Paolo Banchero became the frontrunner to win Rookie of the Year race from the very moment that he went No. 1 in last year’s draft.
And nobody caught him.
Banchero was announced Tuesday night as the overwhelming winner of the top rookie award for this season, after the Orlando forward led all first-year players in scoring and helped the Magic improve from a 22-win last season to a 34-win club that contended for a play-in berth this season.
The former Duke standout averaged 20 points per game. He had 15 games of at least 25 points and 40 games of at least 20 points, both the most among rookies this season. And he won rookie of the month four times, each of those announcements only further indicating that he was ahead of the field.
He became the third player to win rookie of the year as a member of the Magic, joining Shaquille O’Neal in 1993 and Mike Miller — who represents Banchero — in 2001. Banchero, on the TNT broadcast of the announcement, recalled a conversation he had with Miller on draft night.
“He looked at me and he asked me if I was going to be rookie of the year,” Banchero said. “I confidently said yes. It was just a goal I've always had, something I had my eye on from the second I got drafted. I'm glad I was able to do it.”
Banchero got 98 of the 100 first-place votes from a panel of writers and broadcasters who cover the league. Jalen Williams of the Oklahoma City Thunder was second and Walker Kessler of the Utah Jazz was third. Kessler got the two first-place votes that Banchero didn't receive.
Banchero is the first No. 1 pick to win the award in the season immediately after getting drafted since Karl-Anthony Towns in 2016; Ben Simmons won the award in 2018, two years after he went No. 1.
Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said one of his biggest takeaways from Banchero’s first season was an on-court maturity and willingness to play the right way.
“He had an ability to adjust in-game to whatever was asked of him to impact winning,” Mosley said.
Banchero freely acknowledges that he’s not a finished product, and Mosley said the team wants him to lock in on certain areas over the offseason.
“I think there’s so many ways in which he can grow,” Mosley said. “I think a lot of times rookies will come in and they’ll try to do everything. The biggest talk with him is just to have a focus on one or two pieces for the summer, where he can improve in certain areas — because he’s going to work. I don’t think that’s going to be any question whatsoever.”
In the final chapter of his season-long rookie diary for The Associated Press, Banchero also detailed some of the ways he wants to improve over the coming months.
“I want to be more consistent, more dangerous from 3-point range next season,” he said. “There were stretches during this year where I shot the ball well. I just need to find the consistency. I think expanding my range in Year 2, then just getting in best shape I possibly can — I think I was in good shape this year, but just want to take it to another level. To get to where I want to be, everything’s just going to have to be kicked up a notch. And I’m looking forward to that.”
Banchero becomes the sixth person to receive one of the NBA’s top individual awards so far in this award season, following the reveals of Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. as defensive player of the year, Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox as the inaugural winner of the clutch player award, Kings coach Mike Brown as a unanimous pick for coach of the year, Boston’s Malcolm Brogdon as sixth man of the year and Utah's Lauri Markkanen as the league's most improved player.
That only leaves the biggest individual prize of all — MVP.
Two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic of Denver is a finalist again, along with Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. The NBA has not said when the MVP trophy will be handed out.
The All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defensive teams also have yet to be revealed.