When the Orlando Magic kicked off a rebuild in March 2021 centered around young talent, they could’ve only hoped to put themselves in this position.
The position to win the NBA’s draft lottery last month. The position to select Paolo Banchero with the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft.
Whether Banchero will live up to the long-term expectations of a No. 1 pick won’t be answered immediately.
What is known is the drafting of Banchero is the single most significant decision the Magic’s basketball operations leadership, led by president Jeff Weltman, has made since deconstructing the roster and the organization’s biggest draft-day decision since taking Dwight Howard over Emeka Okafor with the No. 1 pick in 2004′s draft.
Although it wasn’t clear if there was a franchise-changing player available in this draft, making the choice for No. 1 more difficult than most years, the Magic made the right pick based on where they’re looking to go.
“I’m very confident that we are going to get a guy with size, talent, IQ, skill, character — everything that we want to be about,” Weltman said ahead of the draft. “We’re going to add him to our group of already exciting young players. We’ll put him in a position to fully maximize his potential. Beyond that, it goes where it goes.”
Why Banchero was the pick
This year’s draft wasn’t like some years where the No. 1 pick is an “easy” decision like it was when Cade Cunningham, Anthony Davis or LeBron James were available.
The feeling entering Thursday was that Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith were all good options for the top pick, but none great enough to separate themselves within the tier they shared with each other.
With the margins as thin as they were, Orlando decided to fill its biggest need which is why Banchero was the pick.
Throughout the 2021-22 season and the early stages of this rebuild, the Magic lacked a reliable offensive hub. They had the league’s second-worst offensive rating, only behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, last season.
Banchero may be the closest thing to a go-to offensive option in this draft class. It’s the bet Orlando is taking.
Orlando values versatility, defensive intensity, playing with pace and space and communication. Offensively, Banchero is there. There are concerns about his defense, but the Magic have the infrastructure to cover for him as he progresses on that end of the floor. Coach Jamahl Mosley demands defense.
The Magic needed someone to make life easier for them offensively, and they chose the player who they believe will do that.
“The best feature he brings,” Weltman said Thursday, “is he makes it easier for other guys to play.”
It helps that Banchero fits among the players Orlando already has in place.
He has the combination of size, skill and offensive prowess that helps him score in myriad ways. Banchero’s a smart playmaker and the best passer of the trio considered for the top pick.
There also will be room for big man Mo Bamba, who started for the Magic throughout the 2021-22 season and will be a restricted free agent this offseason.
Banchero hasn’t been shy about proclaiming that he’s the best player in this year’s draft class.
Now, he’ll be looked upon to be the catalyst for the Magic to level up, which Mosley has said Orlando needs to do this offseason.
“The thing about Paolo is there is no one thing [that makes him stand out],” Weltman said. “He’s such a multi-positional player. He fits the modern NBA. That’s one of the things the league is looking for. You don’t have these guys very often. You say the most NBA-ready, I agree. What gets lost in that sometimes is the incredible growth he has as well. He’s going to get a whole lot better.”
As for how drafting at No. 1 will impact the Magic’s approach to the 2022-23 season, Weltman’s reiterated before Thursday that Orlando will continue to be patient with its rebuild.
“You guys know we didn’t do all the roster deconstruction we did so we can rush back to the middle,” he said. “That’s not what we’re trying to do. Right now, we want to play better basketball, make fewer mistakes, increase our IQ, build chemistry and continue to understand which of our players are going to impact winning. We do want to get better, but not at the expense of rushing back to mediocrity. We do want to have something sustainable. You have to elevate the standard to do that. You can’t just stay at the basement level.”
But there’s pressure on the Magic — especially externally — to become a winner again quickly.
There’s been a recent common trend among the teams who’ve been in the Magic’s position before drafting at No. 1. Teams that won fewer than 30% of their games before drafting the top pick in the last 15 years typically made marginal improvements to their winning percentage the following season before making a more significant leap in the No. 1 pick’s second season.
As Weltman said after the Magic won the draft lottery, Orlando was “privileged to have the pressure” of the No.1 pick.
Now, they’re privileged to have that pick turn into a player — Banchero — and the expectations that come with it.