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Paolo Banchero’s journey to being the No 1 pick in 2022 NBA draft

As a young starry eyed kid in Seattle, Paolo Banchero was given one rule by his dad: play two sports until you reach six feet, eight inches.

It made sense. Mario, his father, was a walk-on tight-end at University of Washington while his mother, Rhonda, left the same college as the basketball team’s all-time leading scorer, before eventually winding up in the WNBA.

High-level sports evidently ran in the family.

Unsurprisingly Banchero thrived in both football and basketball from as young as six years old. With a football and basketball aficionado on either side of the kitchen counter for him to learn from, his athletic IQ across both the turf and the court sky-rocketed.

‘I think he would have been a first-round draft choice. There’s no doubt,’ Monte Kohler, former football head coach at O’Dea High School, told Sporting News.

Paolo Banchero was a five-star recruit out of high school that ended up No 1 in the NBA Draft

Paolo Banchero was a five-star recruit out of high school that ended up No 1 in the NBA Draft

After a lone year at college, Banchero was a surprise pick by the Orlando Magic at 2022 draft

After a lone year at college, Banchero was a surprise pick by the Orlando Magic at 2022 draft

Banchero stood tall as a 6-foot-7 quarterback that had a solid arm and an enviable ability to escape the pocket and outrun pursuing defenders: Taller, stronger, faster, plain and simple.

In one season as QB at run-centric O’Dea – before he passed the 6-foot-8 threshold set by his dad – Banchero threw for 191 yards, completing 15-of-36 attempts to help his school win the state championship in 2017.

‘I’d say it was very close,’ his then-team-mate Owen Prentice added to Sporting News, when asked if Banchero ever considered sticking with football and chasing a future in the NFL.

‘I wasn’t sure which sport he would pick. There were a few times we tried to convince him [to switch back to football]. He would brush it off and joke about it. We all understood that’s the way he was going.’

Playing for O'Dea High School, he was made to play two sports until he towered past 6ft7'

Playing for O’Dea High School, he was made to play two sports until he towered past 6ft7′

While it is easy to say now having been drafted No 1 overall in the 2022 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic, basketball always felt like the path. Football may have been his favorite sport growing up but his body was morphing into a physique ready made to plug into the NBA.

He was 6-foot-7 as a freshman in high school. He was a kid with a man’s body.

His basketball journey was no hand-out from his mom, though. In fact, as an assistant coach at Holy Names Academy, an all-girls school in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Rhonda would only let him practice on the court if he quit joking around.

Fundamentals, even then when he was just starting out, would take center stage.

He was soon gaining national attention alongside youngsters such as Jabari Smith Jnr (front)

He was soon gaining national attention alongside youngsters such as Jabari Smith Jnr (front)

‘I see him throwing up trick shots or just hooking the ball up. And I stopped or pause, go over there and tell him, ‘Don’t practice bad shots. Don’t practice that mess,” Rhonda explained to Andscape. ‘And he was just always listening. Coachable, even from that age.’

As he grew up, slowly Paolo was integrated into 5-on-5 against some of the girls in the team. It quickly became apparent they were better. Their handle was smoother and his athleticism alone wasn’t getting the job done. It was a further reminder of the need to master the fundamentals.

By the time he put his football helmet down and focused solely on basketball, Banchero was gaining national attention from a host of college scouts. Here was a forward with a guard’s handle who could score on anybody.

Coached at O’Dea by Jason Kerr, Banchero, now towering at 6-foot-10, masterminded a run to winning the 3A state championship in 2019.

‘Winning takes priority over everything,’ Kerr later told the Duke Chronicle of Banchero’s mindset.

‘It’s what makes him a team first guy, it’s what makes him a really good leader. It’s what makes him the first one at the gym and the last one to leave. He’s driven to be successful, and whatever it is, even if it’s, ‘I’m trying to be a good friend to my boy over here.’ He’s gonna be the best version of that because it’s just kind of what motivates him.’

And yet his biggest critic was Rhonda. As praise pieces on Banchero were being penned and scouts began to wax lyrical about his vertical and his handle, stories are told of how his mother, much like her father had done during her developmental years in school, would be incredibly critical of her son’s game.

Her critique became so frequent and so intense that eventually this high-school phenom told her to stop watching his games. He wanted her away from whatever gym he was playing at.

‘It actually impacted our relationship negatively,’ she explained to the Athletic. ‘He was like, ‘I don’t want you to come to any more of my stuff: like, my games or anything.’ So for a year, I didn’t. And it was hurtful, but it wasn’t. I understood it.’

Rhonda was a mother that was incredibly protective of her son and off the court and her words carried no greater weight than in 2018.

Banchero's mum Rhonda (pictured) was one of his toughest critics but it was to be tough love

Banchero’s mum Rhonda (pictured) was one of his toughest critics but it was to be tough love

Banchero, then 15, was leaving a Chris Brown concert with some friends when he, along with close friend and fellow player Noah Williams, were pulled over by police as they travelled home in a Jeep.

Police believed it to be stolen – it belonged to Williams’ mother – and pulled over the two black teenagers. Rhonda had long told Banchero that were this ever to happen, give your name, co-operate and put your hands on the dashboard. It was soon to be potentially life-changing advice in an incident that went on to shape him.

The Seattle Times reported at the time that a police officer pointed a gun at Williams’ head without providing an explanation to the terrified boys. Rhonda later claimed another officer struck her son in the chest but retreated when hearing his age.

The case was later thrown out when the Jeep was proven to be completely legitimate but it left an indelible mark.

‘I’ve had some encounters where I had to do the right thing in situations that were tricky,’ Banchero said in 2020, when he finally opened up on the incident in light of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by an officer. ‘Just knowing what my mom had taught me and using that was big.’

Banchero and Williams later chose to sue the King County Sheriff’s Office for their conduct.

The young basketball stars were delivered an apology and $80,000 as compensation. New use-of-force guidelines were also enacted by the force to prevent any such repeat.

Back to the court, a place where Banchero was the man in control, tough love from his mum would prove no long term barrier as his stat line soon became impossible to ignore.

He put up 20.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4 assists per game during his sophomore and junior seasons.

Further recognition arrived when he was crowned the Gatorade National Junior of the Year in 2020. Offers flooded in.

University of Washington, where his parents went – and met – was attractive, as were heavyweight college basketball programs at Duke, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Duke is the Mecca for college ball, producing NBA stars such as Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson in recent years, in a system made famous under the guidance of Mike Krzyzewski, aka Coach K.

Then there’s Kentucky, who developed LA Lakers’ star Anthony Davis, Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo and Phoenix Suns’ guard Devin Booker to name a few.

Tennessee has  Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris and Boston Celtics reserve Grant Williams among their notable former players.

The recruiting was intense. Everybody wanted Paolo.

He was heavily recruited but went to Duke to work with Mike Krzyzewski - known as Coach K

He was heavily recruited but went to Duke to work with Mike Krzyzewski – known as Coach K

His parents put the power in his hands to make his own decision. In the end, Krzyzewski’s persistence paid off. Banchero was heading 3,000 miles away to Duke.

‘His versatility is tremendous, and we’ve had a lot of success in the past three decades or more of using a very versatile big in different parts of the court, and he can do that,’ Krzyzewski said ahead of the 2021-22 season. ‘He’s smart, and he’s easy to play with.’

Banchero had the prestige of walking into the Blue Devils’ locker room as a consensus five-star recruit. But one look at the corridors would have reminded him that a fair few of these had walked the halls over the years. There would be no special treatment under Coach K.

He discovered quickly, too, that despite scoring at a high clip, Coach K was not shy in ripping into him, with one film session in particular standing out. It was so intense, the dressing down, that it made it back to Banchero’s high school coaches.

Banchero knew the score. Accountability from the big players, right down to the last guy on the bench. He didn’t take it personally.

One look at Banchero’s right arm said plenty about his mindset. ‘No Pressure’ reads the tattoo on his right forearm. It’s just basketball, he’s said previously.

He did not stand out at Duke like Zion Williamson but he was soon ascending up draft boards

He did not stand out at Duke like Zion Williamson but he was soon ascending up draft boards

Duke nationally always has eyes on its program. It’s Duke, after all. But those outside the college-ball cognoscenti would agree that Banchero, a five-star recruit, was somewhat going under the radar. This was no repeat of watching Zion Williamson dominate to the point it was not even a debate that he wouldn’t go No 1 overall in his draft class.

Banchero averaged 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.1 steals per game during freshman – and only season – with Duke.

He was named ACC Freshman of the Year as well as a consensus Second Team All-American by coaches. Associated Press had him in their Third Team All-American line-up.

By the time the NCAA’s March Madness rolled around, the No 1 pick was totally up for grabs, with Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren seemingly leading the race.

Banchero was in the conversation and his stock would soon rise further to make him a lock in the top three having averaged 18.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.8 assists across the first four March Madness games.

No 7-ranked Michigan State, No 3-ranked Texas Tech, and No 4-ranked Arkansas were all knocked off by Duke on their run to the Final Four, where they would face the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Banchero had the keys to Duke’s offense and he was fast learning the pressures that come with being the primary decision maker in one of the biggest college sports matches of the season.

He was taking over games that included fellow top 3 pick and Gonzaga star Chet Holmgren

He was taking over games that included fellow top 3 pick and Gonzaga star Chet Holmgren

Twenty points and 10 rebounds, a double-double, was not enough in an 81-77 loss. Banchero’s college journey was over in less than 12 months. The NBA beckoned.

All the signs in the draft process pointed to Banchero ending up with the Houston Rockets and ending up with Seattle’s own Kevin Porter Jr.

‘All the stuff that was being put out there was that I was going No 3 to Houston,’ Banchero later told Yahoo Sports.

‘That’s kind of where my mind was at, and I was fine with it. I was going to be happy wherever I ended up because I knew at the end of the day I would be fine. But in Houston, I would say that’s where my head was at that time.’

He worked out in Houston, had dinner with GM Rafael Stone and had been texting back and forth with 2021 No 2 pick Jalen Green, as well as role player Josh Christopher.

Oklahoma City Thunder, who held the No 2 pick, made no secret of their desire to land Holmgren from Gonzaga, which left Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. as the accepted No 1 pick.

Orlando, who had that No 1 pick, worked out Smith Jr., as well as Holmgren, but no workout was ever slated for Banchero. It appeared the dye had been cast. Smith Jr., too, did not work out for Houston. After a season of switching back and forth, with a week to go fans, and senior media front office insiders, appeared to settle on the order of the top three.

Banchero only learned 20 seconds prior to the announcement that he was selected at No 1

Banchero only learned 20 seconds prior to the announcement that he was selected at No 1

Two days before the draft, Orlando requested a Zoom interview with Banchero. It was a story that managed to be kept out of the national media.

‘I was a little surprised they called,’ Banchero added to Yahoo Sports. ‘Again, my mind was in Houston.’

And so heading to Barclays Center on draft night, there was loud discourse that this draft would not really get going until the No 4 pick, with Smith Jr, Holmgren, and Banchero going 1-through-3. 

How wrong that turned out to be.

Banchero, at this point ready to land up in Houston, stunned by wearing a striking purple suit – a nod to the University of Washington’s purple Huskies team as a mark of respect for his parents – accompanied with a six-figure Richard Mille watch and a ‘P5’ chain around his neck, which came encrusted with diamonds.

Twenty seconds’ notice was all Banchero had before NBA commissioner Adam Silver read out Orlando’s pick. 

Banchero was taking his talents to Florida, not Texas.

‘I didn’t really even have time to think about it or anything. It just kind of happened,’ he said after coming off stage in his Magic snapback.

‘It brought me to tears. I’ve never been brought to tears about anything that was positive, so that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.’

Banchero (left) led a top three with Holmgren (middle) at No 2 and Smith Jnr (right) at No 3

Banchero (left) led a top three with Holmgren (middle) at No 2 and Smith Jnr (right) at No 3

Surprise was the word used by NBA experts. While some leading writers and recruiters had him as No 1 on their big boards, the skill-set of Smith Jr. at both ends appeared to have given him the edge.

It was to be a rivalry – and a comparison – that would be back in the spotlight for the opening night of Summer League in Las Vegas.

Orlando, even pre-Paolo draft, were slated to be the opening game of Summer League. They had the No 1 pick regardless and so there was a high level of interest. But given how Draft Night played out, Banchero vs Smith Jnr to open the showcase would be one for the ages.

In 25 minutes Banchero put on a dominant display, scoring 17 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists to help lead the Magic to victory over the Rockets. It was the performance of a man on a mission to silence any doubters.

‘I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder but that wasn’t my mindset,’ he told ESPN after the game.

‘I wanted to come out and get the win, get used to playing with the guys, it’s our first Summer League game.’

So, he felt no pressure under the bright lights of NBA scrutiny?

Smith Jnr (right) was expected to go No 1 and so a Summer League match-up between the two players was fascinating. Banchero (left) played lights out in what was a statement display

Smith Jnr (right) was expected to go No 1 and so a Summer League match-up between the two players was fascinating. Banchero (left) played lights out in what was a statement display

‘I’ve always dealt with pressure well,’ Banchero continued. ‘Been able to handle it. At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. There can be all the noise, all the pressure in the world, but at the end of the day you’ve got to go out there and hoop against five other guys.’

He was now earning segments on National TV shows such as FS1’s Undisputed and ESPN’s First Take. NBA body, check. Guard-like handle, check. Low post game, check. Threat from the perimeter, check.

Across two Summer League games (before Orlando shut him down to prevent any risk of injury) the one-year Duke recruit averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists.

Who knows whether the NFL would have been in his future had he followed his dad’s lead, rather than his mum’s, in school? 

One thing we do know, the 2022 No 1 pick is walking in ready to put the NBA on notice.

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