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Takeaways From Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith Jr.'s First NBA Duel

To no one’s surprise, the No. 1 pick looked comfortable in his NBA debut.

LAS VEGAS — Vegas Summer League tipped off Thursday night with a high-profile doubleheader, as the Magic and Rockets and Pistons and Trail Blazers faced off to open the festivities.

Let me preface all this with a disclaimer that Summer League isn’t necessarily worth overreacting to—it’s not the most structured or highest-level basketball, there are scant experienced NBA players who take part, and while it sounds a bit reductive, anyone can have a good day. But from a scouting perspective, there’s a lot still to be learned and observed about players’ tendencies, personalities and skill sets, which is part of what makes Summer League so compelling.

The second game, which featured lottery picks Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and Shaedon Sharpe, was somewhat underwhelming—Sharpe played just four minutes after sustaining what the Blazers called a shoulder injury, Ivey had some ups and downs, and Duren caught some lobs. But the first game was much more entertaining (despite an absurd 51 combined fouls), thanks to a marquee matchup between No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero and No. 3 pick Jabari Smith Jr., the latter of whom was my top prospect in the draft. Considering the circumstances, those two guys are going to be fascinating comparative foils moving forward: Banchero became a surprise No. 1 choice after the Magic kept their intentions secret, while Smith, who was widely projected to go first to the Magic, wound up falling to the Rockets at No. 3 after the Thunder took Chet Holmgren second.

Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith Jr.

I had Banchero ranked second, but I felt pretty strongly about Smith going into draft night: based on his jump shot, defensive profile and elite intangibles, I felt he was the best long-term developmental bet in the draft. I still feel that way. But what we saw Thursday does reinforce the generally agreed upon notion that Banchero is better-suited to anchor an NBA offense today. To no one’s surprise, the No. 1 pick generally looked comfortable in his debut, finishing with 17 points, six assists and four rebounds. He had an excellent first half, hitting several difficult, contested jumpers and making his presence felt as a passer. His combination of sheer size and skill with the ball in his hands makes him a unique prospect, and the confidence he displayed getting to his jumper was a positive sign. The Magic won 91–77, but Banchero did fade in the second half, shooting 1-of-6 from the field after the break.

The concern I have with Banchero, which I’ll point out as objectively as possible was that he didn’t create many easy looks at all over the course of the game. He was able to draw a couple fouls going into the paint, but didn’t create a ton of separation from defenders, which forced him into some of the difficult looks and led him to settle a bit too much. Because he’s not the type of athlete who’s going to finish over people or blow by them on an island, he relies more on using his heft to bump defenders and create angles for himself. That’s the type of shot diet that doesn’t always translate against NBA defenses. For Banchero to wind up as the best player in this draft class, his skill level is going to have to increase enough to overcome his lack of explosiveness in tight spaces. That’s not to say it can’t or won’t happen, but it’s something that’s going to be a factor in how he pans out.

Orlando should be a positive situation for Banchero to develop, with several intriguing young players surrounding him, led by last year’s lottery pick Franz Wagner. But I do worry that the Magic will need to put more shooting around him—and as soon as possible—in order to give Banchero space to operate and avoid packed defensive fronts. If he’s going to be maximized as an on-ball player, there’s going to be a learning curve for him attacking bodies, creating space and using that to maximize his considerable passing ability, which is arguably his best skill. The sooner Orlando can put four viable shooters next to Banchero—Mo Bamba should be a helpful frontcourt partner for him right away—the better it will be for his growth as a creator.

On that note, Jabari Smith certainly wasn’t helped by Thursday’s game environment, which included quite a bit of selfish play from his teammates and not enough easy looks for him. To be fair, some of that also falls in line with what we know about his weaknesses, as he isn’t an advanced ball-handler, doesn’t create much for himself off the dribble in isolation, and sometimes needs to be delivered the ball in optimal areas to score. There were several switch situations where he could have capitalized by simply shooting over smaller defenders, but didn’t receive the ball. It was a somewhat forgettable night, but he played much better in the second half as he got comfortable.

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Smith finished with a modest 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists on 4-of-10 shooting, but the Rockets should still feel quite good about all he has to offer. He was quite good defensively, particularly when squaring up in front of Banchero in space, where his length, size, balance and level of intent already make him a formidable, switchable presence. It’s already hard to score on Smith on an island. His underrated passing and unselfishness also stood out on a night where the ball seemed to stick everywhere else.

Jabari Smith

Smith remains one of the best jump-shooting prospects I’ve ever seen, and his ability to simply score over people is going to be a major separator. It’s a myth that he’ll need a guard-like handle to be a star when he’s as big and talented as he is. He makes difficult shots look easy in a way that most players can’t. But it’s also clear that at this stage of his career, his teammates are going to need to look for him and understand where and how to get him the ball. His sheer size and high release point will allow him to be effective in spite of that, but there will need to be more directive from the Rockets staff to look for him. It should actually get easier for him playing with better teammates during the season, and as chemistry and trust develops on the roster.

Summer League is Summer League, but it’s pretty clear that the 2022 draft is going to be something that gets re-litigated for a while. These things always take time. The rookie development of Smith, Banchero and Holmgren—who’s already had a strong debut showing for the Thunder in the Utah Summer League—should be an intriguing subplot this season. For better or worse, don’t get carried away yet. 

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