of their decision rather than their emotions or their eye. But I also see a future where kids across the country will want to buy Paolo Banchero pinstriped Magic jerseys when they visit Disney World. I see a star in Banchero and I don’t want an algorithm to take that choice away from me.