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Orlando Magic’s Paolo Banchero looks confident, comfortable halfway through his NBA rookie season

While adjusting to the league, the 20-year-old is vying for Rookie of the Year and All-Star honors: ‘He was the No. 1 pick for a reason’

SAN FRANCISCO – Paolo Banchero, this season’s most-heralded NBA rookie, scored 25 points to lead the Orlando Magic to a victory against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors last Saturday night at Chase Center. Less than a year ago in March 2022, the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft also cut the nets here as a true freshman when Duke University advanced to the Final Four in the same venue.

While life is moving really fast for the 20-year-old, he appears most comfortable on the NBA floor.

“I told our Magic security guy and a couple of my teammates that the last time I was in here I was punching a ticket to the Final Four,” Banchero told Andscape. “I got good luck in here. Time has definitely flown by. The end of the tournament was the end of my time at school, too. From that point to now, it seems like time has flown with the snap of a finger.”

As a No. 1 pick, the expectations are for Banchero to be an NBA superstar in time. Banchero, who turned 20 on Nov. 12, hasn’t wasted any time living up to the billing.

Banchero is averaging 21.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists this season. The 6-foot-10, 250-pounder was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December after averaging 19.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.07 steals in 33.5 minutes per game, including a scoring 20-plus points in seven consecutive games from Dec. 5 to Dec. 18. Banchero is also averaging 23.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists in January (five games).

“He was the No. 1 pick for a reason,” Magic guard Cole Anthony said. “He proves it every night on the floor. He plays hard. Plays the right way. Super skilled. Good dude in the locker room. I’ve taken him under my wing since he got here. He’s special and I’m glad he’s a teammate of mine.”

Said Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr: “He’s a great player. The thing I didn’t realize until I saw him is how big he is. For someone that skilled and moves the way he does, you don’t expect to see that size. Great combination. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He can do a lot of things on the floor. They’re running a lot of things [offensively] through him. Really impressive young player.”

Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (right) slam dunks against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter at Chase Center on Jan. 7, 2023, in San Francisco.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So how is Banchero living up to his billing as the No. 1 pick so fast?

Banchero cited confidence in himself and work ethic. Moreover, he said having played against current and former NBA players in his hometown of Seattle like Kyrie Irving and Seattle-area natives Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas, Dejounte Murray, Zach LaVine, Matisse Thybulle, Spencer Hawes, and Jaylen Nowell since the age of 15 has kept him from being in awe as an NBA rookie.

“No matter who’s in front, I’m confident I can get whatever it is, whether it’s to my spots or getting the ball to my teammates,” Banchero said. “I don’t feel like that changes when I get to the NBA. And then just being in Seattle, growing up in high school, seeing pros every summer, playing against them, that really helped me a lot just because we were playing a lot of games over summer, so I was seeing those guys all the time. There would be good days. There would be bad days. But it just helped me learn a lot.

“And they always would tell me, ‘It’s not as hard as you think. You just got to be focused and locked in.’ Once I figured that out, just that I’d be able to have success, that’s kind of what led to me having that demeanor.”

Said Magic guard Terrence Ross: “He’s just more advanced than a lot of kids his age physically and mentally.”

Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley added that Banchero “sees the game differently.” The second-year head coach said he is impressed by Banchero’s maturity level; the high amount of game film that he watches on himself, the Magic, foes and other stars at his position; his basketball IQ; his ability to improve daily and his love for the game of basketball. Mosley coached the likes of Luka Doncic, Carmelo Anthony and Irving at the beginning of their elite NBA careers and says Banchero has similarities mentally.

“They process things differently. Paolo is like that,” Mosley said. “The way that they see what is going on. Their ability to analyze it and grab it in that moment and adjust at times. And when [Banchero] doesn’t adjust, he says later on, ‘Yeah, I could’ve done that.’ He’s just going to keep tapping into those small parts.”

Banchero finished eighth in 2023 NBA All-Star balloting amongst Eastern Conference frontcourt players in the first results last week with 212,417 votes. He was the only rookie in either conference to place in the top 10. While Orlando’s losing record won’t help his cause, Mosley believes Banchero is deserving of All-Star consideration. There has not been a rookie in the NBA All-Star Game since then-Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin in 2012.

“I don’t think it is too early to talk All-Star with this kid,” Mosley said. “He is special, and he is going to be special. The best part about him is that he is special because he does it with his team. He doesn’t want accolades. He wants winning, to support his teammates and them to support him. It’s also about the numbers he is putting up.”

Banchero understands he is likely a long shot to become an NBA All-Star as a rookie.

“I don’t want to expect it or even really think about it, just to avoid even a little bit of a letdown,” Banchero said.

Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (left) drives to the basket against Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey (right) on Dec. 28, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

What is likely more realistic is the 2022 NBA Rookie of the Year award, which Banchero is on pace to potentially win potentially unanimously if he continues on this playing path and stays healthy.

Banchero is the only NBA rookie averaging over 20 points per game. He entered Tuesday averaging more than four points per game than the No. 2 rookie in points per game, Indiana guard Bennedict Mathurin (17.1). He also ranks third among rookies in rebounds per game and second in assists. The last time the Magic had a Rookie of the Year award winner was Mike Miller in 2001.

“I wanted to come in to win a Rookie of the Year award and just help the team win as much as I could,” Banchero said.

The biggest challenge on the court for Banchero was actually climbing over the “rookie wall” last month.

Banchero played 39 games for Duke as a true freshman last season. The Magic entered the week with 40 games played on the season. Banchero admitted that he hit the “rookie wall” in December, which was his least productive month offensively as he averaged season-lows of 19.1 points on 40.7 percent shooting for the field in 15 contests. Those averages, however, are still very good for most NBA players. Banchero said a holiday break between Dec. 23 and Dec. 27 rejuvenated him.

“I’m holding up pretty good, honestly, a little better than I thought just coming into the season,” said Banchero, who has played in 35 of the Magic’s 42 games. “I was starting to hit a wall at the very end of December, right before the holidays and stuff. I could just feel my body getting a little tired. Mind getting a little tired with all the games. We were starting to get to the point, I felt like, where it’s just hard to have that same intensity, even though you want to. There’s just so many games.

“But we had a little break for the holidays and then just going into the New Year, I think I took a moment and just allowed myself to reset mentally, physically. And I think for me coming out, the first two games in the new year have been good.”

Another challenge for Banchero is dealing with losing regularly for the first time, and he intends to keep that from being the norm long-term.

Banchero was a backup quarterback as a freshman on a Seattle O’Dea High School team that won a 2017 Washington state championship. As an O’Dea High School basketball player, his Fighting Irish won a Class 3A 2019 state championship as a sophomore and were state finalists as a junior. He opted out of his senior season in high school after it was postponed and shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Banchero has had to adjust to losing for the first time in his life with the Magic. Orlando opened the season losing its first five games and endured a nine-game losing streak to drop to 5-20. The Magic are now 16-26 after Tuesday’s win at Portland. Orlando has the fifth-worst record in the NBA.

“Definitely not getting used to it, but learning how to deal with it,” Banchero said. “We’re learning how to deal with that. We’re a lot more competitive. There’s a lot of games that we’ve lost that we could have won and maybe should have won. And I think that just makes us hungrier. We know we’re talented. We know we can play with anybody, and we’ve proven that to ourselves, to everybody.

“We still got action. We lock in and rattle off some wins, we’re right there. We just got to be able to do that. And just one game at a time. Don’t worry about what’s coming ahead. Don’t worry about the losses in the past. Just one game at a time.”

Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero walks on to the court before the game against the LA Clippers on Dec. 7, 2022, at Amway Center in Orlando.

Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

The biggest challenge off the court for Banchero is adjusting to his growing celebrity.

Last May, Formula 1 reporter Martin Brundle actually confused Banchero for Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes at the Miami Grand Prix. But ever since Orlando drafted Banchero, his popularity has been rising despite no games on national television this season.

Ronda Banchero told Andscape her son is still amazed that basketball fans want his autograph on jerseys and other items. Make-A-Wish recipient Braxton Barefoot said before the Warriors-Magic game last Saturday that the highlight for him was shaking Banchero’s hand. During a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, before his first training camp, Banchero said he realized he no longer had anonymity when some very excited young fans ran him down while he was jogging on a secluded beach at a private resort and yelled, “Paolo, oh my God. I can’t believe you’re here!”

“It’s super weird. I’m trying to learn how to navigate it. Learn just what to say yes to, what to say no to, just handling it all,” Banchero said. “Even though I went No. 1 just a couple months ago, I am still tripping when I see people wearing my jersey or people screaming trying to get to my car. It just really doesn’t make sense to me. A year and a half, two years ago, I was in the house just regular, living. And that seems not long ago at all because it wasn’t.

“I just turned 20. I’m getting used to it, but it’s a blessing. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just a lot different and I have to learn how to adjust to it.”

Banchero is also getting used to life on his own as a professional athlete outside of work.

Last season, Banchero was a college student who was with his Duke teammates daily. Now he is a young professional athlete with a lot of free time. Banchero was not with his family on Thanksgiving for the first time in his life last year. He had a private chef cook Thanksgiving dinner for him and a friend. Banchero was also alone for Christmas for the first time in his life. He didn’t feel comfortable asking the chef to cook for him on that holiday and didn’t have a Christmas tree.

Banchero’s parents and siblings, however, have rotated visiting him this season in Orlando and on the road. Several family members and friends attended Tuesday’s game in Portland, which is about a three-hour drive from Seattle.

“I bought a bunch of gifts. So, I Facetimed my family and stuff and watched them open the gifts I had got them,” Banchero said. “So, that was nice to get to call them.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.