Orlando Magic fans were questioning Paolo Banchero after five exhibition games.
Was this the right thing for Banchero to do with his offseason? Would this bring Banchero the necessary growth and finishing chops the Magic would need to break through into the postseason?
That was not the Banchero the Magic were seeing with Team USA. That is not the player the national team is looking for.
They did not need another isolation scorer or someone who was going to soak up a lot of shots. They needed a screener and playmaker, someone who could hit an open shot and soak up attention running down the lane.
It was clear how much Banchero was still trying to get comfortable with everything. He was pressing on drives. he did not look like the star in the making the Magic are investing in and counting on.
Do not worry, those were just exhibition games. It was never going to take much for Banchero to get himself going.
Paolo Banchero found his rhythm at long last, leading the United States to a victory over New Zealand to open their run at the FIBA World Cup.
And so for nearly 19 minutes of game time, Banchero showed exactly why he was someone the U.S. fought to get into its program and why the Magic are preparing to build their future around him.
He scored 21 points and put his full talent on display. Something he was hesitant to do throughout the exhibition run as he got used to his secondary roll of screening and rolling.
There was the pull-up jumper with the fluidity and speed that comes with a guard. There was the powerful dunk from the dunker spot. A swing-to 3-pointer, even if he needed a dribble to set himself up.
Whatever confidence Banchero did not seem to have for his exhibition games run seemed to go away.
And not a moment too soon for the U.S.
Their opening game against New Zealand, an eventual 99-72 victory, needed every bit of energy it could get. The Americans came out a bit flat, unable to hit shots and unable to disrupt what New Zealand was doing. They fell behind 14-4 early.
Everyone knew that would not last. But the U.S. never quite found its offensive groove. It was a slow build not only to retake the lead (which the Americans did by the end of the first quarter) but to build that lead out.
That is where Banchero stepped in as he forced his way to the foul line (3 for 5 from the line as there is at least one area Banchero’s struggles carried over) and started to hit shots near the basket. He was as active as he has been offensively.
Adding that to his defensive activity that included some stellar blocks — one where he rose up with verticality and blocked the shot and another late in the fourth quarter when he slapped a layup off the backboard.
He had four rebounds and four blocks, a part of his game he did not show his rookie season but has increasingly been the story of his run with Team USA.
This is the part of his game that is new and has further developed during his run with Team USA.
But the familiar scoring was the part that was missing. The part that got him to a team-high 21 points. He was not playing the secondary role, even if the ball was not in his hands a bunch. He was seeking out his opportunities and creating these moments for himself.
This is the Banchero Magic fans have come to know and love. The one they are eager to see play.
It was the one the U.S. needed in this game. There is no telling if the Americans would not have found themselves in a surprising battle if not for the spark that came from Banchero. The fact every player on this U.S. team is capable of having a game like this because it is what they do for their NBA team is part of the U.S.’s strength.
There are pieces for this American team to put together, of course. Right now it is individual brilliance kind of gluing it together. This game was Banchero’s turn to be that glue.
And he was a powerful binding force giving Magic fans a look at the fluidity and poise that he can play with. Now he can keep building on that confidence as the tournament continues.
Goga Bitadze changes the game with mobility
It is easy to think of Goga Bitadze as a bruising big man. That is something he showed for the Orlando Magic in his short stint with the team. He gave the team a traditional backstop who could protect the rim and defend.
His offensive role for the Magic was limited to putbacks and setting screens. That was enough.
But that may not get all the way to his value. That is what was put on display during Georgia’s 85-60 win over Cape Verde in their FIBA World Cup debut.
Georgia struggled out of the gates opting to start the slower and bigger Giorgi Shermadini. His experience certainly seemed valuable and the size Cape Verde brought to the game was spooking a nervous Georgia team.
That changed when Bitadze came on the floor. His mobility shifted the kind of offense Georgia could run. He dragged himself out to the perimeter and the high post, drawing Cape Verde’s bigs away from the basket and allowing Tornike Shengalia to go to the basket.
Even that enabled Bitadze to follow, outmaneuvering his man to get to the basket and finish his putbacks.
That mobility too put Cape Verde in a bind as Bitadze recorded 10 free throws, making nine. That is how Bitadze had 15 points (and 11 rebounds) while making only three of four shots.
Bitadze’s production was not so much as important as the effect his presence had on the game.
It is easy to dismiss Bitadze with some of his limited skills as being simply an imposing brute. For the Magic last year that was his role and the simple thing they had him perform.
But that does not quite get to everything he does. Bitadze works well because he mixes that size and strength with some deft touch and mobility. That keeps bigger and slower players off-balance and allows Bitadze to have games like this one.
There will, of course, be tougher challenges ahead for Georgia. Cape Verde might be the weakest team in this tournament. But it was a good start for Bitadze and him.