When Paolo Banchero is on the floor for the Orlando Magic, every eye is on him. The defense knows exactly why he is on the floor and is at least partially afraid of what he can do with the ball.
The Magic’s offense is at least partially geared to take advantage of this fear.
A 20-year-old with a 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame (bigger now by all reports and also the eye test) with the ability to bulldoze defenders to the basket or pull-up and hit soft jumpers over them or dish it to open players when the double team comes.
He is a rookie and made his share of mistakes, but the speed at which he understood and took to the NBA game became downright scary in his runaway Rookie of the Year campaign.
Paolo Banchero is the star of the Orlando Magic. But for Team USA, he is a cog in the wheel and understanding how to impact the game in his role will help him grow for the fall.
That was not what he looked like in his first game for the U.S. National Team on Monday in Las Vegas. All the hints of what he is for the Magic were there, but he was not the star. He was not the main featured player.
Banchero was a role player trying to find his place on the national team as they prepare for the FIBA World Cup at the end of the month. Banchero touched the ball precious few times, he played a fairly unfamiliar position and he moved the ball quickly instead of constantly looking to attack.
Yes, Banchero still got to the line when he drove to the basket. But he had to rely on some of his other skills. Skills that are not always so readily present with his club team.
But that is going to be the ultimate benefit of his playing for the national team — they resume their Pre-World Cup preparations Saturday in Malaga, Spain against Slovenia (3:30 p.m. ET) and Sunday against Spain (3:30 p.m. ET as well).
Banchero is going to have to learn how to be a facilitator and role player, hitting catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, defending at a higher level and picking his spots to score in his limited opportunities. All of this will make Banchero better for when the Magic come together in October.
Banchero certainly understands that he is not going to be the star of this team. After training camp, he told The Athletic:
"“With Orlando, I’m the leading scorer, kind of the main guy,” Banchero said. “But here, and I’m able to do other things, whether it is affecting the game defensively, on the glass, with my passing, whatever it may be. … I think I can showcase the other parts of my game. Whatever the team needs, I would try to show that.”"
That was what was on display in the U.S.’s first game.
Banchero stepped in at center for the first extended time in his professional career — Banchero played only three percent of his minutes at center last year with the Magic and a good chunk of those came with Bol Bol also on the floor to give him a 7-foot shot blocker in support.
Steve Kerr explained to ESPN after the game that the reason the U.S. wanted to try Banchero out at center was so they could have someone who could rebound and push the ball quickly after they found success with that using Bam Adebayo or Draymond Green in the Olympics in Tokyo.
This was certainly an adjustment as Banchero tried to figure out his defensive responsibilities consistently.
He also worked as a screen setter as a center typically does in that game. That was not what he typically did with the Magic where they aimed to put the ball in his hands as much as possible — he ran more pick and rolls as a ball-handler in his first month with the Magic than he did in his entire season at Duke.
This took at least some measure of sacrifice on his part. It certainly took at least some change in his mindset.
Banchero still had his opportunities to score. But he moved much quicker into them.
There was very rarely any stopping to survey the defense or make some probing dribble. It was a quick movement and then a pass or a quick move into his attack. There was no time for the ball to stick in his hands, it needed to move one way or another.
One of the big things for Banchero to develop heading into his sophomore season is efficiency. He needs to be more economical with his dribbles and how he attacks. That will not only get him into better shots and increase his field goal percentage but get rid of some of the waste in the Magic’s offense that slows it down.
With Team USA he has already shown quicker decisionmaking and less adventurous and forceful attacks. Yes, he still can parade himself to the line and get his shots up even in his role. But he is quicker to trust teammates and get the ball moving rather than do it on his own.
His size and skill had Puerto Rico’s attention even in his smaller role. He does not need to do a ton to get the defense to warp toward him. That is how special he is as a player.
But with fewer possessions on the ball and other players to feed, Banchero can unleash his passing game more. When he does touch the ball, he can move it quicker and set others up to score. That is part of his role — whether that is in transition or in the half-court.
That too was on display with some stellar passing on display even if his teammates did not always connect.
Eventually too, Banchero could get some more looks in catch-and-shoot opportunities. He averaged only 2.3 catch-and-shoot field goal attempts per game last year for the Magic. He took 15.6 total field goal attempts per game.
Banchero becoming a better catch-and-shoot option will give the Magic more confidence to play him alongside other playmakers. Not to mention getting and making more of these opportunities will pad his shooting stats and scoring and reduce the pounding of him constantly bulldozing himself to the basket.
More than that though, his defense is going to be essential to his continued playing time and whether the experiment at center will work. He still has some work to do on that end to keep his engagement up. But as his often-replayed block shows, Banchero is capable as a defender.
If Banchero is going to continue playing center though, he needs to provide more value defensively and on the glass. And if he has to spend less energy and concern on scoring, he should have more focus on that end.
The principles that Steve Kerr is teaching and his focus on that end should help him improve on that end when he returns to Orlando.
Playing in FIBA competitions are always a net benefit, especially for young players. They are forced into new roles and find new ways to contribute. Everyone is a star with their club team, for the national team they have to do something different.
But knowing how to play a role helps spread the ball around. It helps understand how to play that role and let others shine when the ball needs to move to other players.
That is the kind of understanding Banchero is going to get over the next month with Team USA. And why this summer will be so important and beneficial for him when he becomes that star again with the Magic this fall.