The top three picks in the 2022 NBA Draft all turned out to be big men, as expected, but their order of selection provided a gigantic twist.
Duke forward Paolo Banchero surprisingly was chosen by the Magic with the first overall pick Thursday night at Barclays Center, ahead of the previously projected consensus top two — Auburn forward Jabari Smith and Gonzaga big man Chet Holmgren.
“This is one of the best moments of my life. … This isn’t even a dream. I feel like this is a fantasy,” the 19-year-old Banchero said. “I dreamed of being in the NBA, but being the No. 1 overall pick, this is crazy.”
Holmgren went second overall to the Thunder, while Smith slipped a couple of spots from most mock drafts and was chosen third by the Rockets.
Oklahoma City, which began the day with 17 first-round choices over five years, was busy with three picks among the first 12 selections and the 30th overall, as well. The Thunder acquired No. 11 (Ousmane Dieng) from the Knicks for three conditional future first-round picks, helping facilitate the dumping of Kemba Walker’s contract to the Pistons to clear salary cap space.
A handful of smaller deals across the league didn’t match last year’s draft, which was rocked by the blockbuster trade of Russell Westbrook to the Lakers.
The bigger surprise this year came at the top of the big board. Earlier Thursday, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas essentially had eliminated the 6-foot-10 Banchero, who wore a bright purple suit to the ceremony, from consideration for the top spot.
“Paolo Banchero is worthy of the No. 1 pick in a lot of years, just not this one,” Bilas said. “Jabari Smith and Chet Holmgren are valued a little bit more, but I think … physically, [Banchero] is ready. Especially on the offensive end right now.
“At 6-10 and close to 260 pounds, he’s really powerful. … He’s not a shot blocker, but he rebounds at a really high rate and can run the floor. He’s got everything you want and I can’t imagine if you see Holmgren and Smith go 1-2 in whatever order that Banchero is not the obvious next choice.”
Bilas previously had mentioned Smith and Holmgren, the rail-thin 7-footer who averaged 14.1 points and 3.7 blocks per game in his first year for the Zags, in the same breath as two former league MVPs.
“With Jabari Smith, you have somebody who compares just a little bit to Kevin Durant with his ability to shoot the ball and he’s a big-time offensive player and he can defend multiple positions and block shots,” Bilas said. “He’s not a great offensive rebounder but as a defensive rebounder, he’s productive. I think he’s the No. 1 pick.
“Holmgren is kind of a baby Giannis Antetokounmpo with the way he plays and you sort of have to get over his body because you don’t see a lot of his body style in the NBA. Or, at least, you haven’t traditionally. But Holmgren is the real deal. So I think it’s a difficult decision. If it were mine, I would take Jabari Smith, but only by a little bit.”
Both players ended up being selected behind Banchero, who registered team-highs in both scoring (17.2 points per game) and rebounding (7.8) as a freshman in helping Duke and Mike Krzyzewski reach the Final Four in the longtime coach’s final season.
“I feel like they really, really prepared me as best as anyone could,” Banchero said. “I was a good player when I came in, but I think they really took me to another level and helped transform me as a player.
“Coach K, especially on and off the court, he’s a great, great advice giver, great leader and he’s the greatest of all time.”