The Orlando Magic are, at times, at a loss for words when it comes to Paolo Banchero.
The presumptive Rookie of the Year (it feels safe to call him that at this point because, despite some great play from Bennedict Mathurin and Walker Kessler, they are just not in the same league as this post is going to suggest) has just continued to play impressive basketball.
Even when he is slumping or struggling in some areas, he is still able to put up points. At this point, fans are not viewing him as a rookie. He has far surpassed the level of play that you would expect from a rookie player. He is getting judged as the All-Star he seems destined to become.
Teammates are much the same way.
When veterans Wendell Carter and Gary Harris were asked about Paolo Banchero hitting the rookie wall following the Orlando Magic’s win over the Indiana Pacers — a game where he scored 23 points on 6-for-14 shooting — both kind of looked at each other and laughed.
Paolo Banchero has surpassed anything anyone could have expected for a rookie. The Orlando Magic forward is facing double teams that only stars typically see.
There is no rookie wall with Banchero. If anything, the Magic are trying to get Banchero to realize just how good he is already.
"“Just everything. He’s hungry. He wants to be great. He’s willing to learn,” Harris said after Wednesday’s win over the Pacers. “He wants to be coached. He’s taking it all on the fly. He’s 20 years old and this is a lot for him. Halfway through the season, me personally, I’ve never seen anybody come into the league like he has come into the league. Just how locked in, focused and mature he is. He is already special.”"
Banchero’s stats are unassailable. He is averaging 20.5 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game and 3.7 assists per game so far this season with an effective field goal percentage of 47.4 percent from the floor and a true shooting percentage of 54.6 percent true shooting percentage. These are not great numbers by All-Star standards, but still fantastic for a rookie playing at such volume.
He has gone through the normal ups and downs that you would see with a rookie. Struggle is essential to the rookie experience. But the Magic are leaning on their rookie to be a big part of the offense. Defenses know this and have tailored their schemes to stop him.
Shift in scheme
There is undeniably a shift within Paolo Banchero though. Or rather there is a shift in how defense sare attacking him.
Past the midpoint of the season, opponents are certainly not treating Banchero as a rookie. He is starting to see more and more double teams and more and more schemes designed specifically to stop him. And like any rookie, Banchero has succeeded and struggled in how he attacks those double teams.
"“Never seen a rookie like him with my own eyes,” Harris said after Wednesday’s win over the Pacers. “The kid is amazing. He’s good how calm he is with the double teams like a seasoned vet out there. It’s fun to be on the court with him and share the court with him.”"
Reminder, Gary Harris played alongside a rookie Nikola Jokic. Their passing and development are very different. But Harris has seen some of the best in the league in their early years. This is not praise that should go unnoted.
How Banchero has handled these double teams has been the most encouraging development for him.
Scenarios like this one are becoming commonplace for Banchero. He catches the ball on a screen and roll and the New Orleans Pelicans have pre-rotated to cover it. They send an immediate double toward Banchero before he has time to gather and survey.
Banchero uses his strength and his size to see over the defense. He is able to hold the ball long enough for the offense to reset itself.
Harris is a smart player here. He sees his man in CJ McCollum going to double Banchero and he immediately flares out to the opposite corner. To a lesser passer, this may not be the right play. It may be better for him to short roll or occupy the empty space underneath the basket especially with Wendell Carter staying in the paint.
But Banchero is such a gifted passer, he has the strength to fire the pass to the other end of the court on time and on target, giving Harris the chance to hit the shot. This was not the only instance where Banchero was able to find Harris in the weakside corner off a low-post double team.
These are advanced reads and difficult plays for any player to make, especially for a rookie.
"“His teammates trust him and he trusts them to be in the right spot,” Jamahl Mosley sad after Wednesday’s win over the Pacers. “A lot of those passes are skip passes to the corner. We talk about our spacing. Just being able to find and see over the defense and understand how they are playing him.”"
Banchero’s passing was an underrated ability coming out of the draft process. And his ability to break double teams by making these reads and quick decisions out of double teams is ultimately going to loosen those double teams.
The entire focus
But teams are putting their entire defensive focus on Paolo Banchero. And he has to continue to find his ways to score to be successful against it.
This is where he struggles still.
Banchero’s greatest weakness so far might be his penchant for settling for shots. Here he is in a tough spot. Bam Adebayo has switched onto him giving him a big body that would be difficult to get past. Another defender has crept up to wall him off should he try to drive right.
Banchero is right to try to attack this quickly but instead of absorbing the double team and giving Markelle Fultz the chance to relocate to drag Victor Oladipo away or give him an outlet to pass to the corner, he takes the quick shot.
Then again, this is not so bad of a read. With Bam Adebayo guarding him, Paolo Banchero knows Wendell Carter will have a smaller player underneath the basket for the rebound. Carter scores the putback. This ends up being a very successful possession.
"“He just gets the game of basketball,” Wendell Carter said after Wednesday’s win over the Pacers. “He’s not a selfish guy. When the double comes, he knows to give it up. At the same time, we are at our best when he’s aggressive. He understands that. He understands that a lot of weight on him being the number one pick. But he is so calm and collected when he is out there.”"
He is still a rookie. And these double teams are designed to take the ball out of his hands. They are largely working as Banchero has had to find other places to find his points — whether that is driving off hand-offs, cuts or in transition. These will all be important parts of his shot diet as he continues to learn to play against double teams.
Improving his reads
There are certainly still things for him to learn. And defenses are going to continue to throw bodies at him — often two to the ball when he sets up in the post and then another in help-side behind them — to limit his effectiveness and ability to get downhill where he is much more difficult to stop.
Paolo Banchero will have to continue to get better making reads and seeing these defenses as they happen just as his teammates will need to adjust and give him the outlet that will discourage these aggressive defenses.
On this play, Banchero gets the same look as he did against the New Orleans Pelicans in the clip earlier. But this time, Banchero is late to recognize it. He absorbs the double team and picks up the dribble. He actually does a very good job staying strong and using his pivot foot to create space and see the rest of the court.
But the Magic, as a whole, do not do a good job being available for him. Jalen Suggs and Wendell Carter have both cut into a congested paint. Cole Anthony went away and has been picked up by Victor Oladipo in help. And Bol Bol is floating along the perimeter.
This is where the Magic’s need for more knockdown shooters is critical in the team’s development. The Heat are not as likely to pack the paint so much if they know there are shooters around. They already seem to know that Banchero is a capable passer out of these situations.
Bnachero ends up turning the ball over here trying to force the pass to Suggs. He simply ran out of time with the trap surrounding him to find another outlet, even if a little more patience might have given him Anthony as an outlet.
This is just another thing for Banchero to study. This is life as a budding star playing his rookie year against an elite defense.
"“That’s a great sign of respect,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after practice on Jan. 19. “I think it’s great they are playing him different ways. He watches film, understanding the different coverages he is going to see. It may take a quarter or two to register it. But as the game goes on he is slowly picking it up.”"
That is the most important point to make. Banchero is going to have his successes and failures against this defense. But the important thing is that he grows from it. This whole season is a growing experience. And no matter how good he is, he still has a lot to learn.
All this tape and all these things to study should make him and the team better as they adjust to how defenses are trying to confuse and come after the rookie forward. The fact he is facing these double teams already is a positive sign in his growth and development.
Banchero though will continue to battle and continue to learn as he goes through his rookie year. And he is already getting better at the highest levels.