For Duke, and especially the five former Blue Devils who found NBA homes, it was a night to remember.
Thursday’s NBA Draft in Brooklyn, N.Y., began with Paolo Banchero walking across the Barclays Center stage to meet league commissioner Adam Silver, who would welcome him to the Orlando Magic and the elite society of top picks. By the end of the night, four of Banchero’s Duke teammates had also joined the professional ranks, making program history and adding to a growing Blue Devil presence across the Association.
In the process, the bulk of the core of Duke’s most recent Final Four team—now set to begin their NBA careers in five different cities from Minneapolis to Orlando—reached the end of the line. And even after all they accomplished together along the road to New Orleans this past season, their final college chapter Thursday still seemed nothing less than a dream.
Banchero’s rise to the top
Long before either player checked into a college game, Banchero and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren appeared to be on parallel paths. Both were top recruits, gifted big men and tantalizing NBA prospects headed to college basketball powerhouses on opposite coasts.
That inexorable link gave November 2021’s Blue Devil-Bulldog showdown in Las Vegas, already a battle of top-five teams, some extra flavor. So when Banchero, who had yet to burn down the net in a Duke uniform, came out and dropped 20 lightning-fast points in the first half as his Blue Devils took down the No. 1 team in the country, it seemed that the do-it-all freshman had gained pole position in the early NBA Draft race.
Somewhere between that moment and Thursday’s draft, though, Banchero became the forgotten candidate in a three-player conversation that also included Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. It didn’t hamper Banchero’s confidence in himself—from his draft declaration in April on, he remained adamant about one thing: He was the best player available.
“I feel like I am the best player in the draft,” Banchero said in a pre-draft availability last week. “And I feel like I showed that throughout the year.”
“If I’m drafting a guy number one, he got to be able to go get it,” associate head coach Chris Carrawell said in his pre-draft availability, in which he called Banchero the draft’s best player.
Banchero, Holmgren and Smith each boasted a convincing case to end up in Orlando as the draft’s first choice, but what presumably separated the Duke product—the eventual selection—is the “go get it” that he showed against Gonzaga that night in Las Vegas and again as he paved the Blue Devils’ path to the Final Four.
But as the sun rose on draft day, Banchero—who never worked out for the Magic—was almost surely headed elsewhere. Despite some chatter over some betting odds movement in Banchero’s favor, Smith remained the overwhelming favorite to end up walking across that stage first.
The rest, of course, is history, as Banchero became the top pick in a turn as stunning as it was swift. And for Banchero, who put the puzzle together only moments before Silver took to the stage, it all made for an emotional sequence.
“I can’t believe what just happened, honestly,” Banchero told ESPN’s Monica McNutt after Orlando's selection. “I never would have thought that this would happen. I wanted to be in the NBA, but I didn’t know I would be here, man, I really honestly didn’t, so this is unbelievable.”
In the end, Banchero found himself crying tears of joy for the first time in his life. Whether he believed it or not, the next stage of his journey had arrived in the happiest of ways.
A final legacy
Had Banchero’s draft fate been different, it still would have been a historic night for Duke.
For center Mark Williams, the young and energetic Charlotte Hornets are an ideal fit. The Atlanta Hawks were a surprise destination for AJ Griffin, but the sharpshooting wing’s perimeter game should be vital all the same. Wendell Moore Jr., is pro-ready for the Minnesota Timberwolves after a transformative third year at Duke. Trevor Keels is getting a shot under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks—his landing spot is particularly fitting as a callback to where his NBA Draft journey began.
With the exception of the Timberwolves, each of those squads already rosters at least one other former Duke player. Banchero, for one, will join forces with Magic center Wendell Carter Jr.
“Definitely gives you a little bit of ease,” Banchero said during his introductory press conference Friday in Orlando. “Just because you know they got your back.”
Duke didn’t get the five first-rounders that once seemed to be a possibility, but with Keels’ selection, the program still rewrites its own record book with five single-draft selections.
More than anything, the professional potential of this group is one final mark for these five to leave at Duke after entering an awe-inspiring chapter in the long book of Blue Devil basketball. Together, their longevity and success would go a long way toward making sure that the players responsible for head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final march to the Final Four will not soon be forgotten.
This is, after all, Krzyzewski’s final draft class after his retirement from coaching in April, and his fingerprints were all over Duke’s historic night. For Banchero, dressed in Washington purple to honor his home state, Krzyzewski’s impact was at the forefront.
“Coach K, he really taught me how to really be a man,” Banchero said. “Being so far from home, he was there for me, whether it was criticizing me, telling me when I was messing up or complimenting me and letting me know what I was doing well, he was always there. He’s the greatest coach I've ever had.”
All who go through the Brotherhood deal with the expectations of competing at a decorated program like Duke, but few teams were tested under pressure like Krzyzewski’s last. That team, heavily featuring Thursday’s five selections, rose to the challenge in the NCAA tournament, nearly serving up a fairytale ending in spite of all the eyes looking on.
That pressure should only grow for Banchero—the odds-on Rookie of the Year favorite—and the rest of Duke’s historic draft class. If their time in Durham is any indication, they should be well-equipped to handle any burden that the NBA throws their way.
“I feel like it’s nothing I’m not used to,” Banchero said. “It was the same thing for me heading into college, throughout high school had a lot of expectations, it’s been like that kind of my whole life. So I’m just going to approach it the same way I’ve always approached it and have fun with it and really just buy into the team, and we’ll go from there.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.