LAS VEGAS — Before his lone season at Duke, Paolo Banchero tattooed a message to himself on his left forearm:
Naturally, the No. 1 pick in last month’s NBA draft said that while he was excited for his first game in an NBA uniform Thursday night, in a showdown with No. 3 overall selection Jabari Smith Jr. in the opening game of the NBA’s annual Summer League in Las Vegas, it wasn’t anything he was too concerned about.
“So I’ve always dealt with pressure well, been able to handle it. And I mean, at the end of the day, it’s just basketball. There’s gonna be all the pressure, all the noise in the world, but at the end of the day you got to go out there and hoop against five other guys, so it’s like, ‘What really is it if it’s just basketball?'”
Thursday’s game might have been just a meaningless exhibition in the summertime, but it didn’t take long for Banchero to show off some of the skills that compelled Orlando to select him over Smith with the top pick.
Banchero, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward whom many expected to be the most ready-to-play NBA prospect, showed off a well-rounded combination of scoring, passing and rebounding that will make him one of the favorites to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
He hit a couple of 3-pointers — one on a catch-and-shoot opportunity on the wing, and the other on a difficult stepback from the top of the key over Smith’s long arms. He also spent much of the game playing the role he likely will have for Orlando this season, essentially serving as the team’s de facto point guard. As a result, he fired off several nice passes, including two quick lasers inside for layup opportunities.
Asked what he hoped to prove in Thursday’s game, Banchero said, “That I can be a go-to guy and be a go-to guy and impact winning at the same time, not a guy who’s gonna hurt the team.”
“You know, I feel like I’ve got the ball in my hands a lot, and provide scoring, assisting, rebounding for the team,” he said. “So just doing that and then also being better on defense. I think I did all right, but I can be a lot better.”
Smith, on the other hand, looked like someone who turned 19 less than two months ago. He had a couple of nice moments offensively, including two nifty drives on the left-hand side of the lane for layups, one in each half, and one nice catch-and-shoot 3-pointer on the wing.
Otherwise, he was largely quiet. He finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 31 minutes, as he became the latest non-guard to fall victim to the pace of summer league play, when ball-dominant guards tend to control play.
“Yeah, I had nerves coming into it,” Smith said. “It was just tough, you know what I’m saying? Figuring it out. Just a different style of play, you know, first NBA game. So it was fun, but I’m ready for the next one.”
There’s plenty to like about Smith’s game, too, including his high, quick release on his jump shot, which should be nearly impossible to contest, given his long arms and 6-foot-10 frame. He also has quick feet defensively.
As the game went on, Smith appeared to get more comfortable and got more involved as a result, something he admitted after the game.
Smith added, however, that it’s on him to be more involved from the jump moving forward.
“I feel like I could have been more involved, just off of me,” he said. “Off of me crashing the offensive glass, off of me finding more ways to get involved on the offensive end. But that’s gonna come with me learning the offense, learning the system. But no, other than that, I feel like I was pretty involved. I’ve just got to make some open shots and crash the glass more.”
Ultimately, Thursday night’s game was just the summer league debut for both players. Each of them, however, were happy to have their maiden NBA games under their belts.
“Yeah, you gotta be aware of it, but you just can’t worry about it too much,” Smith said of the attention he and Banchero received for their head-to-head matchup. “You just gotta go out there and have fun and let the rest take care of itself.”
Smith added with a smile: “It’s fun. I’d rather it be that way than the other way.”