The Orlando Magic have a bright future.
It is not because they have the best players or coaches in the league (although they seem on track for at least one All-Star and have one of the betting favorites for Coach of the Year) or because they have the best offense in the league or the best defense (in fairness, it is second).
It is because they have a player who has earned the right to be called the first-quarter MVP. Maybe several players who deserve that moniker after getting the Magic out to a 14-7 start to the season. A lot has come together.
Nothing has come together quite like the clarity the Magic have at the top of their lineup.
Paolo Banchero led Orlando on a magical run to the second seed in the East, a place nobody saw coming through the first 20-plus games of the season. The Magic have graduated from an up-and-coming team to the surprise story in the Eastern Conference.
Such a dramatic shift starts at the top. The second-year star is already exceeding expectations and putting up solid numbers.
In the first quarter of the season (the first 21 games or through last Wednesday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers), Banchero averaged 20.6 points per game on 49.2/42.4/67.7 shooting splits. He added a robust 6.8 rebounds per game and 4.7 assists per game.
His scoring and efficiency went up, both concerns and areas he was expected to improve. He became a stronger playmaker too, essentially taking over point guard duties for the team in Markelle Fultz's absence.
He is the leader of a team that loves to defend at a high clip and play for each other on every possession. And that is impressive to see considering just two years ago the Magic were one of the worst teams in the league at 22-60. That was some tough basketball to watch back in those days.
It is even more amazing considering Banchero was not considered to be much of a defender in college. He has carried over his strong defense from his time with Team USA to the regular season.
The Orlando Magic now play like a modern-day San Antonio Spurs team with great ball movement from every spot on the floor. They love to find the open man in the offense and it is rare that a Magic player would just fire the ball up at the rim with time on the shot clock.
The Magic seem to try to find the open man instead of taking bad shots. And that has a lot to do with their leader.
This is the type of chemistry you cannot buy. This is like a brother playing on the same team as a brother, or best friends playing together to take down a foe. In his second season, this young leader in Banchero has made NBA veteran players and coaches respect this young Magic team. And he has helped the team win as both the leading scorer and as a playmaker setting everyone else up.
Banchero is a very unselfish type of hybrid forward. He can shoot from deep but would prefer to shoot his three-point buckets in rhythm instead of forcing up shots on offensive possessions.
He is the undoubted first-quarter MVP because he has played well against some of the best players in the NBA when matched up against them. He has stepped his game up at critical moments and willed the team to victory in others.
Against the Boston Celtics on Black Friday, Banchero finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a 113-96 blowout win. Against the Denver Nuggets, he finished with 23 points, four rebounds and three assists in a 124-119 win.
He came to play when his team needed him against championship-contending teams. That is what MVP/All-Star players do.
Banchero also added a pair of game-winning shots to his ledger.
He broke out of an early-season slump for 30 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a win over the Utah Jazz. After the Magic lost a late lead and trailed by one, Banchero beat his man to the basket for the go-ahead layup late in the game, saving the Magic from defeat.
In a similar situation against the Chicago Bulls, the Orlando Magic lost their lead in a tie game. But Banchero delivered with a tough fadeaway jumper to give Orlando a critical win on the second night of a back-to-back. He served as the decoy the next night, giving the space for Franz Wagner to be the hero in the rematch in the In-Season Tournament.
In all, Banchero averaged a teamhigh 20.0 points per game and shot 49.2 percent from the floor and 47.1 percent from three during the In-Season Tournament group play games, adding 6.5 rebounds per game and 3.8 assists per game. That could serve as a potential preview for his first Playoff experience.
What stood out too for Banchero was how his game rounded out. He has truly turned into an all-around threat for the Magic in his second season.
On Dec. 1, Banchero was only three assists shy of a triple-double in a 130-125 win against the Washington Wizards after he scored 28 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out seven assists.
Banchero has been MVP quality even in a loss. On Dec. 6, the young star dropped a career-high 42 points and six boards in a losing effort against the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road. The next time he saw the Cavaliers, he would have a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds as he absorbed more pressure and defenive attention.
That has been part of his evolution too. Opponents are throwing everything they can at Banchero and they cannot stop him. Nor can they seem to stop the Magic.
It seems as if the first quarter MVP will not let a team beat him twice either.
So Banchero has the Orlando Magic's first-quarter MVP in the bag. He has stepped up for his teammates like an MVP and now we know that there is more to come from the young forward as the team continues to grow and compete at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.