As Paolo Banchero moves toward stardom, the Orlando Magic thrive: The IkoSystem

HOUSTON — As members of the Orlando Magic unwound in the visitors’ locker room following an impressive 116-110 comeback win over the Houston Rockets, one particular teammate tried to exit the room as quickly as possible. Someone was waiting on him outside.

Paolo Banchero emerged from the hallway — all 6-foot-10 of him — still adjusting his shirt while scanning the area. It didn’t take long for him to lock eyes with longtime Magic general manager John Hammond, who was leaning against the wall with a smile on his face.

The two shared an embrace before discussing another strong performance from the rookie and the suddenly red-hot Magic finding their stride as the calendar year concludes. Hammond exuded a strong sense of gratitude and appreciation for the 20-year-old who has quickly become the face of a team and rebuild going according to plan.

It was Hammond, after all, who nestled in his seat inconspicuously in Chicago’s McCormick Place six months ago when deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced that the Magic had won the draft lottery — and their future, which appeared blurry at the time, got a bit more clear. The common conception among league executives and scouts during that period was that Orlando would take Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. at the top of the 2022 draft, with Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Duke’s Banchero heading to Oklahoma City and Houston, respectively.

But these were mere educated guesses and, more importantly, weren’t coming from within the Magic’s brass, which opted to keep things close to its collective vest. Banchero always was their guy.

Six months later, it’s easy to see why. Orlando’s season got off to a rocky start, winning just five of their first 25 games, but the team has since rebounded in stunning fashion, winning eight out of its last 10 outings.

“We’ve been saying from the beginning, understanding we’re close getting over the hump,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley said of the team’s turnaround. “Those are the situations that these guys understand that you just have to stick with that process, the growth. Understanding those close games (and) what those mean later on in the season. It’s just the belief system that these young men are starting to grow into.”

At the apex of Orlando’s recent rise is Banchero, who is in quite the offensive groove. In December, the rookie is averaging 20.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game, all while shooting 37 percent from distance. Banchero even enjoyed a seven-game streak with at least 20 points earlier this month, tying Shaquille O’Neal (Feb. 1993) for the longest such streak by a rookie in Magic history. He’s become the fulcrum of a lengthy, talented Magic squad that is showing glimpses of a well-rounded team — 13th in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency for the month. Banchero looks more comfortable with each game he takes under his belt, which bodes well for his development.

“I’ve been putting in a lot of work,” Banchero told The Athletic. “Whatever I can do to get extra shots, extra work, working on my legs, balance and shot … every shot I take, I’m really confident, and I’m just letting the game come to me. Not trying to force, not trying to press or reach a certain statistical milestone. I’m just trying to go out there and win, and I think that’s been paying off.”

Over the last few years, the Magic have done well by adding young players like Jalen Suggs, Mo Bamba and Franz Wagner, but they always seemed to be missing something: a connector-type player who could merge potential together and was a mismatch nightmare in the half court.

Enter Banchero, a walking Swiss Army knife. From Day 1, the rookie has earned the respect of his teammates and trust from his coaching staff to handle the bulk of Orlando’s offensive duties.

At Duke, Banchero flashed potential of the coveted term “offensive hub,” heliocentric players who have systems built around them tailored to their skill sets. Think Luka Dončić in Dallas, Paul George in Indiana, James Harden when he was in Houston. Banchero is only 20, but he’s utilized in the same manner that household talents are — and has been productive. That’s a remarkable feat.

Player

age

Usage rate (%)

Assists %

28

32.2

31

24

31.3

17.9

33

30.4

22.5

20

28.5

18.8

31

27.9

20.9

27

26.6

16.3

“Just making the right plays, taking the right shots,” Banchero said. “That’s what I try to do. Most of the time, I feel like I do it. The coaches and my teammates put a lot of trust in me. It’s pumped me with confidence to go out there and be myself, play my game. That’s just what I’ve been doing.”

Banchero’s fingerprints are all over Orlando’s offensive DNA in an NBA career that isn’t even 30 games old. Wagner narrowly leads the team in total points and assists but also has played seven more games than the rookie — a testament to his early success, the secret of which lies around the elbows. Banchero says it’s become his “sweet spot” on the floor, although he adds that he’s comfortable getting off a shot or making a play from anywhere else in the half court. The combination of his frame and his handle commands maximum attention from defenders, which naturally opens up opportunities for others around him on the floor.

You just don’t see a ton of 6-foot-10 forwards forcing switches and having the ability to blow by smaller defenders. It’s typically the other way around in the NBA. Keldon Johnson knew it was lunchtime from the moment Banchero screened for Cole Anthony and popped out to the perimeter. He didn’t stand a chance, neither did Zach Collins waiting at the rim. Banchero is too strong, too quick and too skilled for your average defender.

On the other side of the ball is where Banchero’s rookie status shows brightest, with the Magic being a slightly better defensive team with him off the floor versus him on (plus-1.8 points, per Cleaning the Glass). He’s taken ownership of that deficiency, and he has been working to improve.

Banchero is still second on the team in steals and third in blocks behind Bol Bol and Bamba. He’s always going to put in effort, which is the most important tool a coaching staff can work with. He doesn’t hang his head after missed shots and drag his feet down the court; he gets back to try and make something happen. His 7-foot-1 wingspan comes in handy on a routine basis, becoming adept at just putting his hands in the right places and poking balls free to disrupt the offense.

Banchero has goals of being an elite two-way player in the near future, and sequences like this have to give Mosley and his staff hope. All-Star guards are used to feasting on bigger rookies, especially ones not considered to be lockdown threats. But here, he’s able to avoid the switch, stay with Dejounte Murray on the drive and finish the possession with a nice block from behind.

“Just trying to be better and better,” Banchero said. “Trying to accept the challenge every night, every game, every matchup. That’s another thing my coaches and teammates are on me about. At the same time, they’re pumping me with confidence and telling me to be myself on offense. They’re telling me to compete and bring it every day on defense. Just trying to do both of those and be a two-way player.”

Banchero is having a season worthy of Rookie of the Year honors, and the Magic are a direct benefactor. A season that started with them rubbing shoulders with the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets at the bottom of the Eastern Conference now has them within striking distance of a Play-In Tournament spot, just two and a half games behind the 10th-placed Toronto Raptors. This is what the Magic envisioned when they began putting this team together a few years ago, with Banchero now the centripetal force in a young, vibrant, aggressive bunch.

It’s quite different from the life Banchero had before coming into the NBA — the attention, the hype, the expectations — but it’s one he’s becoming accustomed to rather quickly as he and his teammates continue to grow.

“No, not growing up or not two years ago,” Banchero said of expecting the hype. “Once you get drafted and see what’s coming, you do, but I wouldn’t say I expected all this. But it’s been nice. I’m still getting used to it, trying to live my life and stay the same as I’ve always been. It’s been a fun adjustment.”

“Hopefully we can make the playoffs or the Play-In, get there and win Rookie of the Year. That’s my goal.”

(Photo of Jabari Smith Jr. and Paolo Banchero: Erik Williams / USA Today)

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