Paolo Banchero was always working early this season.
His scoring was not where Orlando Magic fans wanted it or expected it. His best NBA skill was always his scoring and what makes him a potential star player in this league was his ability to generate points. For a Magic team that has not been outside the bottom 10 in the league in offensive rating since 2012, offense is a rightful obsession.
So his early season struggles were causing a fair amount of handwringing.
Still, Banchero was working. He was creating something positive for the team. Before his breakthrough performance against the Utah Jazz last week that seemed to set everything right. He doubled down on that with a complete performance against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday.
Banchero is indeed putting the pieces together. The return of his scoring has only highlighted the areas he has been a constant drumbeat for this team and what has changed about him.
Paolo Banchero struggled to score to start the season. His passing was always there. And the Orlando Magic are reaping the benefits of this improvement.
Even though Banchero was not scoring, the seeds were planted in those early games for the kind of player he was going to become. A much more complete player who understands better the attention he draws and how to use that attention.
Of all the things that stood out in his 25-point performance in Saturday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers, it was his passing. He recorded a career-high 10 assists and what was shocking was not that he hit that mark, it was asking, “What took so long?”
"“I think just being able to set my teammates up, this has always been a part of my game,” Banchero said after Saturday’s game. “Just the way teams load up when I have the ball is something I didn’t really understand how to use to my advantage until late last year. Over the summer, just watching a lot of film and seeing just how many guys are open when I do have the ball because of the defense and how they load up to help. Just trying to expose that and get guys open shots. I trust them to knock it down and step into it in confidence.”"
Banchero has always been an excellent passer — much better than people gave him credit for. And even during the early season struggles, his passing numbers were greatly improved. It was only a matter of time before all the pieces came together.
So far this season, Banchero is averaging 5.6 assists per game. He has five games with at least five assists in the Magic’s first seven games. He had only 20 such games last year. Even as he struggled through Monday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, he had six assists (against six turnovers, at least partially a sign of his willingness to pass).
Quickly the narrative for Banchero’s season has been about his understanding of when to attack for himself and when to be a playmaker.
But he indeed has started to understand the gravity he has and the way that he pulls defenses toward him. Even in his opening night game against the Houston Rockets, he was not scoring, but he was sucking up so much attention, it was getting others open.
Watch this play and watch the number of bodies from the Houston Rockets who follow Banchero as he drives through the lane.
Paolo Banchero drives past Dillon Brooks and gets all of Alperen Sengun, Fred VanVleet and Jalen Green to show to him. That is four players who are committed and watching Banchero as he drives. He makes the play to kick out to Franz Wagner for an open 3-pointer.
This is just a patient and calm drive for Banchero, one that feels like a read and an understanding of the defense that you would not typically see from a second-year player. He makes the right read and just absorbs the pressure effectively.
There are a lot of plays like this one throughout the season as he has gained confidence as a passer.
Where Banchero has gotten really good this year is making these simple reads off the dribble. It does not take a lot to rack up assists with how much Banchero has the ball in his hands. But he is getting better at these reads rather than forcing his shot.
Here Paolo Banchero beats the close-out to get past Anthony Davis, sees D’Angelo Russell step up to try to take the charge and he drops it off to a cutting Jalen Suggs without a rim protector in the lane.
That is just smart, attacking basketball and the kind of simple things Banchero can do. It is not complex like his full-court pass to Franz Wagner for a layup. But it shows how he sees the floor and is now not just an attacker going downhill toward the basket but also a playmaker. He is always looking.
That is a big piece of growth for a player like Banchero. He understands how to make plays.
"“Paolo is a winner,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Saturday’s game. “I said it before. Whether he is making shots or not, he has the utmost confidence in himself. His teammates have the utmost confidence in him and who he is as a teammate because they know he is always going to do the right thing by this group. Whether that is I have to score 30 or I have to score 20 with nine or 10 assists. He is going to do what is necessary to win. He has always been confident in what he is doing.”"
Again, this is all about how Banchero eats up space and how that may change how defenses attack him. And Banchero is making more and more advanced reads.
In this play from Monday’s game, Banchero drives baseline and again watch how much attention he gets even going into a non-scoring position. Once he gets past Grant Williams, there are three other players in the paint. Dwight Powell is going to protect the basket. Tim Hardaway Jr. is there to cut off the far side of the hoop (poorly) and Luka Doncic is crashing in.
Paolo Bacnhero then fires a diagonal pass to Anthony Black in a position that Luka Doncic cannot hope to defend and Black hits the three (credit to Joe Ingles for pointing it out to Banchero from the corner in case Banchero could not see).
Banchero still has a lot to improve on his reading. He had six turnovers to match his six assists on Monday. But increasingly, he is making these kinds of reads and trying to make the right pass over and over again.
There are still hiccups with all of this. He can get too confident with his passing — three of his turnovers in Monday’s game were attempts to make aggressive interior passes through tight windows like the one below:
Banchero’s scoring has righted the ship a ton. But he still can try a bit too hard to get others involved and overthink plays rather than being aggressive going to the basket.
That is still the biggest thing for Banchero this season: Making a play and letting the game come to him through his aggression. The Magic are depending on that.
What Banchero is learning as a star is how to soak up this attention and use it to his advantage. This is what stars do. They eat up attention and find pockets either to attack and score or use that attention to set others up.
Everyone knows Banchero can score. What he is showing is the passing to match it. And increasingly that is creating plenty of results for Orlando to build on.
This is a new area for Banchero. And it is proving to be effective to start the season.