BY DAVID THORPE
Trent Forrest is with the Jazz now. But two years ago, the first time he met incoming freshman Scottie Barnes, he was the ACC defensive player of the year and the winningest player in Florida State history. The first time they ever shared a court, a pickup game at a friend’s house, Barnes assigned himself to guard Forrest, and hounded him all game, all over the court. Minds were blown.
Similarly, on their first day as Gators, roommates Corey Brewer, Al Horford, and Joakim Noah (plus Taurean Green, their fellow freshman point guard) sat around the shared living room and wondered what they should do with some hours to kill.
“After we moved our stuff in, we were just sitting there and were like, ‘Let’s go to the gym,’ Brewer said. ‘So me, Taurean and Al went to the gym and started shooting, and here comes Jo in the gym being Jo, crazy. The first thing he says, ‘I like you guys already, my type of dudes. Y’all are already working out.’ From then on, we were just gym rats. That’s the first time I was like, ‘Oh, we’re all the same.’”
The group won back-to-back national championships and earned over $400 million dollars in NBA salaries to date. It’s fair to say they live for the game.
Why would I start a column discussing the draft prospects I like just before the NCAA tournament begins with two tales that took place before even one practice? As a lens to assess the NCAA tournament, which starts in earnest in a few hours. You are about to see some high energy play. In the tournament, everyone plays their brains out–it’s a cinch to get excited where every game is win or go home, and the winner is the national champion.
But if you’re looking for a player who fits the NBA’s 82-game tempo, mostly played on League Pass, ideally you want someone who has fire like that even for a League Pass game in November. In the NBA there isn’t really an offseason, it takes players willing to train their bodies, minds, and games relentlessly. Only the most competitive guys make it, more or less, the guys with the ambition to succeed and the drive to ensure it. Which is why scouts and executives watch prospects any time they can, not just in March. You could have learned a lot about Scottie Barnes from a pickup game at a friend’s house.
Nonetheless, every game gives us a chance to learn something about a prospect, and we’re about to see some good ones. Here’s what I’ve seen so far from the consensus top-four prospects (in alphabetical order) plus one intriguing center:
“I’m kind a stretch, do-it-all 4, and I can play the 3 too. I can kind of do whatever, play on the wing or play inside, but if it was up to me I would prefer kind of in the midrange, 16-17 feet out, and just kind of operate from there.” —Paolo Banchero
I remember talking to an assistant GM about Ron Artest back in 1999. The executive’s big question: what is he? Play him at the wrong position, and he might lose the thing that made him NBA-ready to begin with. Duke’s Paolo Banchero probably has some NBA teams wondering similarly. At 6-10, on a powerfully built 250-pound frame, Banchero can be a small-ball center, a versatile scoring and passing wing, or a classic power forward. This is why I like his quote above. Even if teams don’t know how best to use him, he knows how he wants to play. That’s a start.
Most draft experts rank Banchero as a sure-fire top-three pick and I suspect they will be right, no matter what happens in the tournament. Not a lot of freshmen average 17 points a game on a top-ten team. In the short term: You probably can’t get fired for drafting a prospect with that biography.
Will it prove to be a good pick in the long term? Banchero isn’t particularly quick or explosive, but he is definitely agile for such a large man. Add his solid ball handling skills and his feel for passing (which I rank higher than anyone else I’ve read), and he becomes a can’t-miss power forward for a decade. To a lottery team, he’s probably a starter from day one. And as he can log key minutes as small-ball center, he’s probably a game finisher from day one, too. With a four-year rookie deal and a five-year extension, a Paolo pick could deliver nine years of starting play.
Banchero hit 30 percent of his 3s this season but shows elements of form–we can talk about this more on Friday’s BRING IT IN–that make me think he’s very capable of being a solid deep shooter in time.
There are a few players who I think of when I see Banchero play.
The Bulls’ Pat Williams is less polished, but more athletic and a better shooter. In both cases these are prospects with very high floors; Banchero looks to be more ready to play on offense and Williams on defense.
Carmelo Anthony knew early how to operate inside or with his mid-range game. Anthony was quicker as a freshman, and more skilled with the ball, but footwork-wise they are both fundamentally sound in knowing how to pivot around defenders and create space for their scoring actions. without over-dribbling. Power forward in size, small forward in skill and feel with the ball.
There’s some Lamar Odom to Paolo Banchero’s game as well; skilled at everything but, so far, struggles to put it all together for long stretches. I often said that Odom was in the “too talented” category, guys who are so good that the game is easy for them, which can sap the instinct to pulverize opponents at all times. (If you have a Lamborghini, you might not feel the need to learn the backroad shortcuts.) Maybe it’s Duke’s system of ball movement, and maybe his next team will challenge him to be more assertive. Any way we look at it, Banchero could have scored 25 points per game this year. Similar in both: All-Star potential, at the least.
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