There was no shortage of polish in the first college basketball game of Paolo Banchero’s career. The 19-year-old Duke forward picked apart a top-10 opponent with an array of skills seldom packaged in a 6-foot-10, 225-plus-pound frame: off-the-bounce jumpers, two-handed explosive dunks, patience and persistence, size and strength. There was a certain quietness to the performance, too: Banchero didn’t lead the Blue Devils in scoring, shot attempts or minutes played, but he was undoubtedly the most instrumental player on the court.
Among freshmen at Division I schools, Banchero ranks fifth in points (17.8), 15th in total rebounds (7.3) and tied for ninth in win shares (1.4). He’s shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc and 83.8 percent from the stripe. Two of Banchero’s three biggest scoring outbursts of the season have come at major venues in top-10 showdowns: against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden in the Champions Classic and against Gonzaga at T-Mobile Arena in the Continental Tire Challenge. Banchero put up 20-plus points in each win — against the Bulldogs, Banchero outplayed Chet Holmgren, the top-rated player in their recruiting class and Banchero’s main competition for the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NBA draft.
At a time when bigs in the NBA are more skilled than ever before, there’s a lot to like about Banchero’s ready-made toolkit and how it might translate to the next level. In eight games, he’s displayed practically everything a general manager would desire: defensive versatility, low-post strength, perimeter range and off-the-dribble capability. A quick release and a tight handle are rarities for a player who for decades would simply have been asked to stand near the rim and raise his arms, but Banchero has showcased both and done so against the toughest slate of any ACC team thus far.
As Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski put it earlier this season, “He’s the real deal.”
It’s likely that Banchero has but a few months left on campus in Durham. But while he appears to fit the ever-shifting mold for players of his size, Banchero’s shot selection is unique compared to recent high-capital draft picks. There were nine players taken in the first round of the past three drafts who stood at least 6-foot-10. None had a shot profile in their final college season quite like Banchero’s.
|Share of attempts|
|Day’Ron Sharpe||North Carolina||2021||6-11||88.0||11.1|
|Santi Aldama||Loyola MD||2021||6-11||63.2||7.2|
Banchero takes a lower combined share of field-goal attempts in the paint and at the rim than any of those nine players, according to CBB Analytics. He ranks sixth on his own team in percentage of shots taken in the paint, trailing even Trevor Keels, who is 5 inches shorter than Banchero.
Conversely, nearly a quarter of Banchero’s shot profile is painted from the midrange; Kentucky’s Isaiah Jackson is the only player among Banchero’s comps who took more than 16 percent of his attempts from the area. No other player on Duke’s roster accounts for more than 17 percent of shot attempts in the midrange.
Most surprising is that 23.5 percent of Banchero’s shots have come above the break, a rarity from a big that was exceeded among our first-rounders ony by Loyola’s Santi Aldama, a stretch forward who lacked size on the interior and was largely deployed as a perimeter shooter.
Put together, Banchero’s shot profile looks more comparable to midrange marksman DeMar DeRozan than it does to stretch big Bam Adebayo.
Much of Banchero’s unorthodox abilities are the byproduct of multiple growth spurts, not unlike Anthony Davis, who learned the sport before he grew 8 inches in 18 months. Banchero grew up as a guard with ball-handling responsibilities, then he grew almost 6 inches before high school and another few inches as a freshman. There are reports that he’s grown to 6-foot-11 since his arrival in Durham. The tallest player on the court is seldom able to or asked to bring the ball up the court, but in non-dead ball scenarios Banchero has repeatedly initiated the Duke offense, which takes a by-committee approach to point-guard duties.
That ability to control the pace of the game coupled with his lateral quickness and skill to quickly maneuver from the perimeter to the rim was obvious in the season opener and resulted in the benching of his Kentucky matchup, forward Keion Brooks. “He was struggling to guard Paolo,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said when asked why the junior logged only 16 minutes and 40 seconds of action. “[Paolo is] really good.”
Banchero is up against recent program history when the NBA comes calling. The only thing worse than Duke’s record of producing NBA greats is its record of producing exceptional bigs. Since 2000, the Blue Devils have featured six first-round draft picks who were at least 6-foot-10. None has made an All-Star team, and many are either out of the league or are struggling to find playing time. Banchero may be the one to break the streak, with atypical abilities that could translate well to a league prioritizing multi-skilled bigs.
Despite a recent loss to Ohio State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Blue Devils are the No. 7 team in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin, the No. 9 team in Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System and the No. 13 team in ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index. By all accounts, they’re playing like one of the best teams in the nation — largely due to the sensational freshman out of Seattle.