Paolo Banchero knew Thursday would be a special day, the start of his NBA career.
He had no idea about the plans of the Orlando Magic, the team selecting first overall in the NBA draft that night. When he found out, just minutes before NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called his name, he couldn’t believe it.
“This isn’t even a dream,” Banchero said. “I feel like this is a fantasy. I dreamed of being in the NBA, but being the No. 1 overall pick — this is crazy.”
The Magic selected Banchero, a forward from Duke University, with the top pick in Thursday’s draft. He is a 6-foot-10, 250-pound power 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 floor of Barclays Center showing no emotion on his face. The Magic were on the clock and word began to spread that Banchero might be their pick. Cameras crowded around him, but he didn’t outwardly react. Only when he heard his 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 pick I was picked,” Banchero said. “It just hits me. I couldn’t stop it.”
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’s rookie of the year.
The picks for the rest of the top five: Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren at No. 2 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. to the Houston Rockets at No. 3, Iowa’s Keegan Murray to the Sacramento Kings at No. 4 and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey to the Detroit Pistons at No. 5.
Three prospects were thought to have separated themselves at the top of this year’s draft: Banchero, Holmgren and Smith.
Holmgren nodded and smirked subtly as he heard Banchero’s name called first. When Silver called his name, Holmgren broke out into a wide smile, stopping for handshakes and long embraces with his family members.
“I got a thousand emotions to describe this moment,” Holmgren said during an interview that was broadcast in the arena in Brooklyn. “It’s surreal and everything I expected.”
Holmgren, 20, is a rail-thin, seven-foot-tall center who grew up in Minneapolis and was named Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2021. He was a high school teammate of Jalen Suggs, whom the Magic drafted fifth overall in 2021. They each spent one season at Gonzaga.
Holmgren led Gonzaga to a 28-4 record and averaged 14.1 points per game while making 60.7 percent 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 overall seed, but was upset in the round of 16.
In the days before the draft, rumors circulated in media reports that Orlando had decided to select Smith first overall. As Smith waited for his name to be called, he looked disappointed. When finally Silver announced his name, another prospect, Louisiana State’s Tari Eason, who played in the same conference, leaped out of his seat to clap for Smith.
“I know it was a possibility, so when it didn’t happen, I was surprised,” Smith said of the prospect of his being selected first overall. “You know, all the guys up 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 flip. So when it happened, you know, I was just happy for them, clapped for them and just waiting to get my name called.”
Smith, 19, spent one season at Auburn after a distinguished high school basketball career in Georgia. He played for the same Amateur Athletic Union team as another No. 1 pick by 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 the Southeastern Conference’s freshman of the year and a second-team all-American this past season. Smith is a 6-foot-10 power forward with the ability to shoot 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 the selection of Murray by the Kings at No. 4, given the expectation that Banchero, Holmgren and Smith would go in some order in the top three. The spectators at Barclays Center erupted at the announcement.
Murray is the highest-selected Hawkeye in school history. The 6-foot-8 forward earned consensus first-team all-American honors this past season and finished fourth in Division I scoring 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 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, won fewer games than the Magic.
This year marked the fourth time in the franchise’s history that it 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 yielded one NBA finals appearance, but no championships for the Magic. Howard also led the Magic to one final appearance, 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.
Before Banchero, the last Duke 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) — in earning the distinction of being the top pick.