Since entering the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1989, the Orlando Magic have had the first overall pick in the NBA Draft three times prior to this year’s festivities.
Two of those three picks, Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 and Dwight Howard in 2004, eventually led them to one NBA Finals appearance each which remain the only two occasions that Orlando has ever made it that far. O’Neal and Horward immediately turned into two of the most dominant centers that the NBA has seen over the last 30 years and are still regarded as the best players to ever suit up for the Magic.
With Orlando landing the first pick in the 2022 NBA Draft–their fourth in their history and first in 18 years–which coincidentally featured three big men as its top three prospects, the fortunes of this tortured team suddenly took a familiar turn for the better.
The Magic kept their strategy under wraps in the build-up to the draft and wound up choosing Paolo Banchero from Duke University to the surprise of many pundits. It was widely believed that Auburn’s Jabari Smith, who eventually went third overall to the Houston Rockets, was their preferred choice in the days leading up to the selection and Chet Holmgren from Gonzaga was also a possible pick.
Banchero now has the unenviable challenge of reaching the same heights that his first overall pick predecessors have brought Orlando to, with the daunting goal of exceeding them and finally winning a title. The comparisons to O’Neal and Howard’s tenure are inevitable as a Magic first overall pick and big man, though his game is more resemblant of the one that they traded away.
Chris Webber, picked on top of the 1993 NBA Draft by Orlando a year after they had the privilege of landing O’Neal, was traded on draft night for the prolific guard Penny Hardaway whom the Golden State Warriors selected two slots later at third.
Like Banchero, Webber was an agile 6’10 power forward with a strong frame that allowed his inside-out offensive game to thrive. He also had a knack for playmaking and the ability to handle the ball in an era where skillful players at his position was still far from the norm.
While Webber ultimately did not win a championship, he averaged 20.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game during his 15 years in the NBA which helped him earn five NBA All-Star appearances and, eventually, a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Banchero has all the same tools that allowed Webber to thrive and if the breaks go his way, he should quickly mature into a similar–or even better–player for the Magic. His steady jumper, court vision, and passing acumen should allow him to fit right in with the promising young core that is already present in Orlando.
The forward pairing that he will establish with Franz Wagner, last year’s eighth overall pick, has immense potential given the multidimensional skill sets that both players possess. The 20-year-old Wagner, who has a fantastic feel for the game and plays with a tempered pace, exceeded expectations in his first year in the league and was named a member of the NBA All-Rookie team.
Furthermore, the return of Jonathan Isaac from the various knee ailments that have sidelined him since the NBA Bubble in late 2020 will be a key development to watch. If he can successfully regain his pre-injury form, the Magic can potentially roll out a dynamic and interchangeable frontcourt with three all-around players who are at least 6’9 that will pose a match-up problem for almost any team in the league.
Wendell Carter has also established himself as a reliable option as their starting center while the backcourt trio of Cole Anthony, last year’s fifth overall pick Jalen Suggs, and Markelle Fultz continues to grow into a solid group.
Though it is clear that Banchero is not lacking support on this talented Orlando roster, the majority of the pressure to win will inevitably fall on his shoulders. Statistics alone will not be enough to prove that he was worthy of the honor of being the first overall pick. He will have to lead the Magic to playoff success sooner rather than later, akin to what O’Neal and Howard did during their stints with this team.
Banchero will also have to overcome the added burden of constant comparisons to Smith and Holmgren who were scooped up right after him and will most likely carry a chip on their shoulders whenever they face off.
Although the task ahead is daunting, Banchero was picked by Orlando for a reason and it will be fascinating to see how the next few months turn out for him as he transitions into the NBA. The next chapter of the Magic is now underway and the hope is that this is the one that finally ends with them finally making their way to the top of the league.