Despite the debate over the Rookie of the Year Award, there really was no debate. Paolo Banchero was the best rookie.
Plenty of people could look at metrics and look at role context to make arguments and try to poke holes in his case — and players like Jalen Williams and Keegan Murray and Walker Kessler had really impressive rookie seasons that deserve celebration.
But Banchero had the best overall season with the biggest responsibilities. And it helped too that his team took a huge step forward — although certainly not to the stage that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Sacramento Kings took.
Still, there was a narrative that pervaded around Banchero during that debate over the Rookie of the Year. Banchero’s star shined so brightly and so early that all the voters made up their minds about the Rookie of the Year Award before the end of December and put those thoughts to bed.
That does a disservice to Banchero though. An extreme disservice to him.
The narrative that Paolo Banchero tailed off to end the season was simply untrue. The Orlando Magic rookie showed plenty of growth and understanding that is setting him up for a strong career.
Rookies very rarely are fully formed right out of the box. And while Banchero did have a stunning start out of the gates — 22.7 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game, 3.6 assists per game and 45.8-percent shooting through the end of November — his finish might have been just as impressive.
There is no narrative that Banchero somehow faded to the finish. Yes, he had shooting struggles from deep through February, but Banchero began to grasp offense at a higher level later in the season. He began contributing to the offense at a higher level.
Like with Markelle Fultz, Paolo Banchero took off after the All-Star Break. His excellence though had become normal, the full effects of it were not readily apparent.
Banchero averaged 20.2 points per game, 7.6 rebounds per game and 4.1 assists per game with shooting splits of 44.8/35.3/69.5. Before the All-Star break, he was at 19.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game with shooting splits of 41.9/28.1/75.3.
The 3-point shooting especially took a major turn upward as Banchero reportedly dealt with a nerve issue that led to an icy February.
So aside from the free throw shooting, Banchero got better in every meaningful offensive category. That would certainly suggest that he learned what he needed to learn and improved his offensive game.
On top of this, after the All-Star Break, no player had a better on-court offensive rating than Paolo Banchero. Orlando had a 114.3 offensive rating with Banchero on the floor after the All-Star Break.
That would still be 20th in the league in offensive rating. No one should be writing home about this number, even if it was 2.9 points per 100 possessions better than the team’s average after the All-Star Break.
It should still be noted that the Magic had a 117.7 defensive rating with Banchero on the floor. Orlando was a net negative with Banchero on the floor. Banchero had his struggles defensively and that will be an area where he can show a lot of improvement as a second-year player.
But Banchero’s main value still comes on the offensive end. And this kind of improvement offensively is a good sign of what he can bring to the table.
Banchero is clearly on an offensive track. But it is important to note the ways he got better and improved as his rookie season went on. This was not simply Banchero starting strong and never dimming.
We already highlighted some of his work throughout the season attacking double teams, finishing in the clutch and even as a passer similar to Nikola Jokic. That is the kind of potential everyone sees in Banchero.
Unlike other rookies, Orlando put the ball in Banchero’s hands and did not relent on it. They took the good with the bad. And by the end of the season, he was making advanced, unselfish reads. Banchero was not merely just a scorer.
This is a perfect example of how Banchero has grown throughout the course of the season.
This is an end-of-clock situation where you expect the team to hand the ball to Banchero and let him work. And that might have been what he did early in the season. Instead, he works the clock perfectly, reading the quick double team and getting around Corey Kispert to force a third defender to commit.
Johnny Davis makes the mistake he has to make to cut off Banchero at the baseline and so Banchero has two options. He can either kick it back to Cole Anthony at the top of the key and bank on Daniel Gafford not making the play.
But instead, Banchero makes the right read. Kevon Harris has successfully screened Daniel Gafford out of the paint allowing Moe Wagner to cut to the basket for the dunk.
This is still not an easy pass, especially considering the time and score. But Banchero showed his basketball smarts and how advanced his reads are. If he continues to play with this level of poise, he is going to make a lot more plays like this one.
This specific game against the Washington Wizards from March 21 was the closest he got to a triple-double, posting 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists while shooting just 6 of 9 from the floor. That was a moment of proof that Banchero can affect winning without shooting the ball a ton.
That may not have been a realization he would have had earlier in the season — Banchero had only six games with 10 field goal attempts or fewer all season and two of them (both wins) came after the All-Star Break. And that is the growth potential Banchero still has.
Still, Banchero’s strength comes from his scoring ability. And even that showed a ton of growth.
Where Banchero is at his deadliest in transition when he can get a head of steam downhill. Banchero’s size and pace make him extremely dangerous for any team, especially smaller defenders who think they can handle him barreling toward the lane.
Rookies tend to be out of control though. Their weakness is they do not know the speed at which they have to move and they can be out of control. Banchero at his size especially could easily bowl over players in transition.
What is impressive here is how Banchero diagnoses the play while still being aggressive. He slows down with Donovan Mitchell on him, but that change of pace allows Evan Mobley to establish his presence in the paint and begin to wall him up.
Banchero though deftly spins between the two. This is not an easy move and one that could easily go wrong. But that spin easily avoids Mobley and keeps him going to the basket and with Mitchell as his primary defender. That leads to an easy basket at the rim.
Moves like this should not get taken for granted. Banchero is a unique player for his ability to move with this kind of fluidity at that size. And so much of last season was figuring out the best way to deploy these tools.
Banchero certainly started to put all those pieces together. There are still mistakes to be made. He had to figure out what a good shot was and what good shot is not. And increasingly we are going to find there are few shots Banchero can create that are not good shots.
The narrative that Banchero did not get better as the season went on though is clearly a myth. The numbers certainly suggest he improved as the season wore on. And the tape shows how his decision-making and scoring improved too.
If there is a hint that Banchero can indeed be the scorer his rookie year promised, it is in these observations. And while there is still a lot for Banchero to improve upon, his offensive improvement could prove to be a big boost for Orlando overall.