The seeds of a strong NBA debut for Orlando Magic rookie Paolo Banchero, the No. 1 pick in June’s draft, were planted early in Wednesday’s season-opening 113-109 loss to the Detroit Pistons.
What emerged was an all-time rookie performance.
A player having 27 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists — Banchero’s stat line against the Pistons in addition to 2 blocks — in their first game is rare. Banchero became the fifth player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, and the first since LeBron James in 2003-04, to have 25-plus points, 5-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists in their NBA debut.
Not a common feat, but the way Banchero played off his teammates early made it easier.
Six of Banchero’s 11 field goals were assisted, including three of his 4 in the first half. There was his timely cut into the paint while Wendell Carter Jr. was posted up on the left block after Banchero’s defender, Saddiq Bey, lost track of him while moving off the ball. The result was Banchero scoring his first basket with a turnaround hook shot over Bey.
Banchero scored his second bucket, a dunk, after Carter passed to him on a cut to the rim. His fourth came after a Jalen Suggs steal near midcourt with Suggs assisting Banchero on a dunk and helping the 19-year-old forward establish his rhythm early.
“All those buckets I got to start were all by my teammates,” Banchero said. “Really I just had to dunk the ball or laid it in that first half. I hit one jumper but other than that it was me finishing the play.
“Give credit to my teammates [for] finding me. It’s always nice to see the ball go in that early and get easy buckets around the rim. That’s how I try to play, inside-out, try to get easy stuff around the basket and expand out.”
Banchero did most of his damage around the rim, scoring 10 of his 11 field goals within three feet of the basket and making 5 of his 7 free throws. But the degree of difficulty grew as the game went on.
He was a force in transition, driving up the floor with force as a ball handler and filling the lanes off the ball. His dunk over Cory Joseph, deservedly, was the highlight everyone talked about after the game.
But the way he controlled the Magic’s offense late was advanced for a rookie, especially in their debut.
Banchero scored 13 of the Magic’s 26 fourth-quarter points, mostly on fastbreaks, getting into the paint decisively and with ease.
“As he got comfortable, the game slowed down for him a little bit,” coach Jamahl Mosley said. “He registered how they were playing him. His ability to make plays down the stretch was huge.”
Although Banchero’s 27 points were the most scored by a No. 1 pick in their debut since Allen Iverson scored 30 on Nov. 1, 1996, he felt like he left points on the table, including four missed layups — two of which were relatively uncontested — and two missed free throws.
“It’s crazy, I felt like I left a lot of points on the board,” Banchero said. “Missed some shots I could’ve made.”
Like all rookies, Banchero knows he has more room to grow.
He had 4 of the Magic’s 18 turnovers, 2 of which were bad passes. Banchero got into foul trouble early, finishing with 5. He was caught reaching in for the ball multiple times instead of staying vertical, even when he made the right rotation or had the proper positioning to disrupt the play without reaching.
“A lot to work on,” Banchero said. “I wasn’t disappointed with the way I played. I thought I played hard, I thought I played to the end. I thought we played hard.”
Although the Magic dropped their season opener, Banchero’s performance had his name being mentioned alongside legends: James, Iverson, Grant Hill and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It’s way too early to project what Banchero’s career will look like but his first game left encouraging signs of what his future could hold.
“It means a lot,” Banchero said. “Obviously, would’ve liked to win. I just wanted to play hard, [and] play for the team. It’s a blessing.”
The Magic (0-1) will play the Hawks (1-0) in Atlanta Friday at State Farm Arena. The game has a 7:30 p.m. scheduled tipoff and can be watched on Bally Sports Florida/Bally Sports+ or listened to on FM 96.9 The Game.