Paolo Banchero knew Thursday would be a special day, the start of his NBA career.
He had no idea of the Orlando Magic’s plans, with the team selecting first overall in the NBA draft that night. When he found out, minutes before NBA commissioner Adam Silver called his name, he couldn’t believe it.
“It’s not even a dream,” Banchero said. “I feel like it’s a fantasy. I dreamed of being in the NBA, but being the first overall pick is crazy.
The Magic selected Banchero, a forward from Duke University, with the first pick in Thursday’s draft. He is a 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward whose mother, Rhonda Smith-Banchero, played in the WNBA. He was a guard earlier in his basketball career and played football and basketball at O’Dea High School in Seattle.
In the minutes before his name was called, Banchero sat at a table on the Barclays Center floor showing no emotion on his face. The Magic were on board and word started to spread that Banchero might be their pick. The cameras gathered around him, but he didn’t react outwardly. It wasn’t until he heard his name that his expression changed.
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 was chosen,” Banchero said. “It just hit me. I couldn’t stop it.
In his lone season at Duke, Banchero averaged 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game and was named Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year.
The picks for the rest of the top five: Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren at No. 2 at Oklahoma City Thunder, Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. at No. 3 Houston Rockets, Iowa’s Keegan Murray at Sacramento Kings at No. 4 and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey at the Detroit Pistons at No. 5.
Three prospects are believed to have split atop this year’s draft: Banchero, Holmgren and Smith.
Holmgren nodded and smiled subtly as he heard Banchero’s name called first. When Silver called his name, Holmgren broke into a broad smile, stopping for handshakes and long hugs with his family members.
“I had a thousand emotions to describe that moment,” Holmgren said during an interview that aired at the Brooklyn arena. “It’s surreal and everything I expected.”
Holmgren, 20, is a seven-foot-tall slim center who grew up in Minneapolis and was named Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2021. He was a high school teammate of Jalen Suggs, who the Magic drafted 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 No. 1 seed, but was upset in the round of 16.
In the days leading up to the draft, rumors swirled in the media that Orlando had decided to pick Smith first. As Smith waited for his name to be called, he looked disappointed. When Silver finally announced his name, another prospect, Louisiana State’s Tari Eason, who played in the same conference, jumped out of his seat to applaud 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 overall. “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 draw. So when it happened, you know, I was just happy for them, cheering for them and just waiting to be called.
Smith, 19, spent a season at Auburn after a stellar high school basketball career in Georgia. He played for the same Amateur Athletic Union team as another Magic No. 1 pick: Dwight Howard. Smith’s father, also named Jabari Smith, spent four seasons in the NBA in the early 2000s.
Jabari Smith Jr. was named a Southeastern Conference freshman and All-American second team member last season. Smith is a 6-foot-10 power forward capable of shooting from the perimeter. He made 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers and averaged 16.9 points per game at Auburn.
The first surprise of the night was Murray’s selection by the Kings at No. 4, as Banchero, Holmgren and Smith were expected to go in some order in the top three. Onlookers at Barclays Center erupted at the announcement.
Murray is the highest drafted Hawkeye in school history. The 6-foot-8 forward earned consensus All-American First-Team honors 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 in his sophomore season.
The Magic won this year’s draft lottery after finishing the season at 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, have won fewer games than the Magic.
This year marked the fourth time in franchise history that it was 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.
The pairing of Hardaway and O’Neal resulted in an NBA Finals appearance, but no championship for the Magic. Howard also led the Magic to a Finals appearance in 2009.
Later in their careers, O’Neal and Howard won championships playing for the Los Angeles Lakers – O’Neal in 2000, 2001 and 2002, and Howard in 2020.
Prior to Banchero, Duke’s last player selected No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft was Zion Williamson in 2019. Banchero follows two guards — Anthony Edwards (2020) and Cade Cunningham (2021) — to earn the distinction of being the first choice.