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Column: How does Paolo Banchero compare to past Duke men's basketball star freshmen?

Banchero is still on track to be a top-three pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Banchero is still on track to be a top-three pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.

Everyone loves a good old-fashioned comparison.

With 12 outings under his belt, Paolo Banchero is as advertised. Through midrange precision, prowess on the break and a multifaceted defensive repertoire, the Seattle native is a primary reason for the Blue Devils’ perch as a top-25 unit in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom. 

Even when you just sit down and look at the tape, it’s glaringly obvious why many in NBA circles consider the versatile forward a safe bet in relation to Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Auburn’s Jabari Smith, the other two members of the consensus top three in the upcoming draft class. Banchero is, simply, the total package, with 17.1 points on 48.7/33.3/82.5 splits and 7.3 rebounds as proof.

So why not go into how the O’Dea alum stacks up in recent Duke lore? Since 2010, one-and-done talents have been the focal point of the Blue Devils’ recruiting strategy, and Banchero is the latest edition of that strategy in action. When you take the five most effective Duke freshmen of the past decade plus, Banchero has an interesting case against some. Let’s take a look at how the 6-foot-10 freshman stacks up, based on the numbers through nonconference play and his all-around ability. 

Jabari Parker 

Parker was a double-double machine throughout his 35 college games, pushing a team with no other top-10 recruits to an appearance in the ACC tournament final and a No. 3-seed in the Big Dance. His efficiency was eerily similar to the shooting splits that Banchero is putting up right now, and much like his fellow five-star, Parker could simply call for the ball at the elbow and go to work. 

At the same time, Banchero is a better distributor and defender than the Chicago native, shown by plays like his lob to Mark Williams against Gonzaga and Duke’s ability to switch one through five when Krzyzewski puts his top diaper dandy at center. Plus, his tour de force in the first 20 minutes against Gonzaga was one of the best halves of basketball anyone has played all season. This is a close one, but I have to give the nod to Banchero. 

Edge: Banchero

Jahlil Okafor

With the breakout performances of Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen in that March run, is it crazy to say that Okafor’s dominance flies under the radar? Not many freshmen in this era have had that kind of footwork on the low block, and Okafor was an elite finisher around the rim—an area that Krzyzewski continually has said Banchero needs work in. 

While the consensus All-American often took a backseat to his supporting cast in the two matchups against North Carolina and during the Final Four, Okafor was still the most consistent piece of a title team. That gives him the advantage in this debate. 

Edge: Okafor

Marvin Bagley III

His college career may have ended with a heartbreaker in the Elite Eight, but 21 points and 11.1 boards a contest is still staggering. Recent freshmen to put up similar numbers include Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley, and Bagley’s heroics led to an exhilarating second-half comeback against North Carolina on Senior Night. Not too shabby. 

Banchero is clearly a more effective on-ball defender than Bagley was, despite the latter being able to explode from the weak side to swat shots into the stands. If we are talking about who fits in the modern NBA, then the answer is Banchero and it’s not too tough of a decision. But this is purely about their respective performances in a Duke uniform, so unless Banchero kicks it into a whole new gear in ACC play, Bagley wins this one.

Edge: Bagley

RJ Barrett

Probably the toughest comparison of this exercise. Ontario’s native son was silky smooth and supremely gifted as a pure scorer coming into college. Banchero, though, is more efficient on 2 and 3-pointers than the Knicks guard was as a Blue Devil—a trend that can be attributed to the former’s polished jumper and constant size advantage. Neither player can be guarded effectively in most single coverage situations. 

That being said, Barrett’s per game statistics are incredible considering who his running mate was—more on that guy in a second. Dropping 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists alongside Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones should not get lost to history. When it comes to the pros, Banchero will likely be easier to construct a roster around. But when we look at what they have done in college, and the Washington native obviously still has time, give me the lefty.

Edge: Barrett

Zion Williamson

This section will be done quickly, I promise. As unique as Banchero is, there will never be another Zion. Thanks to his weekly appearances on SportsCenter and stuff like this, the South Carolina native had the most memorable freshman season of any player this century outside of maybe Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis. 

Underappreciated court vision, remarkable defensive instincts and a knack for clutch moments were the cherry on top for Williamson, whose time at Duke is still talked about on campus by those who were there to see it. Banchero is better from the charity stripe and possesses superior footwork, yet this one is a lock. Williamson, after all, was one of two unanimous selections to our all-decade team and was taken second in our all-time Duke draft this past spring.  

Edge: Williamson

Looking back, this puts Banchero in rare air. I may have chosen four of the five previous one-and-done’s over the 250-pounder, but the fact that he was even in some of those debates after just 12 games shows that he has indeed lived up to the hype. One differentiating factor is Banchero’s supporting cast, which I believe fits as well as any Blue Devil unit sans 2015. 

Now that ACC play is off and running, it’s time to see if Banchero can keep up this pace. If last week’s Virginia Tech matchup is any indicator, I’m projecting that he will.


Max Rego

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

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