NBA draft: Paolo Banchero becomes No. 1 to Orlando Magic

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NBA draft: Paolo Banchero becomes No. 1 to Orlando Magic

Paolo Banchero knew Thursday would be a special day, the start of his NBA career.

He had no idea about the plans of the Orlando Magic, the team that picked the first pick in the NBA draft that night. When he found out just minutes before NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called his name, he couldn’t believe it.

“It’s not even a dream,” Banchero said. “I feel like this is a fantasy. I’ve dreamed of being in the NBA, but to be No. 1 overall – that’s crazy.”

The Magic selected Duke University forward Banchero as their top pick in Thursday’s draft. He’s a 6-foot-10, 250-pound power forward whose mother, Rhonda Smith-Banchero, played in the WNBA. Early in his basketball career, he was a guard and played football and basketball at O’Dea High School in Seattle.

In the minutes before his name was called, Banchero sat at a table on the floor of Barclays Center with no emotion on his face. The magic was on the clock and word was beginning to spread that Banchero could be their choice. Cameras crowded around him, but he didn’t outwardly react. It wasn’t until he heard his name that his facial expression changed.

He lowered his head, looked up and smiled, tears in his eyes.

“I told everyone that no matter what choice I made, I’m not going to cry,” Banchero said. “It just hit me. I couldn’t stop it.”

In his only season with Duke, Banchero averaged 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and was named Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year.

The favorites for the rest of the top five: Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren at No. 2 for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. at No. 3 for the Houston Rockets, Iowa’s Keegan Murray at No. 4 for the Sacramento Kings, and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey too the Detroit Pistons at No. 5.

Three prospects at the helm of this year’s draft were believed to have split: Banchero, Holmgren and Smith.

Holmgren nodded and grinned subtly when he first heard Banchero’s name called. When Silver called his name, Holmgren broke into a big smile and paused to shake hands and give his family members a long hug.

“I have a thousand emotions to describe this moment,” Holmgren said during an interview that aired at the Brooklyn Arena. “It’s surreal and everything I expected.”

Holmgren, 20, is a gauzy, six-foot-tall center who grew up in Minneapolis and was named the 2021 Minnesota Mr. Basketball. He was a high school teammate of Jalen Suggs, who the Magic 2021 drafted fifth overall. They each spent one season with Gonzaga.

Holmgren led Gonzaga to a 28-4 record and averaged 14.1 points per game while making 60.7 percent of his field goal attempts. He also averaged 9.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. Gonzaga entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall pick, but was upset in the round of 16.

In the days leading up to the draft, media reports circulated that Orlando had decided to select Smith as the overall pick. As Smith waited for his name to be called, he looked disappointed. When Silver finally announced his name, another prospect, Louisiana State’s Tari Eason, who was playing in the same conference, jumped out of his seat to clap for Smith.

“I know it was a possibility, so I was surprised when it didn’t happen,” Smith said of the prospect of being selected as the overall winner. “You know, all the guys that are available are great players. They bring a lot to the table. It was like I said in the other interviews: it was a coin toss. You know, when it happened, I was just happy for her, clapping for her and just waiting for my name to be called.”

Smith, 19, spent a season at Auburn after a distinguished high school basketball career in Georgia. He played for the same Amateur Athletic Union team as another Magic #1 pick, Dwight Howard. Smith’s father, also named Jabari Smith, spent portions of four seasons in the NBA in the early 2000s.

Jabari Smith Jr. was named Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year and All-American Second-Team Player last season. Smith is a 6ft 10 power forward with the ability to fire from perimeters. He made 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers and averaged 16.9 points per game at Auburn.

The first surprise of the night was the Kings’ pick of Murray in fourth place given the expectation that Banchero, Holmgren and Smith would finish in the top three in a particular order. Viewers at the Barclays Center erupted at the announcement.

Murray is the highest-picked Hawkeye in school history. The 6-foot-8 forward earned the all-American team consensus last season, finishing fourth in Division I with 23.5 points per game. He led the Hawkeyes to a 26-10 record and a first-round appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Ivey spent two seasons at Purdue before declaring himself drafted. In his sophomore season, he averaged 17.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game.

The Magic won this year’s draft lottery after finishing the season 22-60, the worst record in the Eastern Conference and the second-worst record in the league. Only the Houston Rockets, who had the third pick in this year’s draft after a 20-62 season, won fewer games than the Magic.

This year marked the fourth time in franchise history that it has made first overall pick. The Magic drafted Shaquille O’Neal with first choice in 1992; Chris Webber, whom they immediately traded for Penny Hardaway in 1993; and Dwight Howard in 2004.

Hardaway and O’Neal’s pairing yielded an NBA Finals appearance but no championships for the Magic. Howard also led Magic 2009 to a finals appearance.

Later in their careers, O’Neal and Howard won championships while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers – O’Neal in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and Howard in 2020.

Prior to Banchero, Zion Williamson was the last Duke player to be picked first in the NBA draft in 2019. Banchero follows two guards – Anthony Edwards (2020) and Cade Cunningham (2021) – in being named the top pick.

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