Watching NBA games is a different experience these days for Paolo Banchero.
Like when the O’Dea senior tuned in last month to watch an opening-round playoff matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers. Banchero, a 6-foot-9 forward, watched as LeBron James had a pedestrian game statistically — finishing with 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the Lakers win — but showed off his creativity running an offense.
Could Banchero do the same as a pro, he wondered? Then his cellphone pinged with a notification.
“LeBron is going from point guard to point center,” read a text message from Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Great stuff for him and for you.”
The communication from a coach who has helped 65 players reach the NBA since taking the position at Duke for the 1980-81 season is the key reason Banchero committed to the program last month. Krzyzewski has compared Banchero’s basketball IQ to former Duke star Shane Battier and envisions an offense where Banchero could have the mobility of Mavericks star guard Luka Doncic.
“It’s really encouraging,” said Banchero of the five-time NCAA championship coach texting him. “He’s really thinking of me. He’s watching those (NBA) players and thinking of how he can have me doing that in his offense on his team and stuff like that. It’s crazy to know that Coach K is planning that far ahead right now.”
Banchero is regarded as one of the top three players in the nation for the Class of 2021 by Rivals.com, ESPN and 247sports.com. He had a breakout year as a sophomore, helping O’Dea win the Class 3A state boys basketball championship and racking up offers from most of the top college programs.
Many thought Banchero would select Washington because his mother played basketball and his father played football for the Huskies. But of the final contestants — a list that included Arizona, Gonzaga, Kentucky and Tennessee — building a relationship with Krzyzewski was the edge.
“It was surprising because Duke is the most-known school out of all of them,” Banchero said. “That’s what surprised me — how committed and bought-in he was to getting me to Duke. It made me feel good and showed me that he really cared and wanted me to come there.”
Krzyzewski also understands that Banchero wants to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season. Mock draft sites have Banchero as a lottery pick.
“Coach K and Duke, they believe I’m going to be in college for one year, and I believe I’m going to be in college for one year,” Banchero said. “But God forbid something happens. I have no problems staying. Even if I do one year, I’m going to come back and finish school.”
More than basketball
Banchero’s communication with his new coach extend beyond the X’s and O’s.
Days after the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minnesota police officer, Banchero publicly shared for the first time his own experience with police brutality. And, again, Krzyzewski along with Nolan Smith, the program’s director of operations and player development, were the most outwardly supportive.
In June 2018, Banchero and former O’Dea teammate and current WSU guard Noah Williams were waiting in Williams’ Jeep after a concert at White River Amphitheatre when a sheriff pulled up to the vehicle under the assumption it was stolen. King County sheriff’s Deputy Corey Marcotte held the teenagers at gunpoint. Once Marcotte discovered the report was false, he left the teenagers. Banchero said at a Black Lives Matter rally in June that the deputy threw the keys, and the boys spent an hour searching for them in order to drive home.
The King County Sheriff’s Office issued an apology and agreed to pay $80,000 for the wrongdoing after a lawsuit was filed in Nov. 2018. Banchero was awarded $20,000 while Williams, whose head was inches from the barrel of the gun, was awarded $30,000.
“I remember telling the cop while he had his gun drawn at us ‘I play basketball,’” Banchero told the crowd gathered at Liberty Park in Renton. “’I don’t know what you’ve got this gun on me for, but we play basketball. We’re just here.’ Me and him are both crying. ‘We play basketball.’ I’ve been fortunate enough to have all the accolades and rankings and all of that, but at the end of the day, the cop, it don’t matter. He didn’t know that. He didn’t care.”
Krzyzewski, known for his fiery personality in regards to basketball, has funneled that passion to speaking out about injustices against Black people. He’s attended protests and rallies, some organized by Smith, and made pleas for change through social media.
In a video that’s drawn more than 3 million views, Kryzewski says Black Lives Matter should be said every day and is a humanitarian issue, not political. He mentions his West Point background and prayer that’s still recited by cadets in closing the clip.
“One of the segments of the prayer says, ‘Lord help me choose the harder right,'” said Krzyzewski, college basketball’s winningest coach. “Help me choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong. We as a country have chosen the easier wrong for four centuries. It is time to choose the harder right. It is time to end systemic racism and social injustice. It’s time. Black Lives Matter.”
Banchero was moved by the powerful video, which went viral in June.
“They’re really big on social justice,” Banchero said. “Coach K is really involved in the community of Durham, helping minorities get college scholarships and stuff like that. Coach Nolan Smith, if you go on his Instagram, he’s in the community leading protests, leading rallies and he’s talked to me a lot. Him and Coach K have been the two main ones talking about how they’re proud of me and the way I’ve spoken up. When they see pictures on my Instagram of me protesting, they make sure to message me and say they’re happy to see I’m doing what I was doing.”
Training during COVID-19
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association delayed the start of the high-school basketball season until December. Banchero is keeping in shape by working out with former NBA and UW standout Spencer Hawes and former North Carolina post Isaiah Hicks, who played overseas and in the NBA.
Pickup games replaced a summer slate where Banchero expected to play in premier tournaments such as the Nike Hoop Summit and travel to Italy to try out for their Olympic national team. Banchero’s father is Italian-American.
Instead, Banchero has only traveled with his AAU team, Seattle Rotary, to play in two out-of-state tournaments. Buoyed by his 14 points and 12 rebounds, Seattle Rotary defeated the Border Boyz of San Ysidro (Calif.) in Utah in late August.
It was Banchero’s first sanctioned game since leading O’Dea to a runner-up finish in the state tournament in March. Banchero, who was selected as the Star Times Boys Basketball Player of the Year, averaged 22.6 points, 11.0 boards, 3.7 assists and 1.6 blocks per game last season.
“We’re just dealing with the circumstances,” Banchero said of the safety regulations. “Who knows if we’re going to play. I hope we do, and I hope that there’s going to be fans there because I want it to go back to how it always has been.”