When coach Steve Kerr started trying out the idea of Paolo Banchero at center, it was met with both excitement and skepticism.
The excitement came from using Paolo Banchero much like another playmaking forward in Draymond Green. Banchero, listed at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds (he is probably heavier now after an offseason of weight training), is a giant playmaking big with scoring chops. He became a foul machine simply because of how he was able to move and put defenses in compromising positions with his size and agility.
Steve Kerr reasoned after working as an assistant in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that in international basketball, it would be valuable to have a center who could grab rebounds and push the ball immediately up the floor. That is what Bam Adebayo did so successfully in the gold-medal effort.
What everyone was concerned about was his defense.
Banchero is not Green on that end. Green works in his limited minutes at center — 14 percent of his total minutes in the league and only 25 percent of his minutes last year according to Basketball-Reference — because he is an excellent and strong defender. Green even shows some rim protection.
Banchero is not that level of defender. You could argue Banchero was a poor defender, as most rookies are. He certainly was not anything near a rim protector.
What has seemingly worked though at the FIBA World Cup is Banchero’s rim protection. He has suddenly become a surprising shot blocker for the national team. And that has started to change things for Banchero.
Paolo Banchero predictably struggled as a rookie on defense. With Team USA, Banchero has become a surprising shot blocker that will help the Orlando Magic.
Banchero’s best highlights from his Team USA run have come at the defensive end and at the rim.
He added two more near blocks that got him and his teammates a bit incensed at the officials. Still, both were plays that he was not making last year. Suddenly, Banchero is seeking and making blocks and contested shots in ways he was not during his rookie year.
For a player known mostly for his offense and entering the league as a suspect defender (at best), what he has done on that end has been astounding and certainly encouraging.
In Monday’s 109-81 win over Greece, Banchero recorded another two that were called off. The highlight came when Dimitris Moraitis rounded the corner and believed he had a clean layup. Banchero swatted it from behind almost immediately after it came off his hand. The officials called a foul.
This was reminiscent of his block off the backboard against New Zealand in the opener. It was the highlight — or no light — of his 8-point, 6-for-8 free-throw shooting performance. And just another addition to his list of blocked shots this run with thenational team.
He had four blocks in the win over New Zealand on Saturday. That included a straight-up vertical rejection at the rim, the kind of simple play that is difficult to pull off and never gets put on the highlight reels but is essential to good rim protection.
The best play of his national team run so far has been the blocked shot in transition he had in the opening exhibition game against Puerto Rico.
It is telling and encouraging that so many of Banchero’s best plays and his biggest impact has come on the defensive end.
That was an area where Banchero struggled last year. The Magic had a 115.3 defensive rating with Banchero on the floor, a mark that was only better than Gary Harris among regular rotation players. His perimeter defense rated poorly with a -0.19 on-ball perimeter defense rating, according to Basketball Index.
There were hints he could be something else. While not necessarily a rim deterrent, opponents shot 3.10 percentage points worse than expected at the rim against Banchero. He proved to be someone opponents tried to attack, but found difficult to score on.
He just struggled to block shots though and opponents still scored against him. According to data from Second Spectrum, opponents shot 65.9 percent at the rim against him. He averaged only 0.5 blocks per game and 0.58 blocks per 75 possessions.
Banchero showed hints of his ability to defend the rim, but never in a significant way through his rookie year. To see him step up and be not just a more engaged defender but an actual shot blocker is something very different.
If Banchero can carry this back to Orlando, then the Magic’s defense becomes an entirely different prospect.
Despite Orlando’s strong interior defense that limits points in the paint, the team is not a strong shot-blocking team. The Magic rank 15th in the league with 4.7 blocks per game. Opponents shot 68.4 percent at the rim against the Magic, the fourth-worst defense in the league.
This is a clear area the team can and must improve. So Banchero stepping up in this way is more than encouraging.
Bitadze in a blender
Georgia knew it would have a tough task going up against Slovenia in its group. The World Cup debutantes were happy to score the win against Cape Verde and keep their second-round hopes in their hands. Handling Luka Doncic and Slovenia was an entirely different matter.
Credit to Georgia, they were game. They kept the game close, getting to within five in the second half. But they were always going uphill and trying to make up ground against Doncic and waiting for that avalanche to come.
Doncic did his work — 34 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. He had to work for all of those points. But Slovenia pulled away for an 88-67 win to clinch their spot in the second round thanks to efforts form the supporting players especially when Doncic was on the bench.
Goga Bitadze was at the center of many of the defensive decisions and compromises Georgia had to make.
Doncic got his points, but he had to work for it, shooting 9 for 20 from the floor and 3 for 9 on threes. The goal was to be physical with Doncic on the interior (he had 17 free throws and he made 13 and Bitadze himself fouled out) and then switch screens on the perimeter.
That left Bitadze on Doncic on several occasions. And Bitadze’s job was to make Doncic settle for his step-back three.
He did that on several occasions. So while it was not the most sterling game for Bitadze — seven points and six rebounds — he did at least this part of his job and did it effectively enough.
Predictably, Bitadze is not a great perimeter defender, but he can be a bit disruptive. He averaged 1.3 steals per 75 possessions (84th percentile) and 3.4 deflections per 75 possessions (89th percentile) last year.
He is already incredibly disruptive on the interior. That is the biggest thing he brings to the Orlando Magic.
So many teams around the league now switch 1 through 5. So Bitadze’s ability to switch out onto the perimeter is going to be something the Magic could lean on and need as they develop defensively. It is something both Moe Wagner and Goga Bitadze have to improve on as the team’s backup center.
Bitadze did decently handling Doncic. Then again, Doncic is Doncic and there is not much anyone can do.