Paolo Banchero and his quest to keep reaching new heights

Orlando called it. Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley declared practice was ending early. From phones around the gym streaming the night’s live broadcast, Orlando learned TNT was revealing this year’s Western Conference All-Star selections first. So the Magic traveling party huddled into the elevators, hurrying to get back to its Minnesota hotel to hopefully hear Ernie Johnson announce Paolo Banchero as an NBA All-Star for the first time in his young career.

Mosley and Orlando’s PR mainstay, Joel Glass, debated whether the program would cut to commercial in between conferences. Banchero then followed Glass onto the bus, his eyes glued to the small screen between the staffer’s fingers. They squeezed into one of the front rows of the charter together, 30 years of NBA experience shared between Glass and the reigning Rookie of the Year, and yet the two men shared the same jittery anticipation.

“No one called you yet, or something?” Magic veteran Joe Ingles asked from behind Banchero’s headrest.

Banchero shook his braids as he sipped from a water bottle.

Ingles kept prying, ever the class clown, a comic counterbalance to all his expertise and veteran know-how. “You have no idea right now?”

“I got no idea, bruh,” Banchero replied.

“Man,” Ingles cracked, “this kinda could be awkward …”

Yet Orlando’s elder statesman was soon howling for the hotel to switch a lobby television to TNT. When that effort proved futile, the Magic all speed-walked across the carpet into a ballroom that’d been designated for the team. Johnson started rattling off names on screen — from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Donovan Mitchell … from the New York Knicks, Jalen Brunson … — Orlando’s full group had improbably circled around the tables wrapped in gray cloth. “It was pretty suspenseful,” Banchero told Yahoo Sports. And it took calling 23 names in all before Johnson uttered five words that would spark pandemonium among the players.

And from the Orlando Magic …

Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (5) reacts after dunking during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
All-Star Paolo Banchero has Orlando Magic fans rightfully excited. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

They sprayed water on Banchero’s broad shoulders and burly back, dousing him as if he’d won the championship. He could only flop forward in triumph, his arms folded across his chest, before Banchero folded his 6-foot-10 frame into daps and hugs, while much of the Magic’s youthful roster recorded the celebration on their phones like 20-somethings are wont to do. When the room pleaded for Banchero to make a speech, he settled his emotions, placed his hands atop his head and placed a cherry on top of all the camaraderie that’s charged Orlando’s rise (46-34) into this spring’s playoff picture.

“It’s huge for me, but I just feel like it’s for everybody, man,” Banchero told the room. “We just gonna keep building, and everybody gonna accomplish s*** they want to accomplish.”

The Magic are one of the league’s most connected teams, in ballrooms as much as ball games, a key element through their fight for home-court advantage in the opening round of next week’s playoffs. Their full bench finds its feet throughout all four quarters, standing, flexing, barking for one of the grittiest units in the league — third-best in defensive efficiency, according to “We’ve got unselfish players,” Magic forward Franz Wagner told Yahoo Sports. “I think everybody likes to see the other guys succeed.” While the last rebuild in Orlando — when the Magic traded Dwight Howard in 2012 — netted a collection of All-Star talents, the club never found a crown jewel around which to string every piece. This Orlando iteration, this time, has surged in large part due to Banchero’s sophomore strides, with Wagner at his flank, and their consistency headlining the Magic’s act. “When you have two guys that are willing and wanting to make the right play, night in and night out, it does trickle down to the other guys,” Mosley said.

Paolo Banchero headshot
Paolo Banchero
SF - ORL - #5
2023 - 2024 season

For his part, Banchero, 21, has made more than good on his preseason benchmark of making the All-Star Game. He’s on track to be the first player younger than 22 to lead his team in scoring (22.5), rebounding (6.8) and assists (5.3) in NBA history. The only four players younger than 23 to ever pace their team in scoring, rebounding and assists: Michael Jordan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Maurice Stokes and Kevin Garnett. It’s no wonder Banchero now bills as a strong candidate to earn his way onto an All-NBA team.

“Honestly, this year was more … I was trying to be an All-Star,” Banchero told Yahoo Sports. “But if [All-NBA] was to happen, that would be awesome. It’s an exclusive club, you know what I mean?”

“He’s grown so much,” said Mosley. “The recognition of what’s happening. Not just whether he’s started the game off slowly and whether he finds his rhythm and finds his groove. He’s not letting those moments take over. He’s embracing what’s happening in that moment and able to move on to the next thing.”

Take Banchero’s first game back from All-Star Weekend. He’d soaked up the illustrious locker room inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse, collecting signatures from his teammates on his sneakers, but came down with a nasty bug by the time he’d returned from Indianapolis. When the Magic had all reconvened and flew to Cleveland, Banchero’s temperature was 103 degrees before he faced the Cavaliers. He scored just 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting from the field. Orlando still won, moving on to Detroit, yet Banchero’s symptoms only worsened. He received an IV, his first since needing some extra nutrients and fluids at Duke. “It was the sickest I’ve been since I was in the NBA,” Banchero said. Extreme body aches, headaches, coughing, sneezing. “It was rough,” he said. Yet Banchero flashed back to last February, when a nerve injury in his neck sent pain tingling all the way down his right arm, and he shot just 1-of-33 from distance for the month. “That was some adversity,” Banchero said. And that was why the tears rushed down his cheeks after he overcame his slow start against the lowly Pistons to drill a game-winning step-back at the buzzer. “Every year it just gives you perspective, you face new adversity, you just think, ‘I’ve dealt with stuff like this before,’” Banchero said. “You can get through it. It’s not gonna last forever.”

Banchero has come to understand the true lengths of NBA games, his heart beating like a metronome through the full 48 minutes. “You got a lot of opportunities to find [rhythm],” Banchero said. He knows he can finish with 30 points after scoring only five in the opening half if that’s how the game script needs to be rewritten. He knows 100 possessions is plenty of possessions to get going, to get Wagner going, to get Cole Anthony going off the bench and down the line. “This year I’ve really seen how repetitive the NBA is,” Banchero said. “Whether it’s the schedule, the travel, the games. There’s a lot of patterns that I’ve really picked up on. Just remembering those patterns. It goes down to even certain cities and arenas, it’s like the same type of feeling, the same type of game. The New Orleans game was similar to last year’s New Orleans game.”

Last year, the Magic held off a Pelicans late push to win at Smoothie King Center by eight. This year, Orlando did one better, standing tall and fleeing New Orleans with a nine-point victory. Banchero’s greater impact was on full display in the latter win, seeking out second-half opportunities to screen for Wagner instead of the other way around.

“And I’m trying to look for even more of that, too,” Banchero told Yahoo Sports. “Just how teams are loading up and doubling and all that stuff when I do have the ball, it’s just trying to find other ways to create advantages.” He has found chances to screen off the ball as well as on. The Magic know most defenses don’t want to switch a smaller defender onto Banchero’s hulking build. It’s one of the subtleties to Orlando’s guards (Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Markelle Fultz) functioning more like bigs as Banchero and Wagner orchestrate the Magic’s offense. “I think for now, we’re figuring stuff out that people throw at us,” Wagner said. “I think as we just are in different situations with high pressure, I think that will help us a lot. I think the playoffs will show a lot.”

That is the ultimate barometer for how successful this early version of Orlando really is, before the Magic enter an offseason with spending power that many of the league’s rival front offices have already projected will focus on a dynamic shooter like Klay Thompson, or a scorer like Malik Monk, according to league sources. There will be more threats on the floor for Paolo to free with his broad shoulders, as much as he can set them up with his bludgeoning penetration. He learned how to properly set and hold screens this summer while playing for Team USA, getting repetition after repetition in practice as a true center and the national team’s backup five. Those were Banchero’s only minutes throughout July and August and into early September, learning the other side of an offense’s bookend than he’s typically commanded. “I think I got better at that and I’ve been able to use it more this year,” Banchero said.

How many different drinks can you stir with a straw that changes its shape and size and substance? Banchero’s sophomore season, so far, has validated Orlando’s clandestine approach that landed on the Seattle native for its No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. He is a tone-setter, a top dog with a bark that matches his bite, enabling the rest of the pack to find its own howl. “That was something that really took on itself this year. Understanding that it starts with me, it starts with Franz,” Banchero said. “Just everyone understanding their role and how important their role is. We need everybody. There have been games where [Jonathan Isaac] has single-handedly shut down a guy, and it’s lifted us to get a win. There’s been times where I’ve had to score the last 18 points of the game just to keep us afloat. There’s been times where Franz took over. Where Jalen took over. We just need everybody. I think it’s translating into a lot of success.”