2023 Orlando Magic Season MVP: Paolo Banchero changed everything

Feb 3, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (5) controls the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 3, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (5) controls the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports /

The first overall pick in the draft comes with pressure.

That first choice gives the team that holds it the choice of anyone in the draft. That theoretically should give them the best player.

Nobody talks about the pressure that comes with it. Not just the pressure on a franchise to get it right and transform their team into a future contender but the pressure on the player to deliver on the hype.

Especially coming out of a draft where there was a real decision to make — and a heated debate and even a team swerve from what everyone expected. The Magic had a lot of pressure to get things right and end their decade-long rebuild. Paolo Banchero had a lot of pressure on him to deliver and live up to the hype.

That is not an easy thing — something Markelle Fultz noted in his recent conversation on Knuckleheads and something he said he spoke with Paolo Banchero about.

Yet, Banchero seemed to blow past this pressure. He seemed to thrive under this pressure and succeed in the heat of it all. More than that, he did exactly what a first overall pick is supposed to do: He pointed the team toward a brighter future and set the foundation for a future playoff team, at least, and a future contender at best.

The Orlando Magic expected to grow as a young team gaining experience. Paolo Banchero though lifted the team’s potential and expectations as the top overall pick. He delivered in almost every way. That is why he is our season MVP.

That is a lot to put on a rookie forward. But while individual growth was certainly expected with so many young and promising players, Banchero’s arrival and presence truly transformed everything.

That is what a top pick, the likely Rookie of the Year (officially announced Tuesday) and a superstar player is supposed to do. And while Banchero made plenty of rookie mistakes, his star shined bright early and continued shining throughout the season. His presence alone seemed to lift the team and change their outlook.

A lot changed for the Magic in the 2023 season. But nothing changed how everyone views this team and what the Magic are building toward quite like Banchero’s addition. He gave the Magic something the franchise has not had in at least a decade, and possibly even in two decades.

For this reason, Banchero is our MVP of the 2023 season for the Magic. If everything goes right, this will not be the last time Banchero earns this honor from us.

Banchero had a truly historic rookie season, averaging 20.0 points per game. That made him the first non-center Magic player to average at least 20 points per game since Steve Francis in 2005.

That is how long it has been since the Magic had a dominant scorer of Banchero’s caliber.

He got to the line at a historic rate too, taking 7.4 free throw attempts per game. This is typically a skill that does not go away until a player is past his prime. Being able to get to the foul line helped boost the team’s offense in whatever little way it could.

Still, Banchero looked like a rookie in a lot of ways. And rookies, by a rule, are not good.

The highs with Banchero though were far greater than the lows. And from the moment he stepped on the floor — with a 29-point effort in the opening loss to the Detroit Pistons. . . followed by a 20-point effort against the Atlanta Hawks, 23 against the Boston Celtics and 21 against the New York Knicks.

Scoring became easy for Banchero, providing the exact thing he was advertised to do. He scored in bunches, hitting 20 points or more 40 times, matching LeBron James’ rookie season.

It was incredible to see Banchero’s name so consistently compared with rookie seasons from some of the league’s all-time great players. Or with All-Stars at a minimum.

That is the level Banchero entered the league at. And his numbers consistently backed that up.

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The biggest knock against Banchero’s Rookie of the Year campaign was his inefficiency. Very few rookies could succeed as the star player with this high bar. And it is hard to say he was efficient, with shooting splits of 42.7/29.8/73.8 with an effective field goal percentage of 46.5 percent and a true shooting percentage of 52.9 percent.

His 1-for-33 performance from beyond the arc in February — while dealing with a nerve issue as he told the Knuckleheads podcast — was a dent in an otherwise sterling offensive season. His free throw shooting could not make up for that cold shooting. It opened the door to the Rookie of the Year race.

It showed that yes Banchero still has a lot to improve on. He faced double teams and had to learn to absorb and fight off the pressure in real time. He got better at that as the season went on only to have to adjust as opponents threw something new at him.

No rookie was asked to handle the major scoring load in the same way as Banchero.

They had players to relieve the pressure and make their shots easier. Banchero was the one trying to make shots easier for others. And yes, he needs to improve as a passer too.

He showed signs of improving and succeeding at all these things. Banchero’s rookie season was meant to be a taste of what the forward can become for this team. And it is clearly a lot.

His mistakes were also a big point of the season. The Magic wanted to push him to do more and learn what a good shot was, what a good read was and how to lead the team.

The Magic threw a lot at him and gave him the chance to succeed, fail and learn to get better. He certainly did that, finishing the season with as strong a kick as he started it.

So why is he the MVP then?

He was the team’s top scorer but perhaps not its best player. Players like Markelle Fultz and Franz Wagner were likely better on the ball in pressure situations. Wendell Carter was a more solid player.

But that is not what this season was about, was it? Orlando was not as focused on developing their team to win in the 2023 season but to win well beyond it. And that was always going to flow through their top overall pick.

In his rookie season, Banchero proved he can and will be able to handle it.

It was not perfect in his first run through the NBA. But he held his own physically and helped the Magic look forward to an extremely bright future. He certainly had defenders’ respect as something more than a rookie.

The team has clarity and purpose because of what the franchise believes Banchero can become. The team came together to create the 12-win improvement that made the 2023 season a success. But Banchero seems to hint that this team can reach a higher level.

He reached that higher level enough times this year to make everyone believers.

Banchero had that effect on this team and this franchise. And everyone is excited for what comes next.

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Just as they should be excited for his present. He turned in a historic rookie season and became a central pillar for this team in its present as much as he is one for their future.