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Paolo Banchero vs. Chet Holmgren Is the Draft Showdown To Watch

Friday night’s tilt between Duke and Gonzaga is a rare matchup between two candidates for the No. 1 pick.

It’s not often we get the most important game of the scouting calendar this early in the season, nor is it even always obvious in real-time which games are actually the most valuable. So let there be no underhyping Friday night’s tilt between Gonzaga and Duke, at least not from the perspective of the NBA draft, with No. 1 pick candidates Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero set to test their mettle head-to-head.

This is a rare opportunity for scouts to watch two elite college prospects square off and conceivably spend large chunks of the game defending each other. The matchup also comes early enough that a consensus hasn’t yet formed as to who the top draft pick should actually be. The last game I can think of with this particular type of draft-relevant gravitas was the Kansas-Duke game that opened the 2013 season, where eventual top two picks Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker faced off in a contest that also included No. 3 pick Joel Embiid. Wiggins outplayed Parker in the game’s second half and ultimately was drafted first. (In hindsight, had Embiid not been injured going into the draft, he may have ultimately gone ahead of both.)

One game should never provide anyone’s entire evaluation of a player, but there’s often an indelible impact that comes from seeing two prospects playing against each other. No matter how hard scouts will try not to overreact, there’s no denying Banchero and Holmgren are facing real pressure to perform, and that NBA teams will study the game film to death for months to come.

Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren

The Race For No. 1

As I see things right now, Banchero has a slight lead as the top prospect going into Friday. He entered the week as the projected No. 1 pick on SI’s first mock draft of the season. Through Duke’s first six games, he’s proven to be a fairly simple eval: he is supremely skilled with the ball, is polished enough to produce in the NBA right away, and has the ability to eventually anchor an NBA offense. His passing ability has begun to emerge as well, with six assists (to go with his 28 points) in Monday’s win against Citadel helping highlight his ability to improvise against pressure and shoulder a heavy possession load. The way he moves and the variety of tricks in his bag are unique, and nobody in college basketball has really had an adequate answer for him yet.

Banchero has obvious star potential and is viewed by scouts as having relatively little risk attached, other than his defensive impact being capped by his lack of elite length (6' 10 with a 7' 1" wingspan) and vertical explosiveness. Efficient shot-creation is everything in the NBA, and he’s going to supply that.

Holmgren enters Friday with much more to prove to scouts, but also comes directly off Tuesday’s dominant performance against UCLA, in which he showcased his strengths without really needing plays called for him. He’s shooting 86% on two-point attempts right now and, at 7' 0" with a 7' 6" wingspan, he’s a true rim protector in a way Banchero will never be. He can handle, pass and shoot, although some aspects of his face-up game may not directly translate to that type of usage against stronger defenders.

The fact he weighs only 195 pounds can’t be dismissed, and there’s a valid question about staying healthy with his frame, but Holmgren does his best to make up for it by embracing physicality and using his length. The way I see it, his upside is tied primarily to the fact that he may be able to bring together lineups that can play a true positionless style on offense while having adequate cover at the rim on the other end. The fact that most of the NBA has moved away from post-up play on both sides of the ball naturally enhances Holmgren’s value.

What To Watch For

As for what we can hope to see on Friday, there’s a chance the two players will still spend time directly matched up on each other even though both Duke and Gonzaga will play double-big lineups most of the game. The Blue Devils will likely want to deploy Mark Williams and Theo John on Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, who’s set himself apart as the best post scorer in college hoops. Conversely, the Bulldogs won’t want to leave Timme on an island against Banchero. So there’s real potential for this to deliver on expectations, dictate the conversation surrounding the No. 1 pick, and be the most meaningful game to scout all season.

No matter which player you favor in the debate at No. 1—and it’s worth noting that Auburn forward Jabari Smith is coming on strong as a candidate in conversations behind the scenes—I think Holmgren has more at stake on Friday. Frankly, it’s easy to understand Banchero’s fit at the NBA level. Short of laying a total goose egg against Gonzaga, it’s hard to see how this game drastically changes how we view him. If there’s a key to watch, it’s whether Holmgren’s length affects Banchero’s shot selection over the course of the game, which will offer some insight into how he’ll handle that type of size in the NBA.

For Holmgren, there are a few factors at play that magnify the opportunity in front of him. He’s just so unique—there’s nobody in the NBA with his body type—that really evaluating him bears an extra level of examination and the limited opportunities to see him face quality competition make this especially important for him. Duke’s bigs—particularly Banchero and Williams—are the closest thing he’ll see to an NBA frontline all season. If the Blue Devils can put bigger bodies on Holmgren in close quarters, how will he respond? How much are his rim-protecting skills abetted by the poor skill level of most college bigs? And will he see as many easy opportunities in the paint against a team that can better match his length?

Gonzaga mauled UCLA in transition, which played to Holmgren’s strengths and allowed him to operate frequently in space. If Duke can turn this into more of a halfcourt game, it will challenge Holmgren to rise to the occasion and force his way into gameflow as a rebounder, shot-maker and play-finisher.

There are valid questions about what the best centers are worth in the modern game, but Holmgren’s ability to potentially play all three frontcourt spots in the NBA means he could smash that convention. He could be a more offensively dynamic version of Kristaps Porzingis, which would be a terrific player. The question teams will have to ask is whether that’s better in theory than whatever Banchero and Smith (who is six months younger than Banchero and an entire year younger than Holmgren) might become.

The odds are teams will have new questions to ask and items to ponder after Friday’s game no matter what. Banchero has a chance to make a statement and assert his dominance as the top player in the class. Holmgren can help put all but the most fervent doubts to rest if he continues to produce. These are discussions we’ll be having frequently between now and June. We’ll know much more in less than 24 hours.

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