By Fawzan Amer
Throughout the evolution of time we've witnessed a multitude of changes to the game of basketball which has ultimately led to increased viewership, higher offensive prowesses, pushing the pace, the extension of the three point line and more recently the dynamic flow of running actions through big men on the perimeter. The Magic have adapted throughout these sequences of variables creating a lineup consisting of "positionless basketball" in the midst of their rebuild post the departure of Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. The name of the game in 2023 is versatility, and with that, the value of players who can effectively be plugged and played in a wide variety of roles on both ends of the floor.
The 6'10 number one overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft embodies the positionless tag to a tee. His unique versatility was on full display in the 2023 FIBA World Cup playing the small ball five role in a Golden State Warriors themed offense under four time champion Steve Kerr. Team USA played small throughout the FIBA World Cup in order to kick its defense into overdrive, to be able to shift through schemes as necessary and grind opposing countries down to dust. His fluidity as a non-traditional five allows him to stick guards in space. New Zealand, down fifteen late in the fourth quarter, run a high pick-and-roll forcing the opposing big (Paolo) to stay in front of the ball handling guard. Banchero gets beat off the dribble but is able to remain in the play due to swiveling his hips, showcasing that seven-foot wingspan as he recovers with a vicious one handed chase-down.
Banchero's ability to be a vertical threat combined with his man defense against all one through five positions on the floor unlocked opportunities for USA as seen below with his two-step load up shutting off the rim despite Josh Hart getting beat on a Carmelo Anthony-esque spin move to the cup.
Just a few plays later New Zealand resets into a traditional five-out look on offense with Paolo Banchero isolated on a guard at the top of the arc. The Magic rookie shades his hips to encourage a field goal attempt at the rim only for it to get erased from existence as he times his jump in stride to offer resistance at the rim. Typically when offenses run five-out looks to isolate the opposing teams big on the perimeter it forces the weak-side defenders to engage and drop lower but in this case Paolo's ability to be the anchor allows Bridges and Brunson to stay locked onto their defenders from downtown in the occasion of a kick out three pointer.
Another way he's been able to punish countries in the paint was through his individual interior defense in the post and low block. He holds his ground on the backdowns post players use to create advantages for easy paint touches down low. Displaying impeccable timing and backside resistance to alter multiple post hooks infuriating offensive coordinators as they're forced to scheme away from the 6'10, seven-foot one wingspan of the 20 year old Seattle native.
Paolo Banchero's defense played second fiddle in his ability to fit in within Steve Kerr's up-tempo style. After blocking shots, the Magic rookie would quickly downshift into enacting as the primary ball-handler running the ball up the floor, unlocking him to get into the paint to create advantages. In a more measured half-court setting, Banchero's development is paramount to his overall development as an offensive player. But often times after a rejection USA found themselves in four on five situations with defenses opting to play drop coverage against Banchero, and he'd makes them pay for their coverage decisions.
Primary ball handlers who crash the boards can push the pace in transition and get teammates a paint touch before the rest of the defense can set into their coverages. Banchero hauls in the rebound off his own rejection and dribbles near half-court keeping his eyes up scanning miscommunications or defensive breakdowns to exploit in transition. At just shy of half-court Banchero drops a pass into Austin's hands, Reaves misses with both New Zealand defenders hot on his tail but Tyrese Haliburton cleans up his miss for an automatic two points.
In half-court settings Steve Kerr sprinkled the Warriors "Delay Action" in Team USA's play-book to create advantage using Paolo Banchero as the man in the middle on offense.
Kevon Looney (Trailing Big as the "initiator at the top of the arc") 5-OUT with actions occurring on both sides of the floor... Prior to visualizing USA's version this is one of the Warriors variations of this concept which ends in a 45' cutting dunk by Kevon Looney against the Milwaukee Bucks late in the season.
In a tie game against Spain, Team USA elected to run the Warriors staple using "Delay Action" called (OPEN). Haliburton passes to the trailing big (Paolo Banchero). Team USA is in 5-out spacing with screening actions occurring on both sides of the floor. Paolo elects to go to the side with Austin Reaves setting a pin-down for Cam Johnson. Cam doesn’t get the look he wants and pitches it back to Banchero who dribble handoffs to Haliburton. A traditional pick-and-roll between the two gets read by Spain causing Haliburton to kick out to Bobby in the corner. Portis takes one dribble before pulling up for a one legged floater which comes off the rim — a back and forth affair on the glass ends with a tip-in from Banchero. In his rookie season Banchero attempted seven tip-shots resulting in only one made field goal.
Similar look in another "Delay Action" set with Paolo initiating the offense at the top of the arc. Banchero scans the left side of the floor and works his way to the right eventually pointing to Josh Hart to set a pin-down for Cameron Johnson (Chicago Action). Johnson, a career 39.3 percent three point shooter gets a clean look off from nearly twenty-four feet out but can't cash in to extend USA's lead against Slovenia.
Unlike your traditional lumbering center who either do all their work in the paint or act as the primary screen and roll big lob threat with limited on-ball responsibility, Banchero's offensive ability to create for himself is what causes havoc for defenses when he's placed in the five slot. Here he is once again handing off to Nets forward Cameron Johnson off a pin-down from Reaves as he rolls to the cup. A Haliburton rim run drive causes Paolo's defender to tilt his head as he debates internally whether to help or stay glued at the hip. The Pacers All-Star guard picks up on it and throws a one handed pass into Paolo's shooting pocket for a routine pull-up jumper with a jab step combo.
Due to his uniquely imposing physical profile and how masterfully he uses his large frame, he's a foul-drawing machine. Isolating from up top with a live dribble as he throws a crossover exploding into his defender's core where the only two options are deathly; surrender for buckets or send him to the charity stripe.
That offensive versatility to act as the initiator, foul drawing machine and operate with a live dribble allowed Paolo to be weaponized primarily with him as the screener in the short roll throughout the FIBA World Cup. His ability to punish switches, hedging defenses and catch and finish in the low block at a high success rate. The awareness of creating scoring options in space as he does against Greece. Empty-Side pick and roll between Johnson and Paolo as Banchero slips out of the screen early using a power dribble off the catch to earn himself a free ticket to the line.
He's also someone who can punish more aggressive coverages with dives to the basket in the rolls. Steve Kerr continued to explore different options on offense in lineups with Paolo Banchero at the five. Quick screen-the-screener double high ball screen for Tyrese Haliburton and the former number one overall pick is open on the dive with Slovenia showing two on the ball.
When opposing countries take away the dive on the rolls when showing two on ball defenders Paolo's mid-range game is able to encapsulate the lid off defenses creating his own on-ball scoring. New Zealand switches to blitz Anthony Edwards and Banchero is given ample space to attack as he casually sets up for a warm up mid-range pull up to further extend USA's lead.
Roping Paolo's center play in FIBA to his rookie season in the NBA, there were only 153 offensive and 146 defensive possessions Jamahl Mosley displayed his lottery pick as the "five" in lineups. With only three percent of his rookie minutes being consumed from that slot it's tough to gauge numerical components due to the small sample size. What was noticeable however, was the margin of space created within the half-court creating ample scoring opportunities for a team that struggled to get going from long range on a nightly basis. Opposing rim protecting centers such as Brook Lopez and Team USA teammate Walker Kessler gave him room to shoot as they're more accustomed to sinking down low and defending the low block.
When opposing head coaches whipped up counters to Jamahl Mosley's small ball lineup it opened the floodgates for the 6'10 Duke product to attack the basket, using his blend of power and finesse to punish the lack of a rim protector on the floor.
The other component with Paolo at the "five" unleashed transition opportunities for the Magic to exploit -- a team built to push the pace offensively. As a team, the Magic took 120 shots with Paolo Banchero playing without a listed center on the floor alongside him, connecting on 45.8 percent of field goals.
Defensively, Orlando's small ball unit was able to unleash hell from beyond the arc as teams struggled to routinely flourish from downtown due to the speed of close-outs and fly-byes, holding opposing teams to a mere 31.8% from beyond the arc.
It would be imperative for third year head coach Jamahl Mosley to implement more Paolo small ball five minutes after what was displayed during the FIBA World Cup due to Steve Kerr's scheme. At the start of Magic training camp earlier this season Head Coach Jamahl Mosley was asked if there were plans internally to schematically position the team accordingly to showcase unique lineups by replicating Paolo at the five — coach Jamahl Mosley noted, "The great part about Paolo is he took away from [FIBA] being able to play multiple positions, and we had done that earlier in the year last year where he was at the point some games. But I think this [small ball five] is a great look to be able to see the game from all sides."
A significant factor in the Magics' success will be determined by how they are able to elevate their 26th ranked offense to the next level this upcoming season. The Magic begin the regular season on Oct. 25 in a matchup against the Houston Rockets at home where the fog will clear, providing some much needed scopes into the offensive pathways as the team looks to insert themselves into the playoff mix.
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