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Q&A: Budding Magic star Paolo Banchero continues to grow in 2nd season

Following their young forward's lead, Orlando is off to a strong start in pursuit of its 1st playoff appearance since 2020.

Sacramento’s Paolo Banchero has improved as a shooter and defender in Year 2.

For a full season, Paolo Banchero’s ups and downs with the Orlando Magic were tracked constantly, a finger on his professional pulse via the Kia Rookie Ladder here at and on other sites that rank or monitor the league’s newcomers.

Now that he’s in his second season … what, we’re not supposed to pay attention anymore?

Fact is, Banchero is a young leader on a Magic team in ascendance. He has improved overall from his Kia Rookie of the Year production, not so noticeably in counting numbers but as a shooter and as a defender.

He is averaging 19.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists, while making 47.7% of his shots overall and 45.5% of his 3s. He ranks first among the Class of 2022 in scoring, field goals and 3pt%, a leader for any mythical Sophomore of the Year honor.

More important to Orlando, Banchero has responded in clutch moments. He hit a game-winner in the final seconds recently at Chicago, just three days after his 21st birthday. On Tuesday against Denver, he scored 23 points, including a 3-pointer that put the Magic in front with 1:49 left against the defending NBA champs.

Afterward, he and his teammates celebrated in the spirit of the week.

At 10-5, the Magic finds itself in a four-way tie for second place in the East, taking on conference leader Boston in a Black Friday matinee at Amway Center (2:30 ET, NBA TV). The game has the bonus of being an East Group C clash in the In-Season Tournament, with Orlando poised to leapfrog the Celtics in the group standings with a victory.

Banchero spoke with during his team’s recent stayover in Chicago: Did you make it a point to come into this season showing improvements in certain areas?

Paolo Banchero: For sure. Every season for me, from high school to college, when the offseason comes you’ve got something you want to attack and get better at. I had a list of things I wanted to improve on coming into Year 2.

Your coach, Jamahl Mosley, has cited your defense as one of those.

Definitely. I watched a lot of film over the summer. My defense was something I was frustrated with. Not every game but there’d be games and instances where I knew I could be a lot better. Guys are really big in the pro game. You can work on defense, but a lot of it is being in better shape. And understanding positioning, where you’re supposed to be on the court. That comes from watching film. Studying the game.

How far do you want to take this as a defender? All-Defense consideration some day?

Yeah, eventually. I don’t see any reason to limit myself. I have the physical tools and the smarts to be able to do it. It’s a mindset, game in, game out, committing to being as good on that end as on the offensive end. I think I’ve improved this year but I’m continuing to learn.

It’s good to hear that you targeted specific skills. Some guys say “everything” when you ask about areas to improve, then wind up only marginally better at anything.

That’s just how I’ve always been. I’ve always been versatile, being able to do a lot of things on the court. I’ve always tried to find stuff I’m not as good at and get better, whether it’s shooting or defense, whether it’s nuances, making a certain read or having a [shooting] spot on the floor, anything like that. I try to attack it and get better at it.

The day you can’t find anything, your worries are over.

[Laughs] Hopefully that day comes, right?

So why are you shooting better?  

That’s always been a priority for me. Getting my shot better. More consistent. Put in a lot of work over the summer. Watched a lot of film on that too, watching some of my better shooting stretches through my rookie year and then some of my slumps, and thinking “What do I notice that’s different? What can I adjust?”

Your team is one of the league’s youngest, with 11 players who have been in the NBA for three seasons or less and nine guys aged 24 or younger. What sort of maturation do you see from last season?

I think everyone has raised the level of their seriousness and commitment. Not saying it wasn’t like that last year, but I think everyone being back and being healthy, that’s having some motivation to be in the playoffs and compete in the East. You can just feel the elevated sense of urgency. It’s been good so far and we’ve been battling. Obviously, we’ve got some stuff to clean up but I think the effort has been there every day.

What is the short-term challenge of big man Wendell Carter Jr. being out after hand surgery?

It’s a huge challenge. He brings so much for the team offensively and defensively. Cleans up a lot of stuff, covers for a lot of guys. We’ve got to try our best to pick it up and help each other. When he’s out, obviously we’re not as good. But we can still win games and be effective.

You guys lost 120-119 to Atlanta in Mexico City earlier this month. How did you like that?

That was interesting. I had never been to Mexico before. The game was super-exciting. The crowd was great, the atmosphere was awesome. But the elevation there was really tough. I didn’t know much about that until the day of the game. I mean, it’s about 4,000 feet higher than Denver, something like that [7,349 feet above sea level vs. Denver’s 5,280]. And you feel it. It kind of felt like my legs were stuck in mud through the whole game. But we still had a chance to win.

Any thoughts on the In-Season Tournament?

It’s a little different. I think there’s an intensity there for both teams. The courts are different, feel a little different as well. I wouldn’t say it was too much to make a difference [in play], but I noticed it for sure.

As reigning Rookie of the Year, what are your impressions so far of Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren?

We haven’t played either of them yet but they’ve both had some good starts. The Thunder are playing really well right now and, being in my draft class, I’ve known Chet for a while. It’s good to see him out there and having success.

He didn’t play but was around his team all last season. Do you think he benefited from that?

Oh, 100 percent. I think that’s why he started so well. He had a whole year to learn and see from afar and take it all in. Practices, games, travel. And kind of calibrate it, see how he would adjust to this first year playing. He has fit in seamlessly with that team. He was a top pick for a reason, so you knew he was going to be good, now he’s proving it.

And Wembanyama?  

I saw him in Vegas and I was taken aback at first at how tall he really is. It’s a sight to see. Just some of the stuff I’ve been seeing, him doing at that size, is unique. I think he, Chet and Bol Bol are the only over-7-foot guys that I’ve seen move that way. He’s even taller than those two guys.

You’re staying three days in Chicago for two games on this trip and you’ve got two consecutive games in Boston in December. How do you deal with these road stands?

This year, this early in the season, I’ve been making more of an effort to get out with my teammates or with a friend, whoever it is, maybe my family in town. Just get out of the hotel, go to dinner, go sightseeing or a movie or go shopping. Last year I found myself just camping out in the room all day. Sometimes it gets tough when you’re not interacting with everybody. That’s something this year I want to eliminate.

My grandmother is here and one of my close friends [too]. My grandmother lives in Seattle but she has some friends who live in Chicago, so this is a game that she wanted to come see. Her being up there, Orlando is about the farthest she could go to see one of our home games. This way, she sees some of her friends and gets to see me play.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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