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Q&A: Paolo Banchero opens up about his mindset during rookie season

The No. 1 overall pick talks about the bright outlook in Orlando, his strengths and weaknesses on and off the court and his favorite foods.

Magic rookie Paolo Banchero is the only rookie averaging at least 20 ppg this season.

Being the first player selected in the Draft guarantees a fellow the fattest contract of any rookie in his class. It assures him of a significant spotlight and a fistful of headlines, whether good as a measure of his talent and potential or bad for any gaps between inflated expectations and actual performances.

Beyond that, though, little else is promised. Anything more — respect, individual achievements, winning, award consideration — has to be earned. That’s why Paolo Banchero has kept grinding for the Orlando Magic, with the goal of having his lofty Draft status translate into an all-around successful season for him and his team.

In hindsight, the Magic’s decision to select Banchero out of Duke with the first overall selection looks like a no-brainer. While No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren got eliminated from this season’s rookie field by a preseason foot injury and No. 3 Jabari Smith Jr. has labored as part of Houston’s kiddie corps, Banchero has thrived.

He has been the tent-pole guy Orlando needed, dropping into their roster of promising youngsters to almost complete the picture. A 6-foot-10 product of Seattle by way of one season at Duke, the 20-year-old Banchero has led the Magic in scoring 25 times, in rebounding 16 times and in assists 11 times. He already has a veteran’s size and most of the time a veteran’s demeanor too.

Paolo Banchero has established himself as a centerpiece player in Orlando.

Almost from the start, Banchero has blocked out other Class of 2022 candidates, holding onto the top rung of the Kia Rookie Ladder. He is considered the favorite in the fast-approaching Rookie of the Year balloting, with team impact as perhaps his top selling point: At 27-39 heading into Thursday’s game against Utah, Orlando already has won six more games than a year ago, with 16 more opportunities.

“It’s scary, it’s still so early in his career and he’s already this good,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said of the rookie. “He’s going to keep getting better and better. Off the court, he’s just a cool dude. I think he fits in with everybody perfectly.”

Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo has seen Banchero up close three times, with the Orlando forward scoring 20, 9 and 20 points against the Bucks. In the March 1 middle meeting at Fiserv Forum, Antetokounmpo got up close with Banchero’s size, too, stepping in to draw a charge and feeling the ooph! of it.

“I didn’t know he was 6-10, 250 pounds. He’s big,” Antetokounmpo said. “I was 191 and they said 195 or 202, because I was too skinny. They had to lie, basically. That was another John Hammond pick. [Hammond, the Magic’s GM, held that spot in Milwaukee when Antetokounmpo arrived as the No. 15 pick in 2013.]

“He reminds me a lot of Jabari [Parker]. He’s trying to play in the mid-range a lot. … He can dominate in the paint, he can shoot over guys, he can shoot threes. Sky’s the limit for him.”

Nothing is guaranteed, though. Of the last 17 players selected No. 1, for instance, only six ended up being voted Rookie of the Year. So before that recent game in Milwaukee, Banchero spoke with about the triumphs and the challenges of his first NBA season, while shedding a little light on his personality.

Editor’s note: This 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited. Rookies want to get a toehold in this league, then establish themselves in their teams’ rotations and pecking order. The step after that is a big one — impacting winning. It seems as if you’re at that point.

Banchero: That’s been a priority for me my whole life. Every level I’ve played, I’ve wanted to be real competitive. I come off as a mild-mannered guy but in my head, I want to win more than anything. So coming here, that was the biggest thing. Us being bottom of the league last year. And even before I got here, you didn’t think much of the Magic since Dwight Howard. I wanted to kill that narrative as soon as I could.

As a group, we have great respect around the league, among our opponents. I’ll bet if you asked any team that’s played us, they wouldn’t say we’re an easy team to go against at all. I’m just trying to do what I can to help. We’ve got all kinds of players. We believe we can win. That we can beat anybody in the league.

Rival teams’ announcers working your games have said more than once, “The Magic are going to be a problem next season.”

As a competitor, you never want to be looked at as the easy team or the easy player, the easy matchup. You want to have respect around the league. But that’s not given — no one’s going to hand us respect. So it’s on us to earn it every night. I think we’ve been doing that — we’ve had some big-time wins. We’ve also had some heart-breaking losses. We haven’t had too many [blowout losses]. Teams are getting our best shot almost every night.

Did you catch teams sleeping on you guys?

I wouldn’t say now. Since the break, I think every team has been locked in on us. But definitely early in the season. When we went on our winning streak of seven or eight games, the way we were beating teams, you could kind of tell. Teams were coming out sluggish. Or when you’d beat them, they’d have kind of a funny look on their faces. Losing to the Magic?! I think that’s slowly starting to go away, with teams realizing how good we can be.

Paolo Banchero posted a career high 33 points & 16 rebounds vs. the Kings on Nov. 5.

What is the dynamic, being a top pick and dropping into a young, competitive group? Everybody’s eager to make his mark – are you rivals, pals, some combination?

It was pretty welcoming. Starting with [Las Vegas] Summer League, the whole team came out there and we all went to dinner together. They came to the games and watched me play, and they were all very supportive. Once the preseason began, we started playing pick-up in August and September. That’s where we went after each other, but it was friendly competition. Definitely healthy.

But no, I think we all pull for each other. We’re all competitors and everyone’s trying to establish themselves, but at the same time, we want to win. The best way to get recognition as a player is to win. As long as we come together and win, I think everyone knows they’re going to get whatever it is they want. Whether that’s recognition or a contract or whatever, winning affects that more than anything else.

I heard that when you were hurt, missing seven games with that sprained left ankle, you had to work to find perspective on that. True?

It was a huge learning experience. That was my first time missing time in my life. College, high school, I never really dealt with injuries. So missing seven games, that was different for me. At first, I wanted to rush back and get my body back as soon as I could. But then you realize that’s not the healthiest thing for your mind or your body. So I took time to relax, took the rehab one day at a time. I missed a road trip, which was hard for me. Just learning how to handle myself and stay healthy with my mind and my body. If those two things are out, you’re going to struggle.

Here in Milwaukee, Giannis stayed and brought a championship to the Bucks. How driven are you to do that in Orlando?

One hundred percent. Orlando as a city, I love it. It’s sunny. It’s quiet but there’s a lot to do with Disney and all that stuff. Being able to bring the franchise, like, a championship is a No. 1 goal for me and the team. Obviously, that takes years of failing and trying again – it’s not just going to happen overnight, it’s a five- or 10-year process, whatever it is. But I think we’re learning to put the work in. Maybe get there a little quicker.

Have you gotten any feedback from Shaq, the franchise’s first No. 1 pick?

He did reach out one time. I had worn a Shaq vintage T-shirt — pictures of him when he was with Orlando — and he mentioned on social media he appreciated it.

Typically, rookies only hear whistles when they’re called for fouls. How are you able to get to the line so often as a newcomer?

I think it’s just because of how aggressive I am on the court. I don’t drive to draw fouls, I drive to score. So when you do that, I feel you have a higher chance of getting fouled than when you look for a foul. Just trying to be aggressive and using my strength and my size to my advantage. Be relentless in attacking the rim — I think that’s my mindset. And I try to be nice to the refs, do nothing crazy. Be a guy who’s easy to officiate. There are some guys who I don’t get calls from, but there are a lot of games where I am able to get to the line.

So how did you survive a 1-for-33 month from the 3-point line in February?

[Laughs] How do you survive that? That’s something I’ve been talking to my coaches about. I’ve never been in a slump like that, shooting-wise. Shooting is one of the biggest things I need to work on. You’re only going to get better at shooting by getting shots up. You also want to keep the defense honest, so whether it’s going in or not, you’ve got to shoot it. But I’m confident they will go in. So No. 34 is going to go up — it might go in, it might not but I’m going to shoot 35 and shoot 36 and eventually, that 1-for-33 is going to look a lot better.

Are you gaining confidence from that distance?

I’ve had my stretches through college and things. You just have up-and-down stretches. Earlier in the year, I had maybe a stretch of shooting 45% in December [18-of-39, 46.2% from Dec. 11-23]. That just shows you can be up or you can be down. You have to keep shooting and keep believing. You put in the work so when you shoot it, you’re confident it has a chance.

Coming into the league, people tossed out comps for you such as Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony. What did you think of that?

I’ve heard a lot of comparisons with players I’m similar to. I think it’s all fun. I’m a new face in the league so people see me and say, “Oh, he plays like this guy. He plays like that guy.” It’s fun to see what people think of your game. But I’m not just like anybody. I’ve watched a lot of great players in my life and taken stuff from some of them, but I try to have my own flavor and add my own stuff. So that 20 years from now, people say, “Oh yeah, that guy plays like Paolo.”

Paolo Banchero goes off for 31 points in a big win against Boston in December.

When was the moment this season when things really clicked, in an “I’ve got this” way?

It was really my first 10, 12 games. I had a great start and that’s when I felt I had the hang of it. This is not an easy league by any means, so it’s not just going to be up all the way. I’ve had a lot of downs. But once you experience that, you know you can do it. That was huge for me, keeping that in the back of my head whether I struggled or whatever. You can start how I started or you can go 1-for-30 from three. You’ve got to be able to stay level-headed.

What do you consider your biggest weakness on the court?

I would say my jump shot. I have a respectable jump shot but I wouldn’t say it’s the strongest part of my game. That’s driving the ball, being aggressive. Creating for others is another strength. But shooting is something I’m going to work on getting better at my entire career. I think that’s what separates the good and great players.

How about off the court, your biggest weakness?

Chocolate-chip cookies. I’ve been really strict trying to be on my nutrition — I got a chef and all. But cookies and ice cream, I find myself always going back to that. Something that was a weakness but I’ve got a lot better at is sleep. Getting the right amount of sleep was something I struggled with in college and through the summer, but since the season started, I’ve been locked in on trying to get the right amount of sleep and staying rested.

Seems like the medical and training staffs, and all the knowledge about nutrition and sleep, have taken some of the fun out of NBA life for you guys.

You can get away with eating bad for a while — maybe 10 years, maybe a month — but it’s going to catch up with you.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten so far?

I’ve gotten a lot. I’d probably just go back to what Jayson [Tatum, fellow Duke product] told me before I got here, that, “Being a high draft pick, you’re going to have a lot of stuff handed to you. But as far as on the floor, you’re going to have to go take it.” Whatever you want, you’re going to have to take. Just keeping that in the back of my head. He told me, “Guys are going to come for you, being from Duke, being a high draft pick. Guys see that, guys know that.”

What do you make of Tatum’s season in Boston?

I think he’s one of the best players in the NBA right now. Shoot, he’s coming off a Finals appearance. He’s starting to hit that real prime. He’s been a Top 15, Top 10 player, but I think he’s starting to reach that Top 5 or Top 3 status. It’s fun seeing the work he’s put in and it’s showing. I’m sure he thinks he can get a lot better.

What is your go-to meal?

Probably pasta. Shrimp and chicken fettuccine before the games. Not like right before the games but for lunch.

Favorite place on Earth?

Outside of the gym? I’d say Seattle, where I’m from. Right at home.

You’ve got one shot at a time machine. Where do you take it?

I’d probably go back to when my Mom used to play for the Huskies. [Editor’s note: Rhonda Smith-Banchero was a University of Washington star, scoring 2,948 points before playing professionally in the ABL, WNBA and overseas.] Go watch some of her games. Because growing up, every single person I ran into that knew my Mom would just rave about how great she was, how much of a beast she was on the court. I’d love to go back and see it.

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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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