Orlando Magic 2023 Time To Step Up: Paolo Banchero’s defense

Paolo Banchero has made strides defensively so far this summer playing for the United States national team. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Paolo Banchero has made strides defensively so far this summer playing for the United States national team. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

You could almost hear every Orlando Magic fan repeat the same line in real-time during the United States’ first exhibition game last week against Puerto Rico.

“I thought they said Paolo Banchero couldn’t play defense!”

That was in response to Banchero following a turnover, tracking back and rising up to block a shot at the rim in transition to make up for his mistake. The best highlight of his run with Team USA so far.

It helped that he doubled up that with another block in a subsequent game as he takes on the role of backup center for Team USA — essentially playing the role Draymond Green plays for Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors.

The time with the national team has forced Banchero to focus on other parts of his game since his scoring opportunities have been few and far between on the stacked young roster. Kerr has put Banchero in the uncomfortable spot of playing center.

Still, much of the principles are the same. And Kerr wants to use Banchero’s versatility to power the offense and keep the floor spread.

A lot of this plan though hinges on exactly what Banchero showed in the clip above. It relies on Banchero’s ability to play defense at a consistently high level.

Paolo Banchero is still building consistency throughout his game. This summer, he has been forced to focus on his defense, something the Orlando Magic will need him to improve.

And that is the part that remains fairly inconsistent about him. And the area Banchero will need to continue to grow. His defense and defensive awareness are important for the Magic, even if he is not the ace defender for the team.

That has been the biggest thing to watch from him so far with the national team. His defensive energy and awareness is certainly heightened. Banchero has seamlessly switched defensively and been a vocal leader calling out the schemes and helping where he can.

That was on display most of all in Friday’s 108-86 win over Greece when he switched onto the perimeter and locked down a Greek guard on several possessions. He made the most of his nine minutes in that game but also showed the inconsistency of his defense.

His weaknesses on that end remain apparent. He is very engaged when he is on the ball and has shown great strides there. But he has also been a step late on help defense and deciding when to crash into the paint and provide the next layer of help.

If there was a perception of Banchero as a poor defender coming into the draft, it is from needing to learn this awareness and commit to help side when he can.

The fact is, like most scoring-focused rookies, Banchero was not a particularly strong defender last year for the Magic.

The Magic as a team had a 115.3 defensive rating with Banchero on the floor last year, 2.1 points per 100 possessions worse than the team’s overall average. Even after the 5-20 start, it was 115.1 points per 100 possessions.

With Banchero off the court, the Magic’s defensive rating was a stellar 105.7 points per 100 possessions after Dec. 7 (the 5-20 start). The team was not better with any other player off the court in that time period.

That should not put the whole onus on Banchero and his defense. But only Gary Harris had as poor of an on-court defensive rating as Paolo Banchero among starters.

There are several measures where Banchero struggled defensively last year though to support these statistical struggles in the team context.

Basketball-Index gives Banchero an on-ball perimeter defense rating of -0.19, putting him in the 38th percentile. He was in the middle of the league in his off-ball chaser defense rating (+0.17, 58th percentile) and ball screen navigation rating (+0.03, 59th percentile).

Banchero works better as an interior defender for sure. The Magic played him mostly at power forward and even with their switching schemes he stayed mostly in the paint against players of his own size.

Teams certainly were not afraid to attack Banchero, but he held his own. According to Basketball-Index, opponents shot 3.10 percentage points worse at the rim than expected against Banchero, making up somewhat for his relatively low block rate.

Further, according to data from Second Spectrum, opponents shot 65.9 percent at the rim. That placed him fourth on the Magic overall, behind Jonathan Isaac, Goga Bitadze and Wendell Carter. That number could of course improve.

On top of this, opponents scored 1.25 points per possession against Banchero as the roll man in pick and rolls (on only 24 possessions, according to NBA.com). The ball handler in pick and rolls scored only 0.90 points per possessions agaisnt Banchero, shooting 46.8 percent from the floor on 110 possessions.

It is not like Banchero is a sieve. Banchero’s defense is more about general improvements in focus and consistency. All anyone is asking is for consistency everywhere from him.

There are enough signs he can get there.

Related Story. Paolo Banchero knows he still has room to grow. light

For instance, opponents shot 49.0 percent against Banchero according to NBA.com’s tracking stats. That was only 0.5 percentage points better than expected against him overall. Within six feet, opponents shot 61.9 percent against him, 1.8 percentage points better than expected.

Even more to that, according to NBA.com’s tracking stats, opponents scored only 0.64 points per possession on 66 possessions. Opponents scored on only one in three isolation possessions against Banchero.

That should give some hint that things were a bit of a mixed bag with Banchero. He was far from perfect but that was to be expected for a player in his rookie season with the responsibility the Magic put on him to score.

The biggest theme for Banchero entering his second season is to be more consistent. The Magic want Banchero to do everything he did well last year, but to do it more consistently and, obviously, better.

That will include his defense. Orlando does not need Banchero to be a dominant defender. He is not going to be relied on as the team’s stopper. That is not his role for the Magic, at least.

But he needs to be better.

That is ultimately the biggest benefit of him playing for Team USA this summer. It is forcing Banchero to look at his biggest weaknesses and improve those to help his team win.

In that sense, the run leading up to the World Cup has been productive. He has not been an offensive star, but he has had to stand out in other ways.

And it is clear the defensive potential he has. He has clearly put the effort and work into it and is trying to show his defensive games.

Next. Time To Step Up: Cole Anthony's defense. dark

There is still work to do though. And that is what the Magic will hope to see continue develop as the team heads into training camp at the start of October.