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Paolo Banchero’s NBA Stock Is Soaring. Should He Go No. 1?

There’s no consensus about the 2022 NBA draft, but Duke’s star freshman may have just convinced me he’s the best player in this class

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Paolo Banchero has something right now that Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr. don’t: the ability to create his own shot and open looks for others. I’m moving him to no. 1 on my 2022 NBA Draft Guide big board, which is where he was in my mind before the college season. Smith stays at second. Holmgren bumps to third. All three of them are still great prospects, and I could change my mind again once the draft order is determined on May 17. Smith and Holmgren still firmly belong in the conversation to go first, but Banchero’s stock is rising in the eyes of NBA executives amid a strong showing in the NCAA tournament.

Mike Krzyzewski has tasked Banchero with primary ballhandling responsibilities during Duke’s Final Four run, and the 6-foot-10 freshman has responded with his best basketball yet, generating chances for teammates with on-target passes and scoring from all over the court.

Banchero is averaging 18.5 points, seven rebounds, and 3.8 assists in four NCAA tournament games, which isn’t all too different from his season averages (17.1/7.7/3.2). But he’s playing with a better flow now that he’s getting more touches. Banchero’s best skill is his playmaking, which isn’t the case for Holmgren or Smith.

There is no consensus about the 2022 class. Executives within the same organization disagree about who’s the top prospect. Team to team, the first pick will vary depending on situation and context.

Smith’s size and shooting stroke make him such a threat that he creates chances for his teammates without even touching the ball. Some teams will have Smith first on their boards because they’re hoping for his best-case scenario: a healthy Michael Porter Jr. with excellent defense. Smith is as safe a bet as any to have a long, successful career.

At 7 feet, Holmgren brings more upside but also more risk. He doesn’t need to score to completely dominate a game because despite his lean, 195-pound frame, his positioning, length, and agility helped him have one of the greatest rim-protecting seasons in college basketball history. Most importantly, he brings an edge to the court. He loves to play defense. In the NBA, he’ll need to get stronger to avoid foul trouble, but he’ll bring immediate value on offense as a lob finisher who can also hit 3s. Maybe Holmgren will become Rudy Gobert with more perimeter skill on offense. But there’s a little Kristaps Porzingis to him, too, with his inability to post up. His unusually tall and lean frame naturally leads teams to worry about his potential for injuries. But unlike KP or Bol Bol at younger levels, Holmgren doesn’t have an extensive injury history even before entering the league. Regardless, teams will be interested in what medical assessments will reveal about his ability to withstand the rigors of the NBA.

Executives who favor Banchero as the top player in the 2022 draft usually cite his shot creation as the primary differentiating factor. Smith and Holmgren were eliminated in the tournament due in part to their inability to attack the basket, whereas Banchero is a physical driver who can plow through opponents using his 250-pound frame. But he’s not just a tank. Sometimes, his drives begin with hard dribbles straight into the chest of an opponent before he balletically spins into the paint, or stops then pivots to find an opening. Banchero has fluid footwork and knows how to use it, even at only 19 years old.

When Banchero spins into the paint, he can seamlessly transition into layups or passes to teammates. He has a feel for drawing defenders in to open up a passing lane. There’s a little Blake Griffin in him, or maybe Julius Randle at his best. He can post up with his back to the basket or face up. But he’s most dangerous as a scorer off the dribble. In a way, he looks like a tall kid who grew up watching Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James with the way he looks to attack.

By no means is he a savant playmaker like LeBron, and he’s not an all-time scorer like either of them. But he can do a little of everything, making him a bit of a safe pick. Opponents have begun to scout his spin and anticipate it on his drives into the paint, so it’ll be worth watching what type of counters Banchero sees in the Final Four.

We might just see more of his jumper. This season, he’s made 43 percent of his jump shots from 2-point range, according to Synergy Sports. He has made steady progress as a shooter each year going back to high school. If he’s able to extend his range to 3, where he’s made 33 percent of his shots this season, he’d be that much more lethal on the perimeter.

Banchero has the skills to thrive in a range of NBA roles. It’s his offensive versatility that gives him so much value in the right situation. At his size with his playmaking skill, he could thrive as a screener for a shot-making guard like Tyrese Haliburton or Damian Lillard. Banchero can finish loudly, dribble to the rim, or make a pass on the short roll. He’d put up numbers right away.

If paired with the right talent around him, he can even share responsibilities as a go-to scorer when he has an advantageous matchup.

In the first clip above, Banchero screens then pops for a 3-pointer. If his shot continues to improve, it’ll only open up more driving lanes for him. But he can also serve as a roller. In the second clip, he short-rolls toward the baseline then dribbles through the defense to draw a foul. He’s the one delivering contact inside. He thrives in the paint.

Defense is where Banchero needs to improve the most. He’s played lackadaisically on that end at Duke this season and shown little awareness at times, even during the tourney.

Banchero’s offense makes him a tantalizing prospect. But it sure would be nice to see him not allow backdoor cuts to happen in the Final Four after it happened in the Elite Eight. The best player on a team needs to set a better tone than that. He also needs to know that his teammate AJ Griffin is a shaky off-ball defender who lets opponents skate by on a frequent basis. Banchero needs to recognize that and be ready to clean up mistakes. But he’s susceptible, too, which has been an issue for Duke and an eyesore for pro scouts. Banchero can change, and he should use the Final Four to show what he can do in big games.

People I talk to around the NBA seem far less worried about his defense. Though he’s still making mistakes off the ball, his effort, focus, and intensity have all ratcheted up in recent weeks. Not quite like you’d hope, but an improvement nonetheless.

Teams wonder whether Banchero can be the face of a franchise or whether he’s more of a supporting star. Smith and Holmgren both hustled even in their tournament losses.

Holmgren often found himself in foul trouble, but he was still an intimidating force around the rim and used his length to deter shooters from attacking the basket. Smith had a terrible scoring performance in Auburn’s loss but he was still going HAM on defense.

Banchero hasn’t shown that he regularly register blocks like Smith can, and he’s not the rim protector that Holmgren is. Hustling and staying locked in could propel him to the top of more team draft boards. With Duke in the Final Four, he can prove what he can do when he stays focused.

Team environment, role, and opportunity are always critical factors in determining the success or failure of prospects. It’s especially true this season with three top prospects who have diverse skills and weaknesses. Banchero would not be the first choice for every team. Sacramento, for example, already has Domantas Sabonis, so Smith could be ranked ahead of Banchero. But imagine pairing Banchero with Myles Turner and Tyrese Haliburton in Indiana, or sending him to Portland, where Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons could be his partners in the pick-and-roll. There’s a world in which Banchero is a high-performing rookie on a competitive team, or he could grow a culture with a current rookie like Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, or Josh Giddey. Everyone will have their own preferences.

Don’t be surprised if your favorite draft analysts all have different people ranked first this year. Luckily for me, there are no French point guards in this class.