ORLANDO - In need of some more reasons why Paolo Banchero was the right choice for the Orlando Magic with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft?
One of them is that he rose to the occasion in Duke’s biggest, most challenging games.
From the get-go, the 6-foot-10, 250-pounder looked like a man among boys.
On college basketball’s opening night, Duke squared off against Kentucky in a battle of the Blue Bloods in the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York. After just a few minutes of action, it was as clear as day that Banchero, one of the nation’s top recruits coming into the season, was the best player on the court. He finished with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, seven rebounds, two steals and just one turnover in a Duke victory.
A little over two weeks later, Duke played against No. 1 ranked Gonzaga at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in the Continental Tire Challenge. All eyes were on this matchup because it featured Banchero and Chet Holmgren, the eventual top two picks in the 2022 draft. There was a stretch in the middle of the first half in which Banchero completely took over. It started with about 13 minutes remaining in the half when Banchero drilled one of his three 3-pointers. He would then make five more shots over the next six minutes, including an AND-1 layup while going right into the chest of the 7-foot Holmgren.
Banchero would end the night with 21 points, five rebounds, two assists and one steal in another victory for the Blue Devils.
In early January, Duke played Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. Early in the game, Banchero was matched up against junior forward Jake LaRavia, acquired by the Memphis Grizzlies after the Minnesota Timberwolves made him the 19th overall pick in the draft. LaRavia, nor anyone else on the Demon Deacons, had an answer for Banchero. On the very first possession, he out-muscled the 6-foot-8, 228-pound LaRavia in the post for an up-and-under layup. Banchero finished with 24 points, five rebounds, one assist and one steal in a lopsided Duke win.
A few days later, Duke hosted NC State, which had a pair of NBA prospects themselves in Dereon Seabron and Terquavion Smith. While Smith opted to withdraw from the 2022 draft and return to school, Seabron signed a two-way contract with the New Orleans Pelicans after going undrafted. Even with those two on the floor, it was Banchero who stole the show, finishing with a game-high 21 points to go along with eight rebounds, four assists, one block and one steal in Duke’s 14th victory of the season.
In the first meeting between rivals Duke and North Carolina on Feb. 5 in Chapel Hill, Banchero’s work on the glass played a big factor in Duke’s win. He amassed a game-high 10 rebounds to go along with scoring 13 points and dishing out two assists.
He filled up the stat sheet in all three of Duke’s ACC Tournament games at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. First against Syracuse, he compiled 10 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and one block. Then against Miami, he had 18 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block. Although the Blue Devils lost to Virginia Tech in the tournament’s title game, Banchero had another terrific performance with 20 points, five rebounds, one assist and one block.
Nobody could stop him in the NCAA Tournament. In the Sweet 16 against Texas Tech, he made the game’s most critical shot. Duke down two with three minutes left, the 19-year-old, with a hand in his face, drilled a go-ahead 3-pointer. Duke would never relinquish the lead.
In the Final Four against UNC, Banchero did all he could to try and keep Duke’s season alive. He posted 20 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocks. But it wasn’t quite enough, as the Tar Heels prevailed in a thriller.
Banchero scored 20-plus points in 15 of Duke’s 39 games in 2021-22, recorded 12 double-doubles and handed out five-plus assists eight times.