2023 Orlando Magic Season Review What Went Right: Paolo Banchero is the Rookie of the Year

Paolo Banchero turned in a historic and fantastic rookie year that will like leave the Orlando Magic forward with some hardware. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Paolo Banchero turned in a historic and fantastic rookie year that will like leave the Orlando Magic forward with some hardware. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

Paolo Banchero stood before the media for the final time this season and did maybe his only bit of campaigning for the award he has openly sought as the season came to a close.

It really was not a campaign, it was a statement of fact. When he was asked whether he was the Rookie of the Year, Banchero brushed aside the statement as if he was offended the question needed to be asked.

Of course, he is. As Banchero simply put it during the team’s exit interviews Monday, he should win Rookie of the Year, “Because I’m the best rookie.”

Banchero is the Rookie of the Year.

But more importantly for this young Magic team, Banchero became a galvanizing lightning rod. Someone who boosted the energy and potential of this team.

The biggest thing that went right and changed the Orlando Magic’s future and potential was the emergence of Paolo Banchero and his Rookie of the Year campaign.

Rookies are not supposed to do that. And Banchero certainly made his share of mistakes. But if there is one thing that defines what went right for the Magic in the 2023 season — among so many things that seemed to work in the Magic’s favor and point to their future — it is the play of their soon-to-be-star rookie.

Banchero completely changed the team’s outlook and delivered on every promise and potential outcome.

From his first game — a 29-point masterpiece capitalized with a soaring dunk over Cory Joseph — to his last few weeks in the season — including a 30-point, 12-rebound, 6-assist effort on the road in Washington for one of his final games.

It is safe to say the Magic made the right pick with the first pick. And now everyone cannot wait to see what comes next.

The final numbers for Banchero are still incredible to read.

He averaged 20.0 points per game, becoming the first rookie to average at least 20.0 points per game since Luka Doncic in 2019 (and the first Magic rookie since Shaquille O’Neal). He scored 20 or more points in a game 40 times, matching LeBron James’ rookie total.

You will start to notice we will be putting a lot of Hall of Fame players in the same sentence as Banchero when talking about his statistical accolades as a rookie.

On top of those 20.0 points per game, he averaged 7.4 free throw attempts per game, the most by a rookie since Zion Williamson and Joel Embiid in their shortened rookie seasons and Blake Griffin before them.

That puts Banchero in potentially elite scoring company.

But he contributed elsewhere, adding 6.9 rebounds per game and 3.7 assists per game. He continued to show hints of what he could do in those areas and his command of the game and his pace over it all.

He did this all while leading his team in field goal attempts per game and usage rate (27.5 percent). He started eating double teams and had to figure out his way around defenses throwing their best defenders and schemes at him.

No other rookie was dealing with this kind of pressure and attention. And few other rookies kept their production consistent.

Even when Banchero struggled with an apparent nerve issue (as he told the Ryen Russillo Show in an interview recently) through February that left him shooting 1 for 33 from deep, he still produced — 16.6 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game. He still led all rookies in scoring.

And his team still won. They still started to climb the standings and find their footing for such a young team. Every argument anybody makes against Banchero in the national discussion seems to fall away quickly under any kind of scrutiny.

But this is not about arguing why Banchero is obviously the Rookie of the Year. This is about the impact Banchero’s presence has had on the team and how it changed the Magic.

Orlando’s rebuild was given a supercharge in receiving the top pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, as it would for any team. But the decision was not as self-evident as it is at the end of the season.

The team was presented with one of the rare drafts that presented a real choice. There were three contrasting players and arguments just as strong based on college play to take Jabari Smith or Chet Holmgren over Paolo Banchero.

A comparison of the three cannot be made solely off a rookie year. A rookie year does not make a career.

No matter what anyone else tried to say throughout the year, Banchero made a statement throughout his entire time, playing like he was angry that his spot as the top pick in the draft was even a debate, to begin with.

The Magic fooled everyone, including Banchero, that they were going to take Smith Jr. instead.

But it never seemed like a doubt when the Magic talked about getting their guy with the top overall pick. And Banchero certainly put all that debate to rest — even his poor moments seemed unreal for a player with such little experience.

And that is the biggest point of it all. Banchero is just beginning.

He, like any other rookie, makes a ton of mistakes. He turned the ball over. He got lost in defensive rotations. He went through lulls in his scoring. His free throws actually decreased from their historic levels as the season wore on.

The Magic had a -4.2 net rating with Banchero on the floor — although it was a tidier -2.4 since Dec. 7 when the Magic began to get healthy again. They were willing to live with his mistakes so he could learn. They put the ball in his hands a lot late in games and lived with the consequences.

Of course, sometimes it paid off.

He delivered in a hallmark game where he hit three tough jumpers in a row to put the New Orleans Pelicans away in a road win. And it is in hints like this one that show exactly why the Magic made him the No. 1 pick and why the Magic have one of the brightest and seemingly inevitable futures in the league.

Banchero has helped create this. It should not be solely on his shoulders — a lot of players did a lot of work and made a lot of improvements to put the Magic in this position.

But everyone can recognize that talent is important. And the Magic added a ton of talent to their team. They added the kind of player they have missed really since Tracy McGrady was last on the team. The kind of player they hunted for to pair with a guy like Dwight Howard.

They found themselves a scorer. And potentially a go-to scorer. And that completely transformed their team in a meaningful and demonstrative way. Even in just his rookie year.

Next. Orlando Magic established their culture throughout 2023. dark

Banchero will be the Rookie of the Year. What went right this year is that he showed the Magic what their future will be very soon.