ORLANDO - Is Paolo Banchero’s defense overlooked and underrated? Should he be getting more praise for the things he does on that end of the court?
Based on what his Orlando Magic teammate and fellow Duke alum Wendell Carter Jr. has seen at training camp, it appears the answer to those questions is a resounding yes.
“P can guard one through five,” Carter said. “That’s something he probably didn’t get to showcase as much as he could in college. Especially on this team with the optimism and our coaching staff, they are going to try a lot of different defensive schemes. He’s going to definitely get a chance to just showcase how good of a defender he is, and how he can not only get steals, but disrupt shots, clog up the paint, things like that. He’s a helluva defender, and he just wants to win. And that (playing good defense) goes into winning.”
Banchero himself still doesn’t understand why some listed defense as one of his flaws prior to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
“I think I can be great defensively,” he said. “I kind of got a bad rap in college for whatever reason on defense, but I have always been a pretty solid defender my whole life. I feel like I can continue that and keep building on it. That’s something that all the coaches have been on me about – being a great two-way player. Not only being great offensively but bringing the same on the defensive end.”
Sure, it was a small sample size, but one could argue that Banchero, in the two games he appeared in at summer league in Las Vegas in July, was the best defender on the floor. He made things awfully difficult for the opponents he matched up against – which included Houston’s Jabari Smith Jr. and Sacramento’s Keegan Murray, the third and fourth overall picks in the 2022 draft.
He even had a game-saving block on center Neemias Queta in overtime in the victory over the Kings, which preceded his dish to Emanuel Terry for the winning layup.
Pre-draft debate can sometimes lead to unfair judgments about a player’s strengths and weaknesses. While most agreed that Banchero was the best overall offensive player compared to the other top prospects in the 2022 draft, the consensus was that he wasn’t quite as versatile defensively as Chet Holmgren or Smith.
While true that he didn’t block or alter shots the way Holmgren did at Gonzaga or swarm the perimeter like Smith did at Auburn, Banchero made several big defensive plays with the Blue Devils. In fact, that block on Queta in summer league was like a couple swats he had in college. For example, in a critical second-half sequence in a game against Louisville on Jan. 29, Banchero blocked the Cardinals’ Sydney Curry from behind at the rim, which led to a 3-pointer by AJ Griffin, the eventual 16th overall pick in the 2022 draft by the Hawks.
The 6-foot-10, 255-pound Banchero is aware that most of the league’s best players – both now and in NBA history – excelled on both ends. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Larry Bird, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are some examples.
“I don’t want to be known as just an offensive player,” Banchero said. “I want to be a complete player. I want my teammates to be able to count on me on both ends of the floor.”
The Magic have spent much of their time so far at training camp doing defensive drills. As part of that process, they’ve been exploring different lineups that could truly elevate their defensive versatility. One such lineup included four guys 6-foot-10 and above – Banchero, Franz Wagner, Carter, and Bol Bol.
While it’s going to take some time for their offense to jell and grow, what’s clear is that this team has super high defensive potential.
“We have a lot of big bodies who can move really well, a lot of long arms,” the 21-year-old Wagner said. “In theory, that should translate. But it’s all about effort, communication – those kinds of things.”