Paolo Banchero knew that Thursday would be a special day, the beginning of his NBA career.
He had no idea of the plans of the Orlando Magic, the team selected first in the NBA draft that night. When he found out, minutes before NBA commissioner Adam Silver called his name, he couldn’t believe it.
“This is not even a dream,” Banchero said. “I feel like this is a fantasy. I dreamed of being in the NBA, but being the first overall pick — that’s crazy.”
The Magic selected Duke University forward Banchero as the first pick in Thursday’s draft. He is a 1.80m, 100kg forward whose mother, Rhonda Smith-Banchero, played in the WNBA.
In the minutes before his name was called, Banchero was sitting at a table on the floor of the Barclays Center with no emotion on his face. The Magic were on the clock and word began to spread that Banchero might be their choice. Cameras crowded around him, but he didn’t react externally. Only when he heard her name did his expression change.
He lowered his head, looked up and smiled with tears in his eyes.
“I was telling everyone I wasn’t going to cry, no matter what choice I made,” Banchero said. “It just hit me. I couldn’t stop.”
In his only season at Duke, Banchero averaged 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year.
The picks for the rest of the top five: Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren 2nd for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jabari Smith Jr. of Auburn for the Houston Rockets in 3rd, Keegan Murray of Iowa for the Sacramento Kings in 4th and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey for the Detroit Pistons in 5th.
Three prospects are believed to have split at the top of this year’s draft: Banchero, Holmgren and Smith.
Holmgren nodded and smiled subtly as he heard Banchero’s name called out first. When Silver called his name, Holmgren grinned, pausing for handshakes and long hugs with his family.
“I have a thousand emotions to describe this moment,” Holmgren said during an interview that was broadcast at the arena in Brooklyn. “It’s surreal and everything I expected.”
Holmgren, 20, is a lean, seven-foot-tall center who grew up in Minneapolis and was named Mr. Minnesota Basketball in 2021. He was a schoolmate of Jalen Suggs, whom the Magic selected fifth overall in 2021. They each spent a season at Gonzaga.
Holmgren led Gonzaga to a 28-4 record and averaged 14.1 points per game while making 60.7% of his field goal attempts. He also averaged 9.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. Gonzaga entered the NCAA tournament as the #1 seed overall, but was upset in the round of 16.
In the days leading up to the draft, rumors circulated in the media that Orlando had decided to select Smith first overall. As he waited for his name to be called, Smith looked disappointed. When Silver finally announced his name, another prospect, Tari Eason of Louisiana State, who played in the same conference, jumped out of his chair to clap his hands for Smith.
“I know it was a possibility, so when it didn’t happen, I was surprised,” Smith said of the prospect of being selected first. “You know, all the guys for the pick are great players. They bring a lot to the table. It was like I said in the other interviews: it was a coin toss. So when it happened, you know, I was happy for them, cheering and waiting for my name to be called.”
Smith, 19, spent a season at Auburn after a distinguished career in high school basketball in Georgia. He played for the same team Amateur Athletic Union as another number 1 pick for the Magic: Dwight Howard. Smith’s father, also named Jabari Smith, spent parts of four seasons in the NBA in the early 2000s.
Jabari Smith Jr. was named Southeast Conference rookie of the year and a second-team American last season. Smith is a 6-foot-1 forward with the ability to shoot from the perimeter. He hit 42.9% of his 3-pointers and averaged 16.9 points per game at Auburn.
The first surprise of the night was Murray’s pick by the Kings in 4th place, given the expectation that Banchero, Holmgren and Smith would be in some order in the top three. Viewers at the Barclays Center exploded at the announcement.
Murray is the highest-selected Hawkeye in the school’s history. The 6-foot-1 forward won first-team all-American consensus last season and finished fourth in Division I with 23.5 points per game. He led the Hawkeyes to a 26-10 record and a first-round appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Ivey spent two seasons at Purdue before declaring for the draft. He averaged 17.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game during his sophomore season.
The Magic won this year’s lottery after finishing the season 22-60, the worst record in the Eastern Conference and the second-worst record in the league. Only the Houston Rockets, who had the third pick in this year’s draft after a 20-62 season, won fewer games than the Magic.
This year marked the fourth time in franchise history that he made the first overall pick. The Magic drafted Shaquille O’Neal with the first pick in 1992; Chris Webber, whom they immediately traded for Penny Hardaway in 1993; and Dwight Howard in 2004.
Hardaway and O’Neal’s duo yielded an appearance in the NBA Finals, but no championship for the Magic. Howard also led the Magic to a final in 2009.
Later in their careers, O’Neal and Howard won championships while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers – O’Neal in 2000, 2001 and 2002, and Howard in 2020.
Prior to Banchero, the last Duke player selected at No. 1 overall in the NBA draft was Zion Williamson in 2019. Banchero follows two point guards — Anthony Edwards (2020) and Cade Cunningham (2021) — to earn the distinction of being the first pick. .