Deflated. Angry. Disappointed. Frustrated.
That’s the cocktail of emotions running through Paolo Banchero as he walks back to the locker room after a tough loss in Detroit—one that came down to the wire and was decided in the last couple possessions.
Banchero felt he had it. He was this close to putting the team on his back and leading it to a comeback victory in his NBA debut.
The final possessions went something like this: Down 3 with under 40 seconds to go, Banchero went coast-to-coast after grabbing a defensive rebound and finished with a strong right-handed layup. That cut the deficit to 108-107. After a corner three-pointer from Isaiah Stewart, Banchero responded by crashing the glass, drawing a foul and sinking two clutch free throws to pull the Magic within 2 with five seconds remaining. The sold-out crowd inside Little Caesars Arena was going berserk as the game reached its breaking point.
But this one would end in heartbreak for the rookie. Despite his valiant effort and heroic baskets down the stretch (he even caught a poster earlier in the quarter when he dunked over Cory Joseph), Bojan Bogdanovic hit two big free throws for the Pistons at the end to seal the game. Pistons 113. Magic 109.
And, so, that walk back to the locker room really stings. The mix of emotions are kicking in, and they don’t feel great. He’s just too competitive to “We’ll get ’em next time” it right now.
But then he’s greeted with a different type of energy upon reaching the locker room.
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“I remember just being genuinely pretty pissed off that we lost. And I remember getting back to the locker room, and our PR guy, his eyes were, like, lit up and he was hella happy,” Banchero recalls. “He was like, Yo, great job! He asked me if I realized what I even did, and I was like, Man, no—I don’t know. I knew I had a good game, but I wasn’t thinking it’d be this historic thing. I saw my parents after the game, and they were hella happy. I kind of saw the vibe, and it was like, I didn’t want to be happy, but, I mean, it was kind of hard not to [be]. Everyone who came up to me was like, Congrats! And I just was like, Man, we play in two days, let’s go, let’s move on. When you think back to it [now], you realize how big of a moment that really was, being your first NBA game. But not in the moment. I definitely didn’t feel the magnitude of the game or the performance, I just kind of wanted to move on. Especially since we didn’t win.”
The magnitude? Just a few decades- long NBA records being touched. Nothing major at all.
Banchero’s NBA debut stat line—27 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists—made him the first NBA player to post at least 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in his League debut since LeBron James in 2003. Only three other players in the Association’s history ever have: Grant Hill, Willie Anderson and Ron Harper. In the points column, Banchero’s 27 were the most in an NBA debut by a No. 1 pick since Allen Iverson in 1996.
“Honestly, I think I kind of had that feeling during preseason—people always ask me, How did you come out [and] look so comfortable in your first game? For me, I got all the nerves out during preseason,” the Seattle native says. “My first preseason game, I was way more nervous for that than I was for the actual regular season game. Like, once I played those preseason games, I felt like I was already acclimated. So, going into that Detroit game, obviously it’s the first regular season game so everything’s getting turned up, you’re gonna play more minutes or whatnot. And I just remember feeling, like, raw emotions and being excited, but in my head, I just knew I was going to have a good game. I knew I was going to put on a show. Not gonna say I knew I was gonna go for 27 and whatnot, but I just knew I was gonna have a good game and come out strong, because the debut of your rookie year, that’s just a game where you got to be locked in, you got to be focused.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Banchero would continue to place his name in the history books. In his second game, he dropped 20 points and 12 rebounds, and then followed that up with 23 and 5—making him the first teenager ever to score 20+ points in his first three NBA games. In fact, he scored 20+ points in his first six NBA games, joining Grant Hill, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Elvin Hayes as the only rookies to ever do so. In his 10th game, he dropped 33 points and 16 rebounds, joining LeBron as the only teenagers in NBA history to post 30+ points and 15+ boards in a single outing. Just 48 hours later, he became only the fifth teenager in NBA history to score 30+ points in consecutive games (the others are LeBron, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson). He joined Michael Jordan and Zion as the last three rookies to score 20+ points in 15 of their first 20 games. By the end of the season, he had dropped 20+ points in 40 total games, tying LeBron’s rookie mark.
Banchero says his Rookie of the Year campaign, one in which he finished averaging 20 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists, really kicked off in the spring of 2022, when he made a decision that shocked many in the industry. The Duke star chose to bypass having a powerhouse agency rep him and instead decided to go with former NBA wing Mike Miller and his LIFT Sports Management firm, a rookie agency with a small client roster at the time.
“Obviously, [Miller] played with and against Hall of Famers, had a great career himself, so he knows what it looks like—he’s done everything I want to do,” says the 2023 NBA ROY. “He’s had teammates who, you know, went on to be some of the greatest of all time. If anyone knows what it looks like to be one of the best, it’s him. So when he said that and preached the importance of putting basketball first and making sure I’m the best player I can possibly be—putting that at the forefront—it really helped me make the decision.”
In Miller, Banchero felt he had not only found an agent, but a true workout partner, trainer and mentor. In fact, Banchero says that instead of referring to Miller as “Mike,” he calls him “Coach.” The ultimate sign of respect, and reflective of how he views Miller and their relationship. The “Coach” tag also makes sense when you factor in that Banchero first met Miller when the latter was an assistant at Memphis under Penny Hardaway a few years back (Miller spent two years with the Tigers).
Banchero’s first pre-draft training session with Miller was in Miami, and the current Magic star still remembers everything about those early gym days.
“I still tell him to this day, those first three or four workouts we had in Miami, those are the best ones. Those are the ones I always think about—just how much fun they were, just the intensity that we were working at,” says Banchero. “I think, for me, working with Mike, it just has really been my shot that has been one of the biggest things. Him helping me with my shot. The difference between this time last year and this time right now, between just the way I shoot the ball, is night and day. I gotta give most of the credit to him just for helping me and making it easy…It’s just been smooth sailing. I would say my jumper is where he’s helped me the most. I could ask him about any part of the game, any situation or scenario, and he’ll know about it.”
As fate would have it, a couple of months later, Banchero would get drafted by the Orlando Magic—the same team that drafted Miller in 2000, and where he also won Rookie of the Year (Banchero, Miller and Shaquille O’Neal are the only ROYs in franchise history).
But despite all the individual accolades and personal records set during his debut NBA season, Banchero has already turned the page to the next chapter. When we shot this cover in early May, as playoff euphoria was at its peak, the 6-10 forward said that being a spectator to the postseason has given him a whole lot of FOMO. Ultimately, he’s aware that, fairly or unfairly, his career will be judged based on how much winning he’s able to bring to his team—a challenge that he doesn’t plan on waiting much longer to start making a dent in.
“Watching the playoffs, it just doesn’t feel right that we’re not on that stage—I’m not on that stage. I just feel like that’s where I need to be. That’s where we need to be. That’s where we all want to be,” says the rising star. “So, obviously, it’s gonna take a whole bunch of work, and we’re gonna have to just be a lot better. But I think this year was a step in the right direction—the vibe we had, how competitive we were all year, the teams we beat, the teams we should have beat, it just left a specific taste in our mouth. And, you know, we gotta try and get it next year. I’m excited. I think we’re all excited.”
The Magic saw a 12-win improvement from last season—the biggest win increase in the Eastern Conference and the third-most in the NBA behind the Sacramento Kings and Oklahoma City Thunder. After starting the season 5-19, Orlando went 29-29 in its remaining 58 games. During that 29-29 stretch, the team had the League’s sixth-best defensive rating (112.8), according to the Orlando Sentinel. The signs are there. A culture and identity shift are brewing. And if you ask Banchero, it’s given him and his teammates a lot of fuel heading into the offseason.
“I think this is the most motivated I’ve been heading into a summer,” he says. “And I think a lot of guys on the team would say the same. I think we all kind of have that same mentality where next year is the year where we kind of put ourselves in that conversation of being one of the better teams in the East, and then in the League.”
SLAM 244 COVER TEES
Portraits: Marcus Stevens
Styling: Ian Pierno
Barber: Marcos “Reggae” Smith