Well before Paolo Banchero was selected by the Magic with the first overall pick of last June’s draft he received important advice from Jayson Tatum, one of the few in position to truly understand his predicament.
Both players starred at Duke for one season before leaving for the NBA. And being a high-profile Blue Devil means becoming accustomed to extremes, from extra exposure to, well, some fans and opponents finding you kind of annoying.
“He told me, ‘Guys are going to come at you,’ ” Banchero said. “I think that’s been one of the biggest things I’ve seen and had to realize. Being a rookie and being the way I am, sometimes I’m not thinking like that, that I have this target. But that’s the case. When I play against good players or good teams they kind of have a little bit of extra motivation to try to stop me or make it hard for me. That’s something Jayson told me right away, before I even got to the NBA. It’s helped a lot.”
Banchero, 20, has been following Tatum since he was in middle school and Tatum was the national high school player of the year at Chaminade Prep in St. Louis. When Banchero committed to Duke, then-assistant coach Jon Scheyer, who has since replaced Mike Krzyzewski as coach, connected the two.
Banchero would pepper Tatum with questions about what it was like playing for Coach K, and what the Hall of Fame coach would expect from him. When Tatum watched Duke on television he’d text Banchero a few simple tips or words of encouragement afterward.
Tatum attended the Blue Devils’ game against Boston College in Chestnut Hill last February and had a lengthy chat with Banchero following the blowout win. Their friendship has continued to grow, and Tatum said he views Banchero as a younger brother.
“I just see somebody that obviously is on the same path that I was on,” Tatum said. “Obviously, he went to Duke and knew he was going to be one-and-done and ended up being the No. 1 pick. I’m not too far removed from being in his shoes, so I know what it’s like making that transition, and there’s a lot being thrown at you.”
The two often talk basketball, and Tatum has helped Banchero navigate off-court matters that can become quite complicated for a young man just two years removed from high school. Banchero asked for Tatum’s advice before picking an agent and a shoe deal. In October, he signed a multiyear contract with Jordan Brand, which also has an endorsement deal with Tatum.
When Tatum was drafted third overall by the Celtics in 2017, Boston was building a championship-caliber roster that would feature Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford. Tatum was somewhat shielded as he gradually made his way into the spotlight.
Banchero, meanwhile, has instantly become the face of this Orlando franchise that has not won a playoff series since 2010.
“In a way, he has more responsibility than I did in my first season,” Tatum said. “He’s still young, so just being able to help him, any questions he has, any advice.”
Banchero is averaging 21.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists for the Magic, who stretched their winning streak to five games with Friday’s 117-109 victory over the Celtics at TD Garden. He is the Rookie of the Year front-runner, and when he matches up against Tatum, his friend and mentor who has emerged as a leading MVP candidate, he sees glimpses of what he hopes to become.
“It’s been crazy,” Banchero said. “I’ve been following him since he was in high school, watched him at Duke, and he’s at the top of his game right now. He just shows that work he’s put in and that it doesn’t happen overnight. He goes through ups and downs, too, and it’s just motivating for me. And when we play each other, I’m just going to continue to go at him, because he’s definitely going to go at me.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.