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ORLANDO, FLA. — PAOLO BANCHERO was only five years old when the SuperSonics left his hometown of Seattle to become the Oklahoma City Thunder. Still, despite growing up in a city without an NBA team, Banchero was raised by the NBA.
Long before the Orlando Magic made Banchero the No. 1 overall pick out of Duke, he learned to be a pro from the many NBA players who’ve come from Seattle and still provide the city with a vibrant basketball scene during the NBA offseason.
Jamal Crawford, a 20-year NBA veteran and fellow Seattleite, first noticed something special in Banchero when he was 14 years old.
At the time, Crawford was 37 years old and finishing the last of his five seasons with the LA Clippers. He was entering the twilight of his career but continued his passion for helping out younger Seattle athletes with Banchero, then a 6-foot-5, 200-pound eighth grader.
“Because he was really tall, most guys that size rely on their athleticism and being bigger and stronger,” Crawford told ESPN about the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, who just turned 20 on Nov. 12.
“But I saw the fundamental foundation that he had coming from his parents and the workouts. You could tell he put a lot of time in this game, and being big was an extra. I’m like, ‘Whoa, if he’s developing that game, you’re already ahead of the curve.'”
When Banchero, whose mother played in the WNBA and whose father played college football for the University of Washington, started his rookie season with Orlando, he looked like he was the veteran among a roster that only has two players with more than five years of NBA experience.
In 25 games, he’s averaging 21.8 points and 6.6 rebounds a game. On Nov. 7 against the Houston Rockets, he dropped 30 points while going 12-of-14 from the free throw line. That performance came one day after he had 33 points and 16 rebounds against the Sacramento Kings — his first career 30-point performance.
Thanks to Crawford and a number of other Seattle-based players, Banchero is rising to the occasion in his rookie season. That experience growing up in Seattle prepared him for the NBA and gave him all the confidence in the world long before he stepped on the court in Orlando.
“Not to toot my own horn,” Banchero told ESPN, “but I’ve been playing against pros for a long time.”
THE FIRST TIME Spencer Hawes heard the name Paolo Banchero, it wasn’t about his basketball skills.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good of a football player he was,” Hawes told ESPN.
Hawes, who played 10 seasons in the NBA after coming out of Seattle and the University of Washington, remembers hearing about Banchero the quarterback before he heard about Banchero the basketball player. Banchero was an FBU 8th grade All-American quarterback before attending O’Dea High School in Seattle and playing both football and basketball as a freshman. On the field, he was a backup quarterback for the 3A Washington state champions. On the court, he averaged a double-double.
Banchero was 6-foot-9 by the end of his freshman season, so as he continued to grow, basketball became his primary sport, and his success continued all the way to becoming a top-rated player in the country.
But before he went to Duke for his lone year of college ball, Banchero tested his skill against the best Seattle had to offer.
Hawes, who attended Seattle Prep — a rival of Banchero’s O’Dea — last played in the NBA in 2017, but still played pickup games in the summer and worked out with the rest of the area’s professionals. Hawes said he remembers Banchero trying to learn as much as possible about the nuances of the game.
“But Paolo wanted to be in the gym to get better,” Hawes said. “Like, he didn’t just want to play pickup. He wanted one on zero. He wanted one-on-one coaching. Show me this trick. Just all the intricacies of really working on skill development.
“If he were that size and weren’t nearly as skilled as he was, he still probably would’ve been a lottery pick. But his attention to detail in that department is a reason he went No. 1. And I think the first couple months of the season have only validated that.”
Others have noticed Banchero’s football background working for him. Tim Manson, a strength and conditioning trainer who has worked with a number of professional athletes in the Seattle area, said Banchero not specializing in one sport growing up helped him become the player he is today.
“I think he’s one of those guys that brought over the mentality of a football player into basketball,” Manson said. “His strength to body mass ratio is really high. And he moves like somebody that’s 6-foot-4 that might be 200 pounds. He moves very well. He can get low. He can get high. He can leverage his body. He can do all the things a smaller guy can do but he’s still a big man. And he’s still only 20 years old.”
Banchero not only credits those hours-long pick-up games in various Seattle gyms for helping him hone his shooting touch, but he says those long summer hours of boxing out NBA pros “became the norm.”
“Playing with them in the summer, obviously I knew it wasn’t the real thing,” Banchero said. “But I knew that once I got better and went through college and eventually got to my first year in the NBA that I should be comfortable and be able to hold my own.”
When Banchero first started playing with Crawford, Hawes & Co. at 15 and 16 years old, he was mostly just asked to set screens, rebound and pass them the ball. But as time went on — and Banchero’s game got sharper — the NBA players started to trust him.
Crawford said that was how it was going to be until Banchero proved himself.
“Hey, you’re on the court with us, you’re on with Zach LaVine, you’re on the court with Dejounte (Murray), you’re on the court with Kyrie Irving, you’re on the court with myself. So you’re gonna fit a role and you’re gonna fit a feel,” Crawford said.
Crawford said Banchero was on his team most of the time. As Banchero got older, Crawford said he started to give Banchero more leeway.
“OK, now you’re gonna be Robin, so now you’re gonna be second with me,” Crawford recalled. “I’ll do most of the scoring. And then you’ll go. Then it got to the point where it’s like, ‘Hey, you’re the feature guy. We’re going through you and I’m gonna play off of you.’ And just the progressions I gave to him as I saw he was ready for it. That, to me, that’s the best training method.”
Mike Knight, a basketball skills trainer from Seattle who calls Banchero his big little brother, said he first noticed Banchero in the sixth grade when he coached against him. As Banchero got older, the two connected when Banchero was in high school, and they’ve worked on his game on the court and how he handles things off the court as well.
“We work on it from a movement standpoint, work on it from a mental standpoint and how to be a person who understands how to implement their skill within a team like concept,” Knight said. “And he had been so dialed in on that. And then from there he was improving because he’s around that energy. He’s around NBA vets, he’s around the culture of Seattle basketball.”
That culture taught Banchero at a young age what it was going to take to make it to the next level and prepared him for the physical nature of the NBA — and how to work that aggressiveness to his advantage. Banchero’s 8.5 free throws attempted per game are sixth in the league, just ahead of Chicago Bulls wing DeMar DeRozan.
The last rookie to finish in the top 10 in free throw attempts was Luka Doncic during the 2018-19 season. The last rookie to be in the top five was Blake Griffin (2010-11). Banchero is one of six qualified players drawing two fouls per game on drives this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
“I mean all those summer games are really competitive,” Banchero said. ” It just motivated me being around those guys every summer and just watching them compete, competing against them, it helped me a lot.”
Top draft picks Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren team up and ball out in Jamal Crawford’s pro-am in Seattle.
Banchero also got a crash course in the NBA during his brief stint at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, where the Magic experimented with the 6-foot-10, 250-pounder at point guard.
Banchero averaged 20 points, six assists and five rebounds in two games in Las Vegas before the Magic shut him down. Two games were all they needed to get a sense of how bright the team’s future could be.
Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said the team’s veterans would stop by to get workouts in during Orlando’s summer league practices, and that was really when they saw Banchero as an expert ballhandler.
“He’s got a great basketball mind, he’s got great instincts and so with that, you just have to find different areas to put him in,” Mosley told ESPN. “Obviously, being around some of the great players, you just have to give them that canvas and allow them to paint it.”
MOSLEY IS ONLY in his second season as a head coach, but in nearly two decades on NBA benches he has seen his fair share of phenoms.
Mosley worked with a young Carmelo Anthony during his time with the Denver Nuggets. He joined the Cleveland Cavaliers a year before they drafted Irving. In his last stop before landing in Orlando, he worked with Doncic after the perennial MVP candidate was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks.
So he knows what a star looks like and how one plays, and he’s seen early signs of Banchero’s growth, particularly in his ability to process what he’s seeing each game and learning from it.
“There’s a different level of things that happen,” Mosley said. “He’s finding different angles to drive the lane, he’s finding different ways to get fouled. He’s finding different passing angles.
“Those are big keys for a guy that they can recognize it in each step of the game and each game is getting better and better and better because now not only does it slow down for him, he can obviously pick and choose the time that he’s going to do it.”
For Banchero, he says the Magic have given him something that wasn’t going to come as a teenager playing over the summer with NBA veterans: freedom.
“Just being able to play however I want to play, play all over the floor,” Banchero said. “Just the trust that my coaches and teammates put in me. I mean high school and college, I think I was always asked to play a certain position. Here, they just tell me, ‘Yo, explore your game.'”
Orlando had the fourth-youngest team in the NBA by age on opening day according to the league’s roster survey at 23.94 years old. Experience wise, only Gary Harris and Terrence Ross have been in the league longer than five seasons.
Consider Ross impressed by what Banchero has been able to accomplish so far.
“He has game, man,” Ross said. “He plays with a lot of poise, confidence. His shot-making ability is crazy. His IQ is very good at 6-11, 260. The dude can handle the ball, throw lobs, finish at the bucket. He can play like a big man, play like a guard. I think his versatility is something that is definitely special.”
That versatility was on display early in the season, but was put on hold when Banchero sprained his left ankle on Nov. 7 against the Houston Rockets, forcing him to miss seven games.
Banchero is far from the only Magic player who has missed time this year. Orlando has dealt with injuries to guards Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz, Harris, and even Jalen Suggs. That allowed Mosley to revisit the summer experiment of using Banchero as the nominal point guard in super-sized lineups alongside second-year forward Franz Wagner as the other ballhandler on the floor.
“We just understand the disadvantage it puts other teams in when you have two guys like us who can bring it up, come off pick and rolls, find open teammates and also create for themselves,” Banchero said. “It just creates a lot of problems. So we’re trying to use that to our advantage.”
Entering Wednesday’s games, Orlando had played a lineup with Banchero, Wagner (6-9), Wendell Carter Jr. (6-10) and Bol Bol (7-2) for 117 minutes. The Magic are +34 in those minutes. It’s the second-best four-man lineup Orlando has used this season.
In 25 games this season, Banchero is averaging 21.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. And while he’s also averaging just under three turnovers a night, that hasn’t led to a quick hook, as Mosley lets his rookie play through his mistakes.
“I know that coach got my back, my teammates got my back and obviously it is on me to do the right thing and try and make the right play, but I just know that I have that freedom and I think we all do,” Banchero said. “He encourages everybody to do that and I’m just thankful that they put that trust in me.”
The Magic demonstrated that trust from Day 1, when they surprised the league by taking Banchero with the No. 1 overall pick after months of speculation that they’d choose Jabari Smith Jr. (who went third to the Rockets). Banchero is the fourth player Orlando has selected No. 1 overall; the other three — O’Neal, Chris Webber and Dwight Howard — are all either already Hall of Famers or headed there one day.
It’s too soon to declare Banchero to be Springfield-bound, but he’s showing signs of potentially turning around a Magic franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2010.
Lately, he’s shown flashes of what it takes to win games. Against the Raptors on Dec. 9, Banchero got switched on to Raptors guard Fred VanVleet in the waning seconds with the Magic clinging to a two-point lead. Banchero stayed in front and forced VanVleet into an off-balance shot to his right. He secured the rebound and knocked down two free throws to ice the game.
In the game prior, he made six free throws in the final seven seconds — including the go-ahead shots — in a 116-111 win over the LA Clippers.
He’s the centerpiece of a young core that also features Wagner, an all-rookie selection a year ago and Wendell Carter Jr., who is in his fifth year in the league but won’t turn 24 until April. In fact, of the 13 Magic players to start a game this year, only Ross (31) and Harris (28) are over 25.
All that youth has led to a lot of growing pains. Orlando started just 5-20 before winning six in a row, a streak that was snapped with a one-point loss Monday night in Atlanta. But it’s clear the young Magic players are starting to learn how to play around each other — a process that Banchero has been through before, playing with veterans in the summers in Seattle.
“I’m not going to put any unnecessary expectations on us, but we’re definitely gonna compete,” Banchero said. “We’re definitely going to win some games.”