NBA

Why Duke’s Paolo Banchero is the No. 1 player on our 2022 NBA Draft board

Paolo Banchero is the sort of person who has always seemed destined for stardom. His mother, Rhonda Smith, was a dominant post player for the Washington Huskies, graduating as the program’s all-time leading scorer before becoming a third round pick in the WNBA draft. His father Mario Banchero was a tight end on the football field for UW. When the couple settled in Seattle to have children, it was immediately clear their oldest was going to be an outlier: Paolo was already 3-feet tall at just 15-months old, with doctors predicting he could get as big as 6’10.

Banchero excelled in both of his parents’ sports. As a freshman, he was a part-time starter at quarterback for a state championship team at O’Dea High School. There was only problem: the pediatricians nailed their projection of his height. QBs standing 6’10 simply don’t exist. Fortunately, Banchero was excellent on the basketball floor too, as the whole country now knows.

Banchero was the driving force behind Duke’s Final Four run, flashing a striking combination of size and skill that has long elevated him ahead of his peers. He handled the ball like a guard, throwing no-look passes and perfect lobs once opposing defenses started to sell out on his scoring ability. Oh, Paolo can score too, ripping three-pointers, bodying opponents in the post, and getting into his midrange bag like a seasoned pro.

Banchero’s talent has always been easy to see. Finding a good NBA comparison for him has been more of a challenge. He’s been compared to everyone from Jayson Tatum and Carmelo Anthony to Blake Griffin, Julius Randle, and Chris Webber during his freshman season. Some of those comps feel close, but none of them is quite right. That’s because there haven’t been many players this tall, this strong, and this adept at creating offense for himself and others at such a young age.

Still, evaluators were left wanting more from Banchero throughout the season. He was pegged as the No. 3 or No. 4 player in the 2022 NBA Draft by the mainstream consensus entering the tournament, with questions about his athleticism, shooting ability, and tendency to stop the ball. Since the start of March Madness, though, it’s become easier and easier to see the vision for Banchero as the future No. 1 overall pick.

We’ve had Banchero pegged as the No. 1 player in this NBA draft class since our initial board in July, and he hasn’t left that spot all season. Here’s what makes the Duke forward our top prospect in this class.

Banchero is the best shot creator in the 2022 NBA Draft class

Banchero separates himself from the other top prospects in this class — namely Gonzaga big man Chet Holmgren and Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr. — with his shot creation ability. While Holmgren and Smith need someone else to set them up to be at their best offensively, Banchero has the potential to be a primary initiator at the next level because he can blend passing and scoring off the bounce like a 6’10, 250-pound guard.

Banchero is a skilled live dribble passer with tremendous vision. The second defenses load up to stop him, he can whip a dime to an open teammate.

Banchero is also an extremely advanced ball handler at this stage for a player his size. He’s able to shake defenders off the dribble without elite speed by keeping them off-balance. He does a good job getting low on his drives and generates plenty of power as he rumbles into the lane. Banchero also has the agility to position himself for finishes once he gets to the rim and the skill to lay in the ball with either hand.

Banchero doesn’t need to get all the way to the rim to score. He’s excellent shooting from midrange, where he can use deft footwork to set himself up for pull-ups when defenses try to take away his lane to the rim.

Banchero is a nightmare to guard because he can beat you in so many different ways. Each aspect of his shot creation already feels fine-tuned for someone who is only 19 years old.

Passing might be Banchero’s best skill

Banchero is clearly a product of a generation that grew up watching big wings take on primary playmaking duties at the highest levels of the game. In a different era, coaches would have seen Banchero’s frame and told him to get in the post. Instead, it feels like he’s modeled his game after LeBron James or Luka Doncic — stars who had to develop terrific passing chops to ensure they could have the ball in their hands as often as possible.

The idea of Paolo as a lead option in the NBA starts with his ability to find open teammates as a passer. It is not common to see someone this big and this young routinely drop assists like this.

Banchero is particularly accurate when throwing passes towards the rim. At Duke, he was paired in the front court with an excellent lob threat in Mark Williams who could flush anything near the basket. Paolo proved he could reliably put the ball in position for Williams to dunk it. Watch the way he sends the defense to the wing shooter with this ball fake before delivering the alley-oop to his big man.

Banchero’s height is a major advantage for him as a passer. He can see over the defense and make passes over length that nominal point guards would have tough time delivering. This pass against Arkansas in the Elite Eight required full extension. How many players at any level of the game can spot the big man open and still get off the pass against the double team?

When Banchero does play out of the post, he puts defenses in an impossible situation: risk him scoring over single coverage, or send two at him and watch him pass it to the open man.

While Banchero earned a reputation as somewhat of a ball stopper at Duke, he did show the ability to make quick passes when he knew he had an open window. His high-low passing with Williams was terrific all year, and should be a major factor in the NBA if he’s paired with the right center.

Banchero also seems built to operate as an offensive hub against zone defenses. With NBA teams playing more zone than ever in the last few years, Banchero’s ability to stand in the middle of the zone and hit open teammates or score himself could be a vital weapon.

Banchero can score as a driver, too

Banchero has a good first step, but it’s not quite elite. It doesn’t matter: he’s still able to win as a driver by overpowering opponents when he gets downhill. He has the frame to play through contact, and he doesn’t back away from it. He does a good job protecting the ball and avoiding turnovers before using his touch to finish at the basket.

Banchero is particularly good when he already has some positive momentum as he catches the ball. He should be really good in dribble-handoff situations at the next level whether defenses try to switch on him or not. He typically plays under control, and loves to use ball fakes around the basket.

Banchero also has a great spin move that he goes to often. The fact that he can play with both hands helps him greatly, and separates him from someone like Julius Randle. Here are two plays that show how Banchero sets up his defender for a spin move.

When all else fails, Paolo can body someone at the rim to create the separation he needs. Yes, most NBA forwards are going to be stronger than poor Joey Hauser here, but that’s still a 6’9, 230-pound man Banchero easily dislodged from his spot. Banchero’s strength and power will be near elite even by NBA standards.

Banchero’s midrange game is NBA-ready

Banchero’s midrange shooting was immediately on display when Duke beat Kentucky in the season opener back in Nov. Banchero went 7-for-8 on two-point shots, with most of them coming from about 17-feet away.

Banchero loves to use a jab step to keep defenders off balance. It’s easy to envision NBA teams using him in Horns sets and allowing him to fire from midrange look to help establish his scoring.

Banchero can also get into his dribble pull-up game from midrange. While his numbers weren’t amazing on non-rim twos — he was 72-of-188 (38.3 percent) on the season — he’s clearly comfortable and confident in that part of the floor.

Banchero can score in the post

Banchero doesn’t shy away from contact in the post. Post-ups accounted for 15.2 percent of his offense this year, per Synergy Sports, which was his third most popular play type behind spot-ups and isolations (both at about 20 percent). He ranked in the 74th percentile of the country in post scoring efficiency.

Banchero does a good job of knowing when he gets a matchup he can bully in the post. He typically doesn’t waste time pounding the ball down low, instead making decisive movements and lowering his shoulder to create the space he needs for a look at the basket.

Doubling Banchero in the post feels like it only works to his advantage. He’s agile enough to quickly switch into his face-up game, and his combination of height plus soft touch allows him to hit shots over contests.

He can also make the easy pass to kick out to an open shooter when he sees the double come in the post:

His ability to hit tough post fadeaways should be a weapon in late shot clock situations and in the playoffs when the game slows down. There’s really nothing the defense can do about this.

Banchero can be a factor in transition

The transition numbers were middling for Banchero this season — he scored in the 56th percentile of the country on such plays — but he has the tools to be more effective in the open floor. He’s a good rebounder and feels comfortable pushing the ball down the court himself after grabbing a board.

When he gets a full head of steam, there aren’t many players who can stop him from finishing through contact at the rim.

Banchero’s ability to space the floor will be a major swing factor

Three-point shooting will be one of the biggest question marks for Banchero in the draft. He went 42-for-126 from three this year, good for 33.3 percent from deep. He finished in the 43rd percentile on spot-up opportunities this year, per Synergy Sports, which grades out as average.

Being able to space the floor for his teammates will be crucial for Banchero’s success. While the numbers aren’t particularly encouraging — especially compared an amazing shooter in Jabari Smith and a good one in Chet Holmgren — there is reason to believe in Holmgren’s shot moving forward. He does a good job relocating off the ball, and stepping into shots when he knows he has a clean look.

Banchero also likes to fire threes in transition or semi-transition. His height helps him shoot over close-outs. While he doesn’t have the quickest release, it’s a good sign for him to be taking and making above the break threes at this point in his development.

After this feed to A.J. Griffin in the Sweet 16 against Texas Tech’s No. 1 defense, Banchero does a good job recognizing he needs to space to the corner when Griffin puts the ball on the floor. After two dribbles, Griffin hits Banchero with a pass that is slightly off target, but he gathers it and drains the shot with ease.

Banchero’s preference to take midrange shots over threes at Duke is a bit reminiscent of Tatum’s freshman year under Coach K. Tatum took 32.1 percent of his field goal attempts from three and made 34.2 percent of them. Banchero takes 25.5 percent of his shots from midrange, and makes 33.3 percent.

It’s unlikely Banchero will develop into a legitimate pull-up three assassin in the NBA the way Tatum has, but just improving his catch-and-shoot stroke a little bit would go a long way. Banchero going 8-of-15 from three in Duke’s march to the Final Four is a big reason why the Blue Devils were able to come out of a stacked West Regional.

Banchero will face questions on the defensive end

Becoming a good NBA defender is about mastering a combination of physicality, intelligence, and communication. For all of his physical gifts, there are a few questions about how Banchero translates on the defensive end. His relatively average 7’1 wingspan limits his positional versatility. He’s not an explosive leaper off the floor. Scouts will also wish he was a little faster moving backwards.

Still, Banchero has the tools to be an above-average NBA defender eventually. He’s usually in the right position, and simply takes up a lot of space in the lane with his big frame. Teams will probably play him at the four and use him as a weakside roamer who can dart in to protect the rim when he needs to.

Banchero is going to have to get more technically sound on the defensive fundamentals, particularly when closing out on shooters. He’s not the type of defender who is going to clean up other people’s mistakes, but he should be able to execute his coach’s scheme. The big question for whatever team lands the No. 1 pick is if Banchero’s shot creation outweighs Holmgren’s elite defense and Smith’s elite shooting.

Why Paolo Banchero should go No. 1 in the 2022 NBA Draft

Whichever team wins the lottery is going to have a tough decision on their hands. Banchero, Smith, and Holmgren are all seen as contenders for the No. 1 overall pick. There’s also Jaden Ivey, the sophomore guard from Purdue’s whose game feels built for the league.

It won’t be an easy choice. Banchero is likely the worst shooter and worst defensive player of the top trio. The concerns about his lack of quick decision-making are real — plenty of those clips above show him holding the ball for longer than any coach would like. His game just doesn’t translate as seamlessly into ‘role player’ duties as the other top prospects.

Still, most teams picking at the top of the draft will want to find their A1 star, and Banchero has a greater chance to turn into that than anyone else in this class. Believing in Banchero as the No. 1 pick comes down to believing in his shot creation. I’m buying it for a few reasons:

  • He’s already one of the better 6’10+ ball handlers around
  • He’s already one of the better 6’10+ passers around
  • He’s the best post scorer of the bunch
  • He’s the best midrange scorer of the bunch
  • He has the frame to play through contact and be a consistent free throw generator

It also feels like Banchero will shoot it better than 33 percent from deep given his form and confidence. If he can get up to 36 percent or so in the league on decent volume, mixing in pull-ups with spot-ups, he’s going to be very difficult to defend.

Even if teams aren’t buying Banchero is a true primary initiator, there’s plenty of value in having a great shot creator as your No. 2 star. Banchero could be really good in a Jaylen Brown or Brandon Ingram-type role next to another stud. Brown is of course significantly more athletic and Ingram is longer, but Banchero is bigger and a better passer than either. Paolo could turn out to be a great primary option, but even if he doesn’t he should still be an impactful star.

The Rockets, Blazers, Pacers, Thunder, and Spurs would be great fits for Banchero. Teams like the Pelicans and Magic could easily decide that Smith or Holmgren fit better on their current roster. The Pistons would have to determine if Banchero holds the ball too much to play next to Cade Cunningham. There will be plenty of fun questions at the top of the draft regardless of how the order shakes out.

All things considered, Banchero is our top pick for most teams, just as he’s been since July. Here’s the mock draft we published just before the start of the NCAA tournament. We’ll have a new one next week:

2022 NBA mock draft, pre-tournament

Pick

Team

Player

From

Position

Age

Pick

Team

Player

From

Position

Age

1 Houston Rockets Paolo Banchero Duke Forward Freshman
2 Orlando Magic Chet Holmgren Gonzaga Forward/Big Freshman
3 Detroit Pistons Jabari Smith Jr. Auburn Forward/Big Freshman
4 Oklahoma City Thunder Jalen Duren Memphis Center Freshman
5 Indiana Pacers Jaden Ivey Purdue Guard Sophomore
6 Sacramento Kings AJ Griffin Duke Wing Freshman
7 San Antonio Spurs Keegan Murray Iowa Forward Sophomore
8 Portland Trail Blazers Johnny Davis Wisconsin Guard Sophomore
9 Portland Trail Blazers (from Pelicans) Tari Eason LSU Forward Sophomore
10 New York Knicks Ben Mathurin Arizona Guard Sophomore
11 Memphis Grizzlies (from Lakers) Jeremy Sochan Baylor Forward Freshman
12 Washington Wizards Kennedy Chandler Tennessee Guard Freshman
13 Charlotte Hornets TyTy Washington Kentucky Guard Freshman
14 Atlanta Hawks Kendall Brown Baylor Guard Freshman
15 Oklahoma City Thunder Patrick Baldwin Milwaukee Forward Freshman
16 Houston Rockets Ochai Agbaji Kansas Wing Senior
17 San Antonio Spurs Jaden Hardy G League Guard Freshman
18 Minnesota Timberwolves Blake Wesley Notre Dame Guard Freshman
19 Indiana Pacers MarJon Beaucamp G League Wing Freshman
20 San Antonio Spurs Nikola Jovic Serbia Forward Born
21 Denver Nuggets Dyson Daniels G League Wing Born
22 Chicago Bulls Mark Williams Duke Center Freshman
23 Brooklyn Nets Caleb Houstan Michigan Wing Freshman
24 Memphis Grizzlies (from Jazz) Walker Kessler Auburn Center Sophomore
25 Dallas Mavericks Malaki Branham Ohio State Guard Freshman
26 Milwaukee Bucks EJ Liddell Ohio State Forward Junior
27 Miami Heat Max Christie Michigan State Guard Freshman
28 Golden State Warriors Jean Montero Overtime Elite Guard Born
29 Memphis Grizzlies Harrison Ingram Stanford Wing Freshman
30 Oklahoma City Thunder Bryce McGowens Nebraska Wing Freshman

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