ORLANDO - You can debate between Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo for the MVP honor all day and struggle to pick the winner because it’s such a tight race. You can have a Lauri Markkanen versus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander discussion for the MIP award and change your mind a thousand times. You can argue between Brook Lopez, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Evan Mobley for DPOY and end up doing some “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” because, again, it’s another close contest. You might as well spin a wheel for this season’s Sixth Man of the Year, as there are numerous deserving candidates.
But when discussing the Rookie of the Year accolade, the conversation shouldn’t last very long.
Paolo Banchero, the 6-foot-10, 255-pound versatile forward for the Orlando Magic, should be your clear winner. No rebuttal from anyone should follow.
Sure, there are several other very good rookies – many who are currently playing their best basketball of the season. But none have been as good as Banchero from start to now.
Like in any other sport, statistics help measure success. Banchero dominates his peers from a numeric standpoint.
With 11 games remaining, he’s averaging 20.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Only five NBA rookies since 1973-74 averaged 20-plus points, six-plus rebounds, and three-plus assists. One of them was Michael Jordan, widely considered the G.O.A.T., with the others being Walter Davis, Larry Bird, Blake Griffin, and Luka Doncic.
From the jump, Banchero has been this year’s best rookie. He posted 27 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two blocks in Orlando’s first regular season game of the year against the Detroit Pistons, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James as the only No. 1 overall draft picks since 1969-70 to record 25-plus points, five-plus rebounds, and five-plus assists in an NBA debut.
The opposing head coach that night, Dwane Casey, was impressed then and maybe even more impressed when his squad played the Magic a few months later.
“I like him. He’s going to be a monster in our league,” Casey said after the Magic versus Pistons game on Feb. 23 at Amway Center. “He’s going to be a problem. He’s going to be great for our league…I think it’s a great rookie class, with Banchero probably leading the pack right now.”
When the season began, Banchero was only 19 years old. Before turning 20, he had a game in which he tallied 33 points and 16 rebounds against the Sacramento Kings, who have turned out to be one of the best teams in the league this season. It was only the second time in NBA history a teenager recorded 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a game. LeBron, at 18 years, 334 days old, had 33 points and 16 rebounds on Nov. 29, 2003 during a 122-115 double overtime loss against Memphis.
Less than two months later, Banchero went head-to-head against LeBron for the first time, and afterwards, the four-time NBA champion, four-time league MVP, and 19-time All-Star sang the Magic rookie’s praises.
“He has been exceptional,” James said. “Playing great ball. A three-level scorer so far in this league...in the paint, mid-range, and shooting the ball from the outside pretty well. He is just going to keep getting better and better. Every game he will get better and better. Every film session he will get better and better. All these experiences are really good for him on a day-to-day basis. They definitely got a really good one. He is a great kid too. They got a great one here in Orlando.”
So far, Banchero has either led the Magic in scoring or was tied for the team high in scoring 27 times, in rebounding 17 times, and in assists 13 times.
He has scored at least 20 points 35 times. Of all rookies, that’s by far and away the most. Bennedict Mathurin has done it 24 times, Jalen Williams 13 times, and Jaden Ivey 10 times.
Banchero joined Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elvin Hayes, Dominique Wilkins and Grant Hill as the only players to score 20 points or more in each of their first six games.
Banchero also has five 30-plus-point games to this point. Mathurin is the only other rookie with more than one such performance, having done it twice so far.
Several times, he’s come up big in crunch time. One example was on Feb. 27 in New Orleans when he finished with 29 points and made three straight mid-range jumpers down the stretch to help the Magic outlast the Pelicans.
“I thought he took on the challenge,” Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley said after that win. “His teammates trusted him. He and ‘Kelle (Markelle Fultz) had a moment where they understood the matchup they had and they kept going to it. Then obviously his willingness to make the pass at the right times. So again, him trusting his teammates and his teammates trusting him in those moments."
If the season ended today, Banchero would join Shaquille O’Neal as the only rookies in Magic history to average 20-plus points. Only 50 rookies in NBA history have accomplished this, with the most recent players being Zion Williamson, Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, Embiid and Griffin.
Well beyond the numbers, though, Banchero has helped change the culture in Orlando. The Magic have already won seven more games than last year and are 24-22 after starting this season 5-20.
He was named the Kia NBA’s Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December, January, and February. He’s only the second player in Magic history to win the honor in three consecutive months, joining Shaq, who did it four straight times.