Paolo Banchero is well on his way to being named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. Banchero, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, has been a revelation for an upstart Orlando Magic team that has an outside shot at sneaking into the Eastern Conference play-in tournament this season — with the league paused for its All-Star break, Banchero and the Magic find themselves in 13th place in the East with a 24-35 record, a full four games behind the 10-seed.
If Orlando doesn’t make it, the franchise can take plenty of solace in knowing that the future is as bright as it’s been in the post-Dwight Howard era. Guys like Banchero, Franz Wagner, and Wendell Carter make up one of the NBA’s most appealing young cores — the oldest player on the roster is 28-year-old Gary Harris, while seven of the team’s eight top scorers on the year or 24 or younger.
Banchero has parlayed his success during his first year in the NBA into a few things during All-Star weekend. On Friday, Banchero was part of the winning team in the Rising Stars game, and on Saturday, Banchero will team up with fellow rookies Jaden Ivey and Jabari Smith Jr. in the Skills Challenge. In between those two things, Banchero spoke to Dime from the Panini Prizm lounge in Salt Lake City to discuss his first year in the league, his jam packed All-Star weekend, and much more.
I can only imagine this is a real busy weekend for you.
It’s been crazy, but I’m having fun.
Before we get into the basketball stuff going on this weekend, I’d love to know what you have going on with Panini.
Been here chilling in the Prizm lounge, playing Pop-a-Shot, playing pool, having fun, mingling with everybody. It’s a dope setup here.
Were you a big trading card kid growing up? Any kind of card — Pokemon, anything like that?
Definitely went through that phase growing up, collecting a lot of football cards, a lot of basketball cards. My dad, actually, he really collected them. I kind of just did it for fun, but my dad, he collected baseball cards and he had a whole binder full of them. And then my mom, obviously, she had her own card when she played professional. So, definitely grew up around some cards, man, so it’s crazy seeing myself on them now.
A good way to get your own card is to be involved in All-Star weekend, and this is your first one as a player. What’s it been like just being out there and around everything that comes with that?
Man, it’s crazy. It’s a crazy thing, just seeing all these great players and NBA legends, all in one space, in one area, just mingling. You get to meet a lot of guys that you never would have thought you’d get to meet, and it’s just been a blessing for me. I’ve always dreamed of stuff like this.
Was there one guy that you got to meet this weekend who maybe had you a little bit starstruck?
I’m not sure, I’ve met a lot of people. I don’t think I’ve met anyone … I met Dominique Wilkins in the lobby. It’s really, more than legends, all the all the players now I’ve seen and met, but like, just a lot of NBA legends that are retired, you never really see. So getting to meet them has been the coolest part.
Talking to you before the Skills Challenge tonight. What are your thoughts on getting to compete in something like that?
Yeah, I’m excited. That’s a dream come true. I grew up watching the All-Star weekend festivities every single year, I never missed it. So, being able to actually be a part of it and being in the Skills Challenge, it’s crazy, but I’m ready. Hopefully I can get a win.
I’ll be honest with you, I might have you guys winning this. So I’m gonna need a gonna need a real big performance tonight, but I think you’ve got a good team out there.
Yeah, we can do it. I think me Jaden, Jabari, we got young legs, we’re gonna be ready. We’re not gonna do the cool guy thing where you jog through, I think we’re all gonna go hard. So, we should win.
And last night, you got to play in the Rising Stars game. I know they’ve tweaked that format in the last year or two. What were your thoughts on this new way of playing in that game that wasn’t back and forth, first one to 150 points wins?
That was dope, because it makes the game a little more serious — especially that second one, because it’s only to 25, so every bucket matters. But it was fun just being out there with the guys. I had a great team and we were able to get the win, which was our goal from the start.
One thing that I really loved about the game is that you obviously spent a lot of time playing against Franz. How much fun was it getting to go up against him?
Man, it was crazy. It was a little weird. Me and him never really matched up before. Not even in practice, really, we’re always on the same team. It was fun though, man. First time I had the ball against him, he’s sitting there guarding me, he’s like, “I know all your moves,” and then I hit the shot. So, it was funny playing against him.
I want to shift to talking about the Magic a little and I want to start with him. I think a lot of people know that Franz is good. But as someone who is around him everyday, what is it about him in your eyes that makes him such a special player?
He’s just a winner, he’s wired to win. That’s really all he cares about. He’s super competitive, he’s very talented — me and him are pretty much same height, both both can play one through five, can play on the perimeter, can play inside. People kind of underestimate how good he is as a finisher, every time he drives to the hoop, I think he’s going to finish, whether it’s a floater, a Eurostep step, inside hand, left hand, right hand, he has all types of finishes. He can do everything on the court, he can shoot, pass, dribble.
He’s just an all-around player, and he’s only gonna get better. I’m excited, we’re gonna build something special over these next couple of years and just keep on going, man. We want to win.
On that, Magic fans have been waiting for guys like you, like Franz, like some of those other dudes you have to get you guys back to where Shaq had them. Penny had them. Dwight had them. Is that something that motivates you guys? Or is the mindset, listen, those guys were special, they did their own thing. We’re our own thing. And we don’t want to be defined by those past eras of Orlando Magic basketball?
You definitely want to pay respect to those eras. Shaq, Penny, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, all the great players that came through Orlando. But like you said, you also want to be — me, Franz, rest of the guys, we want to build our own legacy, we want to make our own mark. And we feel like we really can do that. And we can do it with our own style, our own play style, and add our own flair to it. It’s a new era, and I think we’re ready to really build.
It’s not often that rookies come into the NBA and have some of the success that you’ve had as such a versatile and effective score. What’s the thing that you think has helped you the most as you’ve gotten used to life in the league over these past couple of months?
I think for me, just being able to attack the basket, draw contact, and create my own shot. Obviously, for me, it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a lot of learning, but I think I’ve done a good job. And it encourages me because the games that you do struggle, it’s rough, it only makes you want to be better. So, I want to finish out this season strong, but once the season’s over, I’m gonna have a whole 82 games of tape to watch and learn what I need to be able to do better and improve on for the next year.
You’re four months into being a professional, there’s always going to be a lot of growing that comes, but where’s the area where you feel like you’ve grown the most as a player between that first game against Detroit and where you are right now?
I think more my mentality really than anything to do with my game. I think my mentality on the court, just how I go about each and every game, whether it’s a good or bad game, I think staying level headed, not getting too high, not getting too low, it’s helped me a lot. And I just want to keep improving on it, improve on every other facet of my game.
You hear guys in their first year always talk about having that welcome to the NBA moment. Do you feel like you’ve had something like that?
I think playing against Kevin Durant for the first time, for me, was my welcome to the NBA moment. He’s a killer, I think he had 45 points. So, I would say that was. I think my first ever NBA game was also my welcome to the NBA moment, but in a good way.
When you go up against a guy like KD, and he gets 45, obviously you’re a competitor, but do you have to kind of learn how to take in stride that like, listen, some guys are just all time greats, you can’t let a performance like that linger?
That’s probably the one of the greatest scorers ever, if not the greatest scorer ever, so you can’t. You’re silly if you get down on yourself when he scores a basketball, he’s gonna score, you can’t stop him. But you just want to compete, and it’s fun playing against a guy like him. It’s a real challenge every single time down the court. It just makes it even more fun to have to try and accept the challenge and try and get a stop, even though I didn’t get many of ’em.
Hopefully you get a little bit of rest and relaxation after today, but what’s your main priority as a player, for the team, once you get back to Orlando?
Definitely just locking in on this last 20 — whatever it is — 23 games, or 22 games, and trying to get in that play-in and playoff spot, and just finishing strong as a team. We’ve been playing good basketball, so we wanna keep that up.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.