Paolo Banchero did not need to make a statement. His credentials for his rookie season have been nearly unimpeachable.
Yet, it is March, and everyone gets a bit bored with the same narratives. Someone was going to try to wriggle their way into the discussion, even in a race that seemed like a runaway. Everybody loves some conflict. Every team’s fan base should support their guys.
And Banchero’s little shooting slump in February seemed to re-open the door for some discussion about the award.
So let this past week — and the consistency even when Banchero is struggling to score — close the door to any discussion.
Paolo Banchero still has a lot to work on and improve upon as the season comes to a close. But the Orlando Magic forward should have closed the door on the Rookie of the Year Award.
With a 20-point second half, including eight fourth-quarter points in a 29-point effort, in the Orlando Magic’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday and then a 16-point third quarter on his way to a 31-point effort in Friday’s win over the Charlotte Hornets.
Statement made. And probably case closed for Rookie of the Year, if it was not already.
So do not let anyone try to entice you with a headline suggesting the Rookie of the Year race is close. It is not.
Banchero is a cut above the other rookies’ performances this year. And even his worst days seem to be a whole lot better than anything most other rookies produce.
The plain fact is while other rookies are making impacts on playoff-level teams with efficiency like Keegan Murray or are putting up crazy defensive numbers like Walker Kessler or have improved their statistics over the course of the year like Jaden Ivey or have been super sixth men and embraced their role like Bennedict Mathurin, nobody is dealing with the same pressure and defensive focus that Paolo Banchero is dealing with.
Banchero not only checks boxes for his statistical output over the rest of the rookie class, he also just looks like the best player in this draft class.
And even with a down month in February, Banchero is still producing and learning.
Banchero leads all rookies averaging 19.9 points per game, three points per game clear of Mathruin’s average in second. His 6.6 rebounds per game are fourth among all rookies too. And his 3.6 assists per game are third among rookies for good measure. There just are not any rookies contributing in so many places than Banchero.
Banchero now has five 30-point games this season. No other rookie has more than two (that would be Mathurin, the likely runner-up for the award). Banchero also has 31 games with 20 points or more, seven clear of Mathurin for most in the league.
It is easy to reduce the Rookie of the Year Award simply to which rookie scores the most. That is a typical indicator for who wins the award — although the leading scorer among rookies has not won Rookie of the Year in each of the past three seasons (Scottie Barnes, LaMelo Ball and Ja Morant over Cade Cunningham, Anthony Edwards and Zion Williamson).
But clearly, this is something different. And the Magic certainly feel like they have a future star in Banchero they can fully invest in.
The award should be wrapped up, but Banchero still needs to finish the season strong.
As Steve Aschburner notes in his Rookie Ladder for NBA.com, at this stage in previous Rookie of the Year races non-winners appeared to lead the way before strong pushes from other players led them to rise.
That is why Banchero’s frustrating February seemingly kept the door open — 16.6 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game and 37.4/3.0/71.1 shooting splits. But even those numbers were strong among his peers.
In February, Paolo Banchero still ranked second in scoring (behind Malaki Branham) and fourth in rebounding (behind three traditional centers in Walker Kessler, Jalen Duren and Mark Williams).
Nobody should take how special Banchero’s season has been for granted. He is truly looking comfortable in ways that rookies do not look comfortable. And the areas he is looking uncomfortable in are the areas that stars have to learn how to handle — dealing with double teams, understanding when to search for their own shot and impose themselves on games and ultimately building the team toward winning.
The argument against Banchero might be that he is performing this well on a team near the bottom of the standings.
But that forgets the Magic have gone 22-17 with Banchero as their leading scorer since Dec. 7 (a span that is nearly half of the season). At this point, the league should consider the Magic to be essentially a .500 team. This is not the same group that started 5-20.
Still, the larger point remains Banchero needs a strong finish to the season. That was clear too as he looks ahead to the rest of his season. He has talked openly about going through the rookie wall he is clearly struggling with and trying to break through it.
He has made expected mistakes as a rookie, but his shot has come and gone. It was expected he might struggle with his outside shot (although not this bad where he made only one of his previous 33 attempts before Friday’s game).
On top of this, he is at the top of every scouting report and is seeing tons of double teams that he has had to learn how to diagnose. This growth has come in fits and stops.
His detractors will surely note the Magic have a -4.5 net rating with Banchero on the floor (compared to -2.5 net rating overall). This is a product of Banchero’s rookie miscues but also the struggles the whole starting group has gone through.
The Magic have gone as Banchero has gone for much of the season. When he plays well, the Magic typically play a whole lot better. And the team’s hopes of making a push for the Play-In will likely fall on Banchero rediscovering his efficiency.
That is what made this past week so tantalizing. While he struggled against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday (his nine points in that game marked just the fourth game of the season with fewer than 10 points), he put his foot down in the team’s two wins.
He showed the ability to take over games and win them. That is ultimately what matters.
That should alone show the kind of impact he can still have. All anybody really wants to see from rookies is a level of consistency and glimmers of what they can be. The Magic have certainly seen that from Banchero. They are happy to let him experiment and learn from his mistakes. They still have that room to grow.
For every player, the end of this season not only represents a chance to make a postseason push but to set the table for the offseason. Banchero surely already understands his need to improve his jumper and his overall defensive awareness. But he has already established himself well as a future player in the NBA.
Aside from Banchero completely falling off the face of the earth or another rookie going on a 50-point heater to close the season, the Rookie of the Year award is wrapped up. Banchero will be taking home the award.
That is not really up for debate.