Paolo Banchero is in a class of his own among rookie class

Paolo Banchero is on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year award. The Orlando Magic asked him to do something no one else asked any other rookie. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports
Paolo Banchero is on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year award. The Orlando Magic asked him to do something no one else asked any other rookie. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports /

Paolo Banchero is going to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award.

He will be formally announced as a finalist for the award during TNT’s broadcast of the Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament on Friday. But all the votes are in and the answer seems inevitable. Banchero will win the award.

Orlando Magic fans certainly do not need to be convinced of it. They have been shouting about how good Banchero has consistently been throughout the season. And it seems like the insertion of other candidates — the likely two other finalists are Jalen Williams and Walker Kessler — has been more about creating a conversation over the award because a runaway victory is boring.

Ballots were turned in Monday and so the award is finalized and just waiting for an announcement. And it is clear from voters who have revealed their ballots that Banchero is the overwhelming favorite to win the award.

And he should be. There are a lot of standards by which voters — there are 100 voters in the NBA awards from wide swaths of media and perspectives — can make decisions.

But it is undeniable that Banchero was asked to do something that no other rookie in his class was asked to do. Banchero thrived at an elevated that no other rookie had to do.

Paolo Banchero is likely going to be the overwhelming favorite to win the Rookie of the Year Award. The arguments going against him actually work for him considering the heavy responsibility the Orlando Magic put on him.

The arguments against Banchero for Rookie of the Year essentially come down to whether he succeeded in his role. Or succeeded at the same level as his competitors — in clearly lesser roles.

But that hides the real argument for why Banchero should be the Rookie of the Year. Walker Kessler and Jalen Williams, the chief competition but a group that could easily expand to include Keegan Murray, Bennedict Mathurin and Jaden Ivey, thrived in their roles for their teams.

Kessler was a dominant defensive presence who helped the Utah Jazz make a surprising push for the postseason. Williams was a great floor-spacer and defender — not to mention a player who would have been a senior in college and thus was at least a little older and more experienced than his rookie class peers.

Nothing they did should take away from the great seasons they just completed. And they are both clearly All-Rookie first-team selections, where Banchero will be a unanimous selection.

But Banchero was asked to do things at such a higher level.

He was asked to do something no one else in his class — save for maybe Ivey being pushed into it — had to do. And he did it consistently well.

The company Banchero kept in his rookie year proves that his success simply went beyond the numbers.

Paolo Banchero finished the year averaging 20.0 points per game, becoming the first qualified rookie to do so since Luka Doncic in 2019. He was the first rookie to shoot more than 7.0 free throw attempts per game since Blake Griffin in 2011 (Zion Williamson and Joel Embiid also hit this mark but in injury-filled seasons).

Almost any statistical category you want to use for comparison with Bancheor and his raw numbers inevitably brings up a list of multi-time All-Stars.

And that is really where he should be compared to. He is a future All-Star. That is the standard he is measured against. And with the ball in his hands as a rookie, he is going to be inefficient and make mistakes.

Orlando often put him in positions where he could explore and make mistakes. That goes especially late in games — an area he got progressively better at as he learned where double teams would attack him.

The players Banchero needs to measure up against are not his rookie peers — he already laps them in terms of raw numbers. It is against his role peers and the players he often gets compared to.

This Rookie of the Year “race” is really about how these rookies succeeded in their roles.

Doncic, for instance, averaged a career-low 21.2 points per game and shot a career-worst 49.7 percent effective field goal percentage in his rookie year. Banchero was at 20.0 points per game and a 46.5 percent effective field goal percentage.

No one would probably believe Banchero had a better rookie year than Doncic. But the comparison is worth continuing.

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Griffin averaged 22.5 points per game and shot just 50.6 percent from the floor as a largely paint-based player in his rookie year. And perhaps most tellingly, Kevin Durant averaged 20.3 points per game on a woeful 45.1 percent effective field goal percentage including 28.8 percent from deep in his rookie season.

This is not to say that Banchero is guaranteed to become any of these players. But it is to say that players who are pushed into starring roles as rookies struggle with efficiency and have by far their worst seasons (at least while they are still on their ascendance) in their rookie years.

This is where Banchero was and this is the standard he had to be measured against.

The fact that he still thrived in this role and still elevated his team — even if inconsistently by record — is a sign of how successful he was.

What the arguments against Banchero get wrong is they give credit to players like Kessler and Williams for succeeding in their roles but do not give the same credit to Banchero for finding success in the league’s most difficult and important role.

Banchero was pushed to be the Magic’s star for better or for worse from the start of the season. And he was very good in this role, at least for a rookie. His job was complex and difficult and brought a new challenge seemingly every game. He found his way to succeed.

Still, the arguments persist. And they annoy Magic fans unendingly who want to see Banchero win the award unanimously. That clearly will not happen.

There are at least rational arguments to be made for a few players. The one that irked Orlando Magic fans the most — at least recently — came from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen who explained his vote for Kessler:

Larsen explains he goes with advanced stats to help him fill in the gaps for games he did not watch. And under that reading, it is easy to see why Banchero is not the favorite or his case gets weakened.

The Magic are the worst team among the three that have rookies up for the award — why the Play-In participating Williams did not get the vote over Kessler with his strong advanced numbers — and a big part of that is because the Magic by design gave the ball to Banchero and let him make mistakes.

Kessler’s advanced numbers are very strong. He led all rookies with 2.1 victories over replacement and led all rookies in Box Plus-Minus at 2.9. There are plenty of other advanced stats — especially ones that value defense — that mark Kessler really strongly.

In fact, it is probably fair to say Kessler deserves more conversation as the spoiler to Banchero than he is currently getting — even more so than Williams who was also really good with advanced numbers with an incredible 56.7 percent effective field goal percentage and 1.3 victories over replacement player.

It is true that if this is the criteria a voter uses, it is hard to vote for Banchero. He was a high-usage player — 27.0 percent usage rate, a number matched only by Ivey on the Detroit Pistons — and he missed a lot of shots as stars often do.

But that is actually the biggest reason why Banchero should be running away with the Rookie of the Year Award. It is the biggest reason why he likely already has run away with the award.

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It is impossible to ask a rookie to be a star and increasingly rare that a team does this. For a rookie to succeed at any level at being a star in the way Banchero did this year is just incredible.

And a sign of future success.