Gen Z is coming for the NBA. Paolo Banchero is ready to lead the movement.

gen z is coming for the nba. paolo banchero is ready to lead the movement.

Gen Z is coming for the NBA. Paolo Banchero is ready to lead the movement.

Paolo Banchero processed the sting from the Orlando Magic’s first-round playoff exit by getting straight back to work. There was plenty for the all-star forward to lament — a narrow loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 and a second-half collapse in Game 7 — but within a few days his focus had shifted to the opportunity before him.

As the 21-year-old Banchero began assembling his offseason workout schedule last week, he observed the NBA’s rapidly changing landscape. Anthony Edwards, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 22-year-old guard, was going toe-to-toe with the defending champion Denver Nuggets. Twenty-five-year-old stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luka Doncic were dueling in the Western Conference semifinals; Jayson Tatum, 26, and Tyrese Haliburton, 24, were eyeing the Eastern Conference finals.

Meanwhile, after dominating the discourse and leading title teams for more than a decade, the league’s most prominent elder millennials — LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry — were all on summer vacation. Younger millennials such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis had been sent packing, too. The NBA’s power balance had finally shifted to Generation Z, the label given to people born between 1997 and 2012.

“A lot of these guys I’m playing against — KD, Bron, Steph, Paul George, [James] Harden — I’ve been watching since I was 8 or 9 years old,” Banchero said by telephone from Orlando shortly after the Magic’s May 5 finale. “Now that I’m in the league, it puts into perspective how long these guys have been playing at a super high level. There’s a lot of young talent that’s on the rise quick. There’s some of that where the guard is changing. These younger players are starting to have teams built around them and they’re in position to take over. You look at [Edwards]. The team he has around him is one of the best in the NBA. That’s motivation for me.”

The turnaround

Banchero, the No. 1 pick in 2022 NBA draft and the 2023 rookie of the year, has wasted no time becoming the face of Orlando’s own promising youth movement, earning his first all-star nod in February. Despite having the NBA’s fourth-youngest roster and second-cheapest payroll, the Magic won 47 games, its most since 2010-11, and claimed the East’s No. 5 seed. Fierce and cohesive, Orlando showed major progress from the team that won 34 games last season and just 22 in 2021-22, the season before Banchero’s arrival.

“We’ve got to remember where this organization and team was just two years ago,” said former NBA player Mike Miller, Banchero’s agent and president of LIFT Sports Management. “They’ve come a long way. Some people would say [Banchero is] ahead of schedule, but in his mind and my mind, he’s right on schedule. He has the maturity and desire to be the face of the league.”

Banchero averaged 22.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists in the regular season, but he kicked his game up a notch in the playoffs by posting 27.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game against a quality Cavaliers defense. James and Doncic are the only other players in NBA history to match those playoff numbers at age 21 or younger.

While Orlando didn’t telegraph its interest in Banchero during the pre-draft process, he has already emerged as the organization’s first franchise player since Dwight Howard, the 2004 No. 1 pick who played eight seasons with the Magic before his 2012 departure.

“He never backed down,” Magic Coach Jamahl Mosley said after Banchero posted 38 points and 16 rebounds in the Game 7 loss. “He wanted every ounce of whatever [the Cavaliers] were throwing at him. He did a great job attacking the rim, trying to find guys and rebounding the basketball. All the things we’ve asked him to do in these big moments, he did. This [first-round exit] wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but to see this young man embrace the stage and the spotlight is something you can look forward to in the future.”

That Banchero and the Magic have taken to each other so quickly is something of a surprise. The two parties communicated only a few times before the draft, leading Banchero to conclude he would probably land with the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 2 or the Houston Rockets at No. 3. A draft week Zoom call with Mosley and Magic executives finally let Banchero know the organization had serious interest in selecting him.

“I didn’t know a lot about Orlando,” he said. “I probably knew two of three of their players. I didn’t know anyone else or the coach, really. Being from Seattle, the Orlando Magic don’t get a lot of airtime on TV, especially on my side of the country. Aaron Gordon was the last Magic player I had seen on TV.”

gen z is coming for the nba. paolo banchero is ready to lead the movement.

The Orlando Magic made Paolo Banchero the top pick in the 2022 NBA draft, a decision that has fueled a quick turnaround. (John Minchillo/AP)

The television networks still haven’t caught on to the Magic, but Banchero has found a home as the offensive anchor of a defensive-minded team. Mosley oversaw a physical and unrelenting defense that ranked third in the NBA during the regular season, while Banchero posted team highs in points, assists and usage rate on a roster that was lacking in proven playmakers and ballhandlers.

Orlando’s staff has helped Banchero expand his scoring profile beyond his bread-and-butter midrange jumpers and trim the lowest-percentage looks from his shooting diet, developments that paid dividends in the playoffs. His physicality attracted extra defensive attention from the Cavaliers, who aimed to keep him out of the paint, and his improved outside shooting kept the Magic’s offense from stalling out at key moments.

In a sign of his positional versatility, Banchero often functioned as a 6-foot-10 point forward for Orlando after being deployed by USA Basketball Coach Steve Kerr as an undersized center during last year’s FIBA World Cup. Banchero’s ceiling as a player should continue to rise as he blossoms outside the traditional mold of a scoring forward.

“MVP is the award you dream about,” he said. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic for me to get there at some point. I’m trying to be the complete player. I’m not there yet. But that’s my vision for myself: A guy who doesn’t have any weaknesses on either side of the floor and who can go out there and do everything. Once I got drafted, all that was on my mind was being the best rookie. I kind of got anxious heading into my second year [because] I was back along with everybody else and part of the field. My mission is to be the best in the league.”

Climbing higher

When USA Basketball revealed its 12-man roster for this summer’s Paris Olympics, Banchero was one of several rising stars left off the veteran-dominated squad. Since the April announcement, two frontcourt players included on the Olympic team — Embiid and Kawhi Leonard — were limited by health concerns during the playoffs.

Grant Hill, USA Basketball’s managing director, said last month that the program had a “contingency plan at every position” in the event of player injuries or withdrawals. Banchero was noncommittal about whether he would accept a late invite if a spot becomes available.

gen z is coming for the nba. paolo banchero is ready to lead the movement.

Paolo Banchero was selected to USA Basketball’s FIBA World Cup team last year but was not included on its 12-man roster for the Paris Olympics. (Aaron Favila/AP)

“If something was to happen like that, I would have to talk to my people and make a decision,” he said. “I enjoyed my experience last summer, but I feel like having a full summer [to train] would help me a lot.”

Miller said Banchero’s comprehensive offseason regimen is focused on his conditioning, catch-and-shoot efficiency and explosive moves to earn free throws. Eventually, the hope is that Banchero can become the first Magic player to average 30 points per game since Tracy McGrady in 2002-03.

To help make that a reality, Orlando, which has been linked to Golden State Warriors forward Klay Thompson in free agency rumors, must add complementary offensive threats.

“[The front office] wants two-way guys who add to what we already have in terms of our defensive identity, length and versatility,” Banchero said. “Shooting is a big part of what we need to improve on, whether we go and get somebody or try to develop guys. I don’t know which way they’re going to approach that. And having a guy who can set the table and be reliable. We have a lot of talented guys who can make shots and make plays: me, Franz [Wagner] and Jalen Suggs. I would rather be more of an offensive hub than the point guard, if that makes sense.”

Miller said the Magic should be careful not to “overreact too much” this summer, but he agreed that acquiring “shooting and another playmaker” should be an organizational focus because Banchero “had a lot of heavy lifting this year.”

Whether or not Banchero finds his way to Paris, his top priority is leading Orlando to its first playoff series victory since Howard led a 2010 Eastern Conference finals run.

Such a sharp change in fortune seemed highly unlikely when the NBA world waited to see whether the Magic would select Banchero, Chet Holmgren or Jabari Smith Jr. with the first pick two years ago, but the rise of Edwards’s Timberwolves, Gilgeous-Alexander’s Thunder and Haliburton’s Indiana Pacers this season has made the goal seem more attainable.

“In terms of the playoff environment and the stage, I definitely felt at home with the slower pace and the physicality that the refs let go,” Banchero said. “The possessions matter more. It all suits me better. I fell in love with it right away. We have a lot of guys [like Wagner and Suggs] who have winning in their DNA, and it’s only a matter of time before it translates to success in the league. People need to watch out. They’ll see eventually. We’re trying to come for it all.”

gen z is coming for the nba. paolo banchero is ready to lead the movement.

The Orlando Magic has the ability to build around its young core with significant salary cap flexibility this summer. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

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