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'Best version': Paolo Banchero reps Seattle in his journey as Duke men's basketball's next star

<p>Paolo Banchero is a projected top-2 pick this season, and he's not looking to be No. 2.&nbsp;</p>

Paolo Banchero is a projected top-2 pick this season, and he's not looking to be No. 2. 

Six-foot-10, 250 pounds. A locomotive in transition and a skillset that NBA general managers crave. An understated, yet confident demeanor. A desire to take the torch of his city’s basketball lore and run with it. This is what defines Paolo Banchero.

As the No. 4 recruit and a candidate for the top pick in next year’s draft, Banchero will be the second-most followed storyline in Blue Devil land this season—I think you can guess the first. But without the breathtaking highlight reels or stunning reclassification a la Zion Williamson or Marvin Bagley Jr., it almost seems like Banchero is flying under the radar entering the season, as ridiculous as that sounds. So let’s pull back the curtain on the preseason second-team All-American, starting with an atypical recruitment. 

‘Couldn’t decide’

Back in August of last year, when Duke got the golden ticket in the form of Banchero’s commitment, recruiting analysts were, quite frankly, shocked that the Seattle native turned down his home-state school of Washington, where the Banchero name holds some considerable weight.  

His dad, Mario Banchero, was a tight end for the Husky football team, while his mom, Rhonda Smith-Banchero, scored 2,948 points and snagged 803 rebounds en route to becoming the first Washington player to enter the WNBA. With that type of legacy at a place so close to home, no one would have blamed the 6-foot-10 forward for keeping his talents in Seattle. But once Duke, Kentucky and Tennessee came calling, the decision ended up coming down to the wire.

“I’m not gonna lie, for a minute, it was like a four-way tie, like I couldn’t decide where I wanted to go for a long time,” Banchero told Duke men’s basketball alum Andre Dawkins of the Field of 68 podcast network. 

As the summer before Banchero’s junior year became crunch time for his schools of interest, the continued push from head coach Mike Krzyzewski, associate head coach Jon Scheyer and the rest of the Duke recruiting team eventually paid off

“Towards the end of July, they really started to separate themselves from all the other schools, and I kinda had my mind made up,” Banchero told Rivals.com on the timeline that led up to his late summer decision. “And my parents, they were happy with my decision, and they told me just to wait, just two weeks to think about it some more and whatnot. I waited, thought about it, and my mind didn’t change, so I committed.”

While the latter stages of the process were even more complicated thanks to the pandemic forcing visits to become virtual, Banchero was ready to announce before his senior season even got started, committing to the Blue Devils on Aug. 20. 

Now he’s here, ready to try his hand at leading Duke back to the Final Four and giving Krzyzewski a shot at one last title. Despite that daunting task, Banchero is well-equipped to handle everything that comes with this unique and expectation-laden journey.

‘Best version’

When Jason Kerr, a 29-year veteran of the Seattle high school basketball coaching scene, first met Banchero, the latter had not even started middle school yet. But even then, when it came to the basketball court, the young gun showed that he was special. 

“I was working out one of my former players rehabbing from the knee injury, and Paolo was in the fifth grade, and so his dad just kind of hit me up and said, ‘Hey, can [Paolo] jump in the workouts?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So he came through a series of workouts, and even all the way back to then, didn't behave, or play to what his age was, he was able to pick up on techniques and instructions and things at a pretty high level,” Kerr told The Chronicle.  

Kerr, now the head basketball coach at O’Dea High School since 2015, coached Banchero there for the last four years, with the two securing the 3A state championship in 2019. Throughout that time, Banchero, whose fairly laid-back nature masks his competitive drive, showed his coach how much the game truly meant to him.

“Winning takes priority over everything,” Kerr said of Banchero's internal motivation. “It’s what makes him a team first guy, it's what makes him a really good leader. It's what makes him the first one at the gym and the last one to leave. He’s driven to be successful, and whatever it is, even if it's, ‘I'm trying to be a good friend to my boy over here.’ He's gonna be the best version of that because it's just kind of what motivates him.”

Some of the traits that define his basketball makeup, particularly the ability to get back up off the mat, he learned from his time as O’Dea’s backup quarterback his freshman year. On 36 attempts, Banchero threw for 191 yards and three touchdowns and was part of an Irish club that captured the state title. 

Despite the limited stats, that year on the high school gridiron still went a long way for the freshman.  

“I learned a lot of things. Football was my favorite sport growing up, for a long time, and I would just say toughness, really,” Banchero said during the team's September media day on what he learned from his first love. “Basketball, no one can actually come out here and hit you.”

After a growth spurt, though, it became all hoops, and the accolades soon started to roll in. The Washington native put up 20.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists per contest across his sophomore and junior campaigns, landing him on the radar of every top program in the country and earning him recognition as the Gatorade National Junior of the Year in 2020. 

‘Carry on that legacy’

Committing to Duke meant committing to moving all the way across the country. O’Dea, a Catholic all-boys school in Seattle's First Hill neighborhood with an enrollment of just 507 students and an insulated environment compared to the grueling nature and bright lights of big-time college basketball, has produced just three pro basketball players. But the five-star was not only ready for the adjustment, he’s actually looking to thrust O’Dea, and Seattle, further into the spotlight, despite being tucked in the northwest corner of the country.

“Seattle’s a [basketball] hotbed,” Banchero said. “Me, Nolan Hickman, Jaden McDaniels, Kevin Porter… we’re like the newer generation. But as you know, there’s Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, so many other pros that have already played. So we just trying to carry on that legacy, and best believe there’s a lot of players behind us too.”

In heartbreaking fashion, Seattle lost its NBA franchise when the Supersonics left for Oklahoma City in the summer of 2008, but hoops is still a high priority in the Emerald City. Recent standouts include Porter of the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets’ ascending star Michael Porter Jr. and former Gonzaga sharpshooter and current Washington Wizard Corey Kispert, not to mention retired NBA veterans such as Crawford—the three-time Sixth Man of the Year—dunk-contest legend Robinson, Brandon Roy and Aaron Brooks. 

Despite this admirable list, if you ask a casual fan which cities produce the most NBA talent, they might bring up New York, Chicago or Philadelphia. Those are all suitable choices, but Seattle also deserves some love

“For those of us up here, some of us would maybe say out loud that, ‘Hey, we deserve more credit,’ but I think those that are a little more tightly associated to it already know what we're doing, and we're just gonna keep doing it,” Kerr said. 

Those aforementioned Seattle natives, active and retired, have all accomplished a great deal in the sport, but Banchero, well, he has a chance to one day outshine them all. Deemed a “mismatch nightmare” by Sam Vecenie of The Athletic, and someone with “an ability to push in the open court”—a trait that very few 6-foot-10, 250-pound players have—by Mike Schmitz of ESPN, the ceiling for the 18-year-old is apparently limitless. 

“I’m versatile. There’s nothing I can’t do, is what I would say,” Banchero said when asked about his skillset.

Banchero was aided in the journey toward that repertoire and the sterling accolades by his parents, with mother Rhonda in particular providing some tough love. A former coach herself, in addition to her past on the court, the matriarch of the family kept things in perspective for the budding superstar.

“She’s always been the one to just be there to humble me,” Banchero said. “Like I said, never too high, never too low. If I ever had a good game, she would always give me stuff that I have to work on even though I had a good game. Just growing up, she still critiques me on a lot of stuff, so she’s always gonna be there.”

Now that Banchero is here, though, don’t expect him to stray too far from his roots. The camaraderie that has been bred in the Seattle basketball community is real, as former local stars often take the up-and-comers under their wing and show them the path.

“Down the road, he's going to be that older guy I already know that is gonna reach backwards and grab that next young talent and kind of get them up there,” Kerr said.

When asked about who he models his game after, Banchero typically mentions his appreciation of Lebron James, but he acknowledges that his skillset is not a facsimile of the future Hall-of-Famer. Carmelo Anthony, Ben Simmons and Anthony Davis are all players that the former five-star has picked traits from, showing that while he may put up similar statistics to a lot of previous potential top draft picks, he arrives at them in unique fashion.

That gives Krzyzewski, in one of his final strategic balancing acts, a plethora of options on how to deploy his greatest weapon. 

“His versatility is tremendous, and we’ve had a lot of success in the past three decades or more of using a very versatile big in different parts of the court, and he can do that,” Krzyzewski said at the team's media day. “He’s smart, and he’s easy to play with.”

All the hours spent watching tape and all the ways that he is utilized on both ends notwithstanding, when push comes to shove, it’s his ability to still have that kid-like passion that keeps basketball as enjoyable as when he started. 

“I’ve been going to the gym every day since I was a young kid, so it’s nothing new to me,” Banchero said. “I’m just out here at Duke, with a new great team and coaches, but at the end of the day, the work that gets put in every day is the stuff I’ve been doing since I was a young kid.”

And if the clock starts ticking down toward zero, do not be surprised if Banchero has the ball in his hands, tasked as the one to make the key play. After all, his mantra for high-stress situations, “kNOw pressure,” is tattooed on his right forearm. The double-entendre signifies the need to understand the gravity of the situation, while simultaneously brushing off any negative feelings in the heat of the moment.

“Nah,” Banchero says with a smirk when asked about whether he tends to feel nerves. “I literally have it tattooed on me…. That’s just kind of the mindset I have. It’s never really pressure, it’s all fun. It’s basketball, I’m gonna go out there, I’m gonna be locked in, I’m gonna play as hard as I can to win, and usually when I do that, odds turn out in my favor.”

With this crop of players, it is possible that Krzyzewski's career ends with one last title run in New Orleans. If that is the case, then you can bet all the money in the world that the O’Dea alum will be the conductor of the symphony, the catalyst of the chemical mixture, the producer of the motion picture. 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what defines Paolo Banchero.

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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