Paolo Banchero off to a sizzling start

Published October 28, 2022, 9:00 AMMiguel Flores

Magic rookie Paolo Banchero has come out of the gate hot to start his NBA career. How long can he keep this up?

Paolo Banchero is elite.

Amidst all the other craziness to open the season and the Orlando Magic's 0-4 record, Banchero's incredible start has been easy to miss. Through four games, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft is averaging 22.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.5 blocks. That puts him in a class with Dominique Wilkins as the only rookies to average those numbers through their first four games.

The Paolo Banchero experience is a lot like the House of the Dragon cycle. We were told about the can't-miss hit that HBO poured several fortunes into. There was no way a George RR Martin story was going to flop. Or was there? We started remembering all the pain from Game of Thrones. The saturation of hype resulted in a ton of contrarianism and pessimism, so much so that everyone was prepared to hate-watch House of the Dragon when it debuted. Then we get our minds blown after the first episodes.

Banchero has been on the NBA radar since high school. He dominated at Duke to start his collegiate career. Then college defenses collapsed on him and made him give up the ball. Duke got bounced in the NCAA tournament, and analysts started comparing him to Carmelo Anthony. His game got broken down so much that people ragged on the Magic when reports came out that they were planning to select Banchero first overall.

Then we get his Summer League games and his first four games. Now, the Magic front office looks like geniuses. They deserve plenty of credit for going with their instincts. That much confidence doesn't usually pay off and when it doesn’t, the consequences are Marvin Bagley-sized.

Is he actually Melo?

The Carmelo Anthony comparison always resonated because they share plenty of physical similarities and they went about getting buckets the same way. Banchero has had Melo-like physicality since high school. They both were walking mismatches – too strong, too quick, or too skilled for any one man to stop.

Some doubts sprouted when Banchero faced better defenses while at Duke. He could outmuscle most of his matchups but he didn't respond as expected when facing burlier power forwards or double teams.

In his early forays in the NBA, Banchero has pretty much dispelled all doubt. There are going to be very few guys that can match up with him. 

What’s been most surprising about him is how comfortable he’s looked. He’s natural out there and already looks strong enough to bang with veterans. There are current NBA All-Stars who looked lost at 19 - Banchero hasn’t been fazed at all.

In his rookie season, Melo averaged 21.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists – very similar to the numbers Banchero is putting up now. Melo came into the league as a 6-foot-8 small forward, but Banchero is doing this as a 6-foot-10 power forward. 

The rookie wall

Inevitably, the 82-game schedule will take a toll on any rookie. No one has survived the rookie wall, it’s only a matter of when players hit it and how long it takes for them to recover.

Last season, Jalen Green struggled for most of the season and only got over the hump in the final two months. Evan Mobley rocketed off to a great start and eventually tapered off toward the end. Even someone like Luka Doncic, who dominated the league as a rookie, needed time to adjust to the packed schedule.

Going from a 33-game season to 82 is a rough challenge for rookies coming from the NCAA. For all it’s worth, Banchero went through a rigorous training and diet program to prepare for this season. But there are certain things that players can't prepare for, like the travel and sleep schedules.

So what will the rookie wall look like for Banchero? According to Spectrum Sports, rookies at Banchero's level usually experience a 20-percent dip in production. But it does get harder to measure overall effort and energy levels.

Luckily, the Magic have built a team that can get by with him going through growing pains. Players around the same age as Banchero like Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter, Cole Anthony, and Suggs all need their opportunities. So far, they’ve complemented each other pretty well on the offensive end. The defense will have to come as they mature.

The Magic aren’t a team overly reliant on Banchero nor is there any pressure to feature only him. They’ve had a direction for a few years now. In many ways, it’s great that Banchero ended up on a team that wants him but also isn’t just letting him make all the mistakes he wants. There's accountability since the organization sees success right around the corner.

Watching guys figure it out slowly in the NBA is a rewarding experience. Rarely do we get a guy like Banchero who looks like he already belongs. It’s only tough to project his ceiling because of how high it can potentially be. Is he an All-Star? Can he be the top option on a championship team? The fun with Banchero is in finding out.