And the Thunder Select…Paolo Banchero

And the Thunder Select…Paolo Banchero

  • Born: November 12th, 2002
  • Draft Age: 19.6
  • High School: O’Dea High School
  • RSCI: 2
  • College: Duke
  • Measurements (Projected): 6’10, 250 pounds, 7’0.5 wingspan
  • Consensus Ranking: 3rd

Shades Of: Detroit Blake Griffin, Chris Webber

As one of the only top players in this class to maintain their position from preseason to offseason, Paolo Banchero will be heading into the NBA as a top draft choice. The 6’10, 250 pound forward from Duke has the body type of star jumbo creators and possesses some translatable NBA tools and skills. Paolo averaged 17/8/3 this past season on 56% TS and led Duke to the Final Four as a freshman. Banchero rounds out my top three prospects, coming in after Chet Holmgren and barely below Jaden Ivey. There hasn’t been a lot of talk of Paolo being involved at second overall for Oklahoma City, but it wouldn’t surprise me if GM Sam Presti selected him there given his massive frame, being a position of need, and his connective and creator traits on offense.

Which enticing skills and qualities does Banchero offer that could lead the Thunder to call his name later this month?

Athleticism and footwork

Quite possibly the most intriguing aspect of Banchero’s overall game is the perimeter skills he has at his size. He is listed roughly the same size as players such as Bam Adebayo, Blake Griffin, and Carlos Boozer. His listed weight (250 lbs.) would make him 30 pounds heavier than Jabari Smith and 55 pounds heavier than Chet Holmgren. He is an absolute tank out there and it shows.

Banchero effortlessly oscillates between being a power and a finesse athlete, being able to go from bullying smaller defenders in the post to pulling out different counters with impressive footwork and craft for a guy his size. He is not the most impressive vertical athlete in this draft class, but he gets up there when needed–he finished 44 dunks on the year. The more impressive thing about his athleticism is his straight-line speed and how functional his dribble moves are with that size. I will say that his handle can be a bit loose at times, but unlike some other players, he has consistently flashed proficient dribbling for his size.

Paolo shot 67.6% at the rim this past season on 188 attempts, while being assisted on only 42.5% of those makes, per Bart Torvik. For context, that is triple the number of attempts Jabari Smith had and is more than Chet Holmgren and Jaden Ivey as well. In addition to those numbers, he sported a very solid 36.6% free throw rate on the year. There is no physical projection needed here; Paolo already has an NBA-ready frame and body and his size, when coupled with effective and efficient dribble moves and counters, makes him a pretty relentless force when going to the rim and creating from the perimeter.

Duke was a team of not-good passers (we will touch on this later) so pairing him with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, one good and one great passer in their own right, will help him find advantageous situations in the post and elsewhere in the halfcourt. He only had 29 possessions as the roll man this past season but finished in the 78th percentile for that category per Synergy. I believe this could be an untapped part of his game due to his physicality in the paint, with inverted pick and rolls also being a possibility with Paolo as the ball handler and someone like Shai as the screener.

Shooting and translation

This past season at Duke, Paolo shot 33.8% from three and a solid 72.9% from the free throw line. Of his 44 makes from three, 88.6% of them were assisted on, a pretty high number. Despite these mediocre numbers, there is no doubt in my mind he will shoot in the NBA. Shooting is probably the easiest thing to improve upon in the NBA, and Paolo possesses solid touch on non-paint twos. He shot 37.9% on 195 such attempts with only 21.6% being assisted, a higher percentage than shooters like Jabari Smith and Ben Mathurin. A lot of his shot attempts were longer pull-ups twos, shots that he was fairly effective taking but will hopefully (and likely) turn into three-point attempts in the NBA to make him a more efficient player. He’s only 19 years old; there is plenty of room to improve and he most likely will.

Per Synergy, Paolo was in the 44th percentile as a spot-up shooter on 120 attempts this past season. He did shoot 13/21 on corner threes, a good sign of being able to knock down the easiest possible three-pointer. There were certainly flashes of versatility as well, as Paolo took pull-up threes, catch and shoot threes, and self-created stepbacks. In addition, Banchero took a few threes off of movement which is impressive for a guy his size.

There are times when Paolo is a bit indecisive when catching the ball. In one notable play in the Duke/North Carolina pressure cooker, he popped out to the three point line after a screen and passed up a wide open shot. Hopefully he gets drafted to a team that drills it into his head that he should be taking every open shot he gets, because he has a habit of wasting some good offensive possessions.

Passing and playmaking

I believe that Paolo’s passing is one of the more impressive aspects of his game. Contrary to a player like Holmgren, Paolo is more of a playmaker with the ball in his hands, creating rather than acting as a connective passer in the flow of an offense. I think Paolo can certainly do some connective things, of course, but his passing is maximized when he’s controlling a possession. Assist rate is certainly not the end all be all, but I can comfortably say that Paolo was Duke’s best passer last season and that Coach K should have run more plays to utilize that skill. Since 2008, here are the top five high major freshmen in assist rate who measure at 6’10 or taller:

Paolo was a 58th percentile PnR ball-handler this past season per Synergy. However, like his lack of possessions as a roll man, he only had 35 possessions as the ball-handler. I don’t believe he will ever be a lead guy for an NBA offense (an incredibly difficult role), but he could be a tertiary or maybe even a secondary ball-handler for teams at the next level.

His hit ahead passing is really good. Banchero’s playmaking flashes a lot in transition when he has the ball in his hands and can read the floor, something the Thunder lack outside of their top couple of guys. Paolo could theoretically operate in DHOs, PnR situations, and others if given the chance. He started speeding up his decision making toward the end of the year as those reps increased ever so slightly, so hopefully he continues refine his game down this path because it could be a really promising asset to an NBA offense. Even if the shooting is only average, he is so physically dominant that he could still succeed without it. There are frankly not a lot of players at his size who step into the NBA with a consistent knockdown jumper, an aspect of Paolo’s game he should improve upon.

Defensive ability

I’ve seen some concerns about Paolo’s defense, and to me a lot of that is effort related. It’s always a bit worrisome when a player has a wavering interest on that end of the floor but, as I’ve stated in previous pieces, I trust Mark Daigneault and the Thunder coaching staff to stay on young players about defensive effort. Luckily for Paolo, he is enormous pretty strong, so that could mitigate his slip-ups and make the margin for error a little wider.

Banchero does a nice job defending the point of attack, but off the ball is where I see most of his issues. He is often caught ball watching and losing his man. But he has also shown the ability to rotate weakside to protect the rim and stop the ball. He isn’t the most fluid athlete in the world, so I’m not sure how he would survive as a small-ball center defensively. In spurts? Sure. But that’s about it unless he improves both his flexibility and verticality.

He had a 2.7% block rate and a 1.9% steal rate this past season, very respectable numbers. The ability to stunt and recover when the ball was close to him was there for Paolo, we just have to see it more consistently. At times he is reluctant to close out onto shooters and sort of lazily walks in their direction; again, he reads the action most of the time but doesn’t always match the read with effort. How well do you think you could get him to buy in on defense is a real question mark, but I believe he can do it if he tries.

Lock it in?

While Banchero isn’t in my top two players for the 2022 NBA Draft, I have him in the same tier as Jaden Ivey as a prospect (behind Chet, in his own tier). The defense and particularly the effort is not anything to write home about, but the Thunder have preached about defense for quite some time now, and maybe a less burdening offensive role will coax some of that effort back. The intersection between size and skill for Paolo is not something you come across often, and he would fit in tremendously on the Thunder. While he may not have the ball in his hands as much as he did at Duke, he could be very effective in a tertiary ball handler role, punishing mismatches in the post or switches on the perimeter. Maybe with a little more seasoning, he could even become an effective screen and roll man who makes plays at the rim or on the short roll.

There are a lot of avenues to offensive success for Banchero, something OKC desperately needs. While I have yet to see any mock drafts with Paolo linked to Oklahoma City at #2, that would be an exciting selection for OKC fans and a great reward for enduring the last season of tanking.