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'His Upside is Tremendous': Versatile Kaleb Banks Brings Tough, Humble Attitude to Indiana

Kaleb Banks received 10 stitches over his eye during the state championship game, and he's gone head-to-head with Jabari Smith, the third pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The versatile freshman is quiet, humble and might not realize how good he is — or how good he can become — but surrounded by talent in a basketball-crazed environment at Indiana, Banks is right where he needs to be.

Kaleb Banks raced toward the ball, but he collided with a defender before corralling the rebound. Blood dripped from a gash over his eye onto the hardwood floor at the Macon Coliseum. Seconds into the Georgia Class 4A state championship game, Banks needed 10 stitches.

There's no way would Banks return to the game after a freak accident like that, Fayette County coach Andre Flynn thought to himself. Standing in shock, Flynn came to terms with losing his 24-point per game scorer.

“It’s the state championship, we just gotta go play,” Flynn told his team.

Fayette County — Banks' high school about 20 miles south of Atlanta, Ga. — won its first three playoff games by 14 or more points. They had even played without Banks in the past, but this was the state championship, and an undefeated Baldwin team was the opponent.

As a doctor treated Banks’ eye, Fayette County fell into a seven-point hole. The Tigers would eventually find their composure playing without Banks, but still trailed at halftime. 

As they came out for the start of the third quarter, to everyone's surprise, so did Banks.

“OK, I’m ready to go,” Flynn remembers Banks saying with a bandage over his eye. “He’s a tough kid when you talk about adversity. He wanted to play.”

Indiana freshman Kaleb Banks performs rope workouts at Cook Hall in Bloomington, Ind. 

Indiana freshman Kaleb Banks performs rope workouts at Cook Hall in Bloomington, Ind. 

Baldwin maintained its lead throughout the third quarter, taking a three-point lead into the fourth. Flynn said it was clear Banks wasn’t his normal self – scoring eight points and seven rebounds – but he still found ways to impact the game. 

“I knew [Banks] was something special because even if he wasn’t scoring, the other team had to account for him,” Flynn said. “In terms of unselfish basketball IQ, we knew that just by him being on the floor, he was going to be a factor in the game.”

Late in the fourth, Banks broke the Baldwin full-court press and dished a pass to Cardell Bailey, who drilled a 3-pointer on the wing to give Fayette County a four-point lead. But with 3.8 seconds left, Baldwin’s William Freeman hit a pull-up jumper from just inside the free throw line to take a one-point lead. Banks heaved an off-balance 3-pointer from a few steps in front of half court, but it bounced off the back rim, handing Fayette County a crushing 54-52 defeat.

"We felt like if we had Kaleb the whole game, we felt like we would have been champs," Flynn said. 

It was a difficult conversation, but after the game, Flynn told his team that the only way to respond to the loss is to learn from it and improve. Ahead of Banks' senior season, that meant working on his ball-handling to round out his game as a versatile wing player.

The following season, Banks was the Georgia Class 4A Player of the Year. He exceeded the 2,000-point milestone, scoring 23 points per game with 10 rebounds and 1.4 steals. He scored at an efficient rate, making 63 percent of field goal attempts with a 38 percent mark from 3 during his senior season. 

Banks led Fayette back to the state playoffs, only to go out in an eerily similar way. On a last-second shot for the second consecutive season, Fayette was knocked out of the playoffs in a 66-65 loss to Dougherty.

Flynn believes these season-ending losses have taught Banks how to deal with adversity, and that the disappointing losses don't define someone, instead it's the response that will. 

"Things are not going to go your way," Flynn said. "I’ve always told my guys, that that’s called life. What do you do now?"

For Banks, the No. 83-ranked player on Sports Illustrated's SI99 rankings, that meant heading north to Bloomington, Ind. to play for Indiana coach Mike Woodson. Flynn said Woodson's NBA connections built from coaching the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks were among the deciding factors during Banks' recruitment.

Kaleb Banks rises up for a shot during practice at Cook Hall in Bloomington, Ind. 

Kaleb Banks rises up for a shot during practice at Cook Hall in Bloomington, Ind. 

With Banks, Flynn said Indiana is getting a big, versatile wing who can score at all three levels. At 6-foot-7, 200 pounds, Banks guarded anyone from point guards to centers in high school. Flynn thinks Banks can earn minutes as a freshman at Indiana with defensive quickness and a natural willingness to hustle and play hard. 

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"[Banks] has all those intangibles to go out there and stop somebody at the wing position," Flynn said.

While the physical skills are obvious when watching Banks, Flynn noticed a high basketball IQ from Banks when opponents tried to shut him down. 

More often than not, opposing teams would try to double team Banks. Some opponents even tried a box-and-one defense against Banks, but Flynn always felt confident in Banks making the right read no matter which defense was thrown at him. With a smaller defender on him, he had the patience to post up on the block. Against a taller defender, Banks would pull him out of the lane and try to beat him off the dribble.

"A lot of times kids want to force it, but Kaleb would make the right reads," Flynn said. "He was always smart enough to recognize the situation and try to take advantage of it.”

Even with this combination of jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism, 3-point shooting and basketball IQ, Flynn believes the humble Banks doesn't realize how good he is, or just how good he can become. Still, Flynn never asked too much of Banks. He delivered the same message every day.

"Just be Kaleb Banks."

That was true even leading up to Fayette County's matchup against Sandy Creek High School and top NBA prospect Jabari Smith.

Banks and Smith played for the same AAU program, the Atlanta Celtics, creating an intriguing head-to-head matchup between two of Georgia's top players who knew each other's games well. Banks, a junior at the time, and Fayette County traveled to Sandy Creek for the matchup headlined by Smith, who was the No. 7 player in the nation as a senior.

"Man, he wants to guard you," Flynn told Banks before the game. "[Smith] may be the best player in high school, and he wants to lock you down because he knows how good you are."

Early in the contest, Flynn remembers Banks attacking with a firm dribble, pushing Smith toward the free throw line. Over a tough contest from Smith, Banks nailed a mid-range jumper, and Flynn could sense the confidence growing in his star player.

"That was probably the moment where I was like ‘OK, Kaleb knows he can play in this thing,’" Flynn said. "[Banks] was going to go at [Smith], no picks or screens, just me and you right here."

Banks led Fayette County in scoring with 24 points and four rebounds. He even outscored Smith, who put up 14 points, but it wasn't enough. Sandy Creek won 74-59 behind 25 points from Myles Rice, who now plays at Washington State. Despite the loss, Flynn thinks this performance helped Banks' confidence, realizing that he could compete with a McDonald's All-American-caliber player. 

The 6-foot-10 Smith would become an All-American the following season as a freshman at Auburn, scoring 16.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game with 42 percent 3-point shooting. Smith was the third overall pick by the Houston Rockets in the 2022 NBA Draft.

Kaleb Banks looks up at the rim at Cook Hall in Bloomington, Ind.

Kaleb Banks looks up at the rim at Cook Hall in Bloomington, Ind.

While it's unlikely that Banks' freshman season will compare to Smith's due to Indiana's returning production, Flynn believes Banks' versatility creates tremendous upside for the future.  

It's going to be an adjustment for Banks going from the high school to college game, but Flynn thinks Banks' personality lends well to the environment at Indiana. He's a quiet and humble kid – almost an introvert, according to Flynn – but beneath is a player who loves to be challenged and only cares about winning at the end of the day. 

Banks will have the chance to learn from Indiana's four returning starters, including forwards Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis. He'll also be surrounded by a rabid fan base, a reason he chose Indiana. 

"[Banks] will thrive in that type of atmosphere," Flynn said. "He’s only going to get better."

Kaleb Banks goes through offseason workouts at Cook Hall in Bloomington, Ind.

Kaleb Banks goes through offseason workouts at Cook Hall in Bloomington, Ind.

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