Orlando Magic’s Paolo Banchero closing with an improved shooting kick

Paolo Banchero has struggled with his shooting for most of the season but he is closing March shooting his best. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Paolo Banchero has struggled with his shooting for most of the season but he is closing March shooting his best. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

For the last few weeks, the debate that has grown among national media circles has been a flimsy attempt to open the Rookie of the Year debate.

A few national outlets, while still staying Banchero was the likely, probable and rightful winner of the Rookie of the Year Award, said the conversation should be reopened with how well Jalen Williams was playing — and he has been playing well as has Benedict Mathurin and Walker Kessler in what has been a really impressive rookie class.

Banchero has always stood heads and tails above everyone in his class though based on his scoring, consistency and the role the Orlando Magic have put him in. The Rookie of the Year debate has long been over.

The door was only slightly opened for conversation because of Banchero’s cold February.

Paolo Banchero had a rough shooting February that highlighted one of his biggest weaknesses. But the Orlando Magic rookie has come on strong in March previewing where he can easily improve.

Banchero still scored plenty — a season-low 16.6 points per game — but his shooting took a major dip. That was always one of his perceived weaknesses entering the draft process. He was an inconsistent shooter all-around, working mostly at Duke as a back-to-the-back player. The Magic were the ones that put him in more pick-and-rolls and changed his usage to be more perimeter-oriented.

February was his worst month in that category by far though. He struggled to break through the rookie wall making just 1 of 33 3-pointers that month. It was clear the length of the NBA season was getting to him, as it would any high-level rookie who burned so bright.

That was the crack in the foundation of Banchero’s Rookie of the Year dominance that allowed some conversation to start peaking through.

What did Banchero do? He has turned in his best 3-point shooting month of the season, making 19 of 51 3-pointers (trailing only December’s 21-for-62 performance in attempts and makes). That 37.3-percent shooting from deep has previewed perhaps that Banchero can be a lot more reliable as a 3-point shooter.

This was going to be Banchero’s biggest weakness coming out of college. He did not take a lot of 3-pointers in college — 33.8 percent on 130 attempts in 39 games last season, coming out to 3.3 per game. He made 72.9 percent of his free throw attempts.

That remained a big concern for Banchero and one of the reasons why there was some doubt his raw scoring ability would not seamlessly translate to the NBA.

That proved to be incorrect.

Banchero has been a machine attacking the basket, going to the line 7.3 times per game (a number that has slowly dropped as the season has gone on signaling either officials calling fewer fouls on Banchero or Banchero settling for jumpers more as the season has worn on). He is hitting 74.2 percent of his free throws.

But the glaring mark on his stat line is his 3-point shooting at 29.2 percent on 4.0 attempts per game. That rough February weighs pretty heavily on those percentages.

March has seen him find his spots from deep — and really his jumper as a whole.

In March, Banchero has still taken the majority of his shots around the rim. He has taken 94 of his 230 field goal attempts in March within five feet of the basket (40.9 percent of his shot attempts).

Most of his 3-pointers in March happen above the break, where he has made 13 of 42 shots (31.0 percent). He is hitting six of his eight 3-pointers from the corner, an area where perhaps Banchero could be used a bit more.

A lot of this 3-point bump has come simply from the kind of shots he has taken.

Banchero has been assisted on 15 of his 19 3-point makes this month. He has made 15 of 32 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts. Meaning all but four of his 3-pointers have been catch-and-shoot opportunities and all but 19 of his 3-point attempts have come from catch-and-shoots.

This is incredible efficiency no matter how you cut it. Especially considering where Banchero has been.

Even his mid-range shooting has taken a bump up. He is hitting 40.4 percent from the floor on mid-range shots in March (19 for 47). He is shooting 38.3 percent on mid-range jumpers for the season. So again, there are plenty of areas for him to improve and he has shown at least modest improvements.

That goes for his 3-point shooting too.

For the season, Banchero is making just 34.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. He has been assisted on 56 of his 80 3-point makes (70.0 percent). And he has shot 68 for 239 (28.5 percent) on his threes from above the break. He is 12 for 34 (35.3 percent) from the corners.

Outside of his shooting in the restricted area and at the rim, Banchero’s shooting numbers are up across the board in March.

This could certainly be something of an outlier, of course. A quick surge as the season comes to a close. Like with so many things with rookie players: Who is to say what is permanent? What part of his game and this season will carry over?

So much of a rookie year is about seeing the pieces of what a player will become.

Throughout the season we have seen how proficient Banchero is at scoring the ball and how good he is at attacking the basket and getting to the line.

Certainly, he can continue to improve in both of those areas. He is shooting 62.0 percent in the restricted area this season but has seen it slip to 54.2 percent in March as one of the big areas he has struggled. His free throw attempts have slipped considerably too, going from a high of 8.6 and 8.4 attempts per game in October and November down to 6.1 per game in March.

But March has seen him show his shooting potential and shown his growth as a mid-range and long-range shooter.

As Banchero puts all the pieces together, it is clear he can become a true three-level scorer. That will inevitably make him an even tougher cover than he already is.

Banchero has effectively shut the door on the Rookie of the Year conversation by showing his biggest weakness in his rookie year is one he can make significant improvements on.

That is quite a way to get into his offseason as he continues to improve.