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No smoke and mirrors: Paolo Banchero is the real deal

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Paolo Banchero announced his NBA arrival in thunderous fashion. Just ask Cory Joseph.

With 27 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and two blocks in his pro debut, the Orlando Magic forward made it clear he would not be easing his way into the league. The No. 1 pick in the draft immediately playing up to the hype is hardly a stunner, but there were questions surrounding the former Duke standout.

Ahead of last June's draft, Banchero was almost unanimously projected to fall to the Rockets at No. 3 before leapfrogging Jabari Smith Jr. and Chet Holmgren on draft night. Landing in Orlando rather than alongside ball-dominant Rockets youngsters Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. was always the preferable path for Banchero's development, but the rookie's first couple of months in the NBA have made it look like the right choice for the Magic, too.

While concerns about his jumper and defense haven't been put to bed yet, the space Banchero is afforded on an NBA court has him feeling more at home than any 20-year-old scorer should.

The only rookie in the 21st century to average more than Banchero's current mark of 21.8 points per game was Blake Griffin 12 years ago. His 414 total points rank in the top 20 all time through a player's first 19 games, a few points ahead of Allen Iverson. Lest anyone assume all the youngster does is score, he's on track to become the 10th rookie ever to average at least 21 points, six rebounds, and three assists.

An ankle injury kept him out of the lineup for nearly three weeks, and his efficiency has suffered since his return, but Banchero's poise and comfort leading an NBA offense is stunning for a rookie. So too is his freakish combination of size and shot creation.

Banchero is a mesmerizing blend of old-school bruiser with modern versatility. He's a quasi-point guard who's logged time at power forward, small forward, and center already this season.

He's among the 25 most frequent post-up players in the league and has been more efficient than Zion Williamson on such plays. He's been more efficient in isolation than established stars like Devin Booker and Paul George while using more iso possessions per game than all but 11 players. His effectiveness running the pick-and-roll leaves something to be desired, but he's still done it more efficiently than James Harden and Zach LaVine this season.

The fact that Banchero is running pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler at all is a testament to his skill set. At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Banchero's built like a prototypical big man, but prototypical bigs don't handle the ball or create as well as he does.

Opponents have noticed, which makes Banchero the rare breed of rookie who genuinely concerns rival coaches and commands defensive game-planning attention.

"His size is his differentiator," Rockets head coach Stephen Silas told theScore a couple nights after Banchero poured in 30 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals against Houston. "He handles the ball - basically plays point guard - but he's so big, strong, and physical that he can get to wherever he wants to get to on the floor. His shooting isn't there yet, though I'm sure he'll get there, but his passing and dribbling at that size and physicality makes him hard to guard."

During an opening-week matchup against the Celtics, a second-quarter Banchero run got Jayson Tatum's attention, with the fellow Duke alumnus demanding to guard Banchero the rest of the way.

Tatum knows what it's like to have opposing defenses scheming to limit your every move as a rookie. As an NBA freshman in 2018, Tatum was the leading playoff scorer on a Celtics team that got all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

"In a lot of ways, I think he has more responsibility than I had my first year," Tatum told theScore. "He was the No. 1 pick, and no disrespect to the Magic, but they're not as good as we were (in 2017-18). I wasn't the go-to guy until the end (of that season). We did it by committee. He's had a tremendous first quarter of the season."

Perhaps most impressive is that Banchero has managed to score so consistently despite a faulty jumper.

He's struggled to find his stroke from the mid-range and behind the arc, but he has kept his efficiency somewhat respectable because he finishes inside and opponents struggle to guard him without fouling. A recent loss to the Bucks encapsulated this, as Banchero shot 4-of-16 from the field but got to the free-throw line enough to score 20 points despite a steady dose of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday guarding him. Two nights later, Banchero overcame a 5-of-13 shooting night to score a game-high 23 points in an upset win over the Clippers, thanks to a 13-of-14 performance from the charity stripe.

Banchero has drawn fouls on more than a fifth of his shot attempts. Among players using more than 20% of their team's possessions when they're on the court, only Joel Embiid, Antetokounmpo, and Jimmy Butler have posted a higher free-throw attempt rate.

He's especially tough to keep off the line once he gets a head of steam, which is why only seven players are creating points off their drives as often as Banchero does. He ranks just behind Tatum in that regard. But he doesn't get tunnel vision with the ball in his hands, either, as evidenced by the fact his assist percentage ranks in the 86th percentile among forwards, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Banchero added seven assists to his 20 points (plus 12 rebounds, one steal, and one block) in that aforementioned loss to Milwaukee, during which the Magic won his minutes against a bona fide title contender. In the victory over the Clippers, he did an admirable job guarding Kawhi Leonard - including forcing a Leonard miss at the end of regulation - before scoring 10 points in overtime and sinking six key free-throws to preserve the win.

He'll need to learn the nuances of playing team defense at the NBA level and develop into a more respectable shooter. The Magic have lost 16 of Banchero's 19 games amid their league-worst start, and the Rookie of the Year front-runner's own limitations have played a part in those struggles. However, how many forwards his size can bully mismatches down low, get to the rim at will, easily create for themselves, and make plays for others, let alone do it all at only 20 years old? Orlando has something brewing with Banchero, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr., and Bol Bol.

The eventual return of Jonathan Isaac will only further crowd that frontcourt, and the future of young guards Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, and Markelle Fultz remains murky. The Magic, who have posted the worst combined winning percentage over the last 12 years, are still playing the long game. The team should enter the 2023 draft lottery with some of the best odds to walk away with Victor Wembanyama or Scott Henderson.

There will be big, franchise-defining decisions to be made in the not-so-distant future. The Magic can only hope it all goes as well as their last such decision did when they bet on Banchero. He looks like the real deal.

Joseph Casciaro is theScore's senior content producer.

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