NBA Draft: Paolo Banchero Goes #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 first overall in the NBA draw that night. When he found out, just minutes before NBA commissioner Adam Silver called his name, he couldn’t believe it.

“This isn’t even a dream,” Banchero said. “I feel like this is a fantasy. I dreamed of playing in the NBA, but to be No. 1 overall – this is crazy.”

The Magic selected Banchero, a Duke University forward, with the top pick in Thursday’s draft. He is a six-foot-tall power forward whose mother, Rhonda Smith-Banchero, played in the WNBA. He was a guard earlier in his basketball career, playing 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 were on the clock and word started to spread that Banchero could be their choice. Cameras were around him, but he didn’t react outwardly. It wasn’t until he heard his name that his expression changed.

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

“I told everyone I wouldn’t cry no matter what choice I made,” Banchero said. “It just touched me. I couldn’t stop it.”

In his lone season with Duke, Banchero averaged 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s rookie of the year.

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

Three prospects would have separated at the top of this year’s draft: Banchero, Holmgren and Smith.

Holmgren nodded and grinned subtly when he heard Banchero’s name called out first. When Silver called his name, Holmgren burst into a big smile and stopped for handshakes and long hugs with his relatives.

“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 narrow, seven-foot-tall center who grew up in Minneapolis and will become the Mr. Minnesota basketball was called. He was a high school teammate of Jalen Suggs, who was drafted fifth overall by the Magic in 2021. They each spent one season with Gonzaga.

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

In the days before the draft, rumors circulated in media reports that Orlando had decided to select Smith first overall. As Smith waited for his name to be called, he looked disappointed. When Silver finally announced his name, another prospect, Louisiana state Tari Eason, who played in the same conference, jumped out of his chair to applaud Smith.

“I know it was a possibility, so when it didn’t happen I was surprised,” Smith said of the prospect of being selected first. “You know, all the guys who are up for the choice are great players. They bring a lot to the table. It was like I said in the other interviews, it was a coin. So when it happened, you know, I was just happy for them, clapped for them and waited for my name to be called.”

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

Jabari Smith Jr. was named Southeastern Conference freshman of the year and an all-U.S. sophomore team last season. Smith is a 6-foot-10 power forward with the ability to fire from the perimeter. He made 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers and averaged 16.9 points per game at Auburn.

The first surprise of the evening was the selection of Murray by the Kings at number 4, given the expectation that Banchero, Holmgren and Smith would finish in the top three in some order. The spectators at Barclays Center erupted at the announcement.

Murray is the highest selected Hawkeye in school history. The 6-foot-8 forward earned consensus in the first team of all U.S. teams last season, finishing fourth in Division I, scoring 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 with Purdue before running for the draft. He averaged 17.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game during his sophomore season.

The Magic won this year’s lottery after finishing the season at 22-60, the worst record in the Eastern Conference and the second worst record in the league. Only the Houston Rockets, who had 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 made the first overall pick. The Magic drafted Shaquille O’Neal with the first pick in 1992; Chris Webber, whom they immediately traded for Penny Hardaway in 1993; and Dwight Howard in 2004.

The combination of Hardaway and O’Neal resulted in one NBA final, but no championships for the Magic. Howard also led the Magic to a final in 2009.

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.

Before Banchero, Zion Williamson was the last Duke player to select the No. 1 overall in the NBA draft in 2019. Banchero follows two guards – Anthony Edwards (2020) and Cade Cunningham (2021) – in earning the accolade as the top pick.

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