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Top freshman Paolo Banchero makes Duke basketball debut. Here's how it went

The Fayetteville Observer logo The Fayetteville Observer 10/16/2021 Chapel Fowler, The Fayetteville Observer
Oct 15, 2021; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero (5) looks to pass as forward Bates Jones (34) defends during Duke Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium. © Rob Kinnan, USA TODAY Sports Oct 15, 2021; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero (5) looks to pass as forward Bates Jones (34) defends during Duke Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

DURHAM – Paolo Banchero made his Duke basketball debut in style, rocking a vintage snapback, sunglasses and sweats as he shimmied to G Herbo’s “Who Run It” to kick off Friday’s player intros.

His next hour at Countdown to Craziness proved even flashier.

Though some first-time jitters threw off his jump shot, the 6-foot-10 freshman forward and No. 2 overall recruit in the class of 2021 still dazzled across both periods of Duke’s annual Blue-White scrimmage.

A forceful drive and dunk, two slick no-look passes and an impossible-to-miss physicality fueled an 11-point, six-rebound, three-assist performance for the 18-year-old Banchero across 24 minutes of play. He added a block and a steal while shooting 5-11 from the field, 0-3 on 3-pointers and 1-5 on free throws.

And Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, filled at capacity with fans for the first time since early March 2020, certainly made the five-star recruit from Seattle feel right at home miles away in Durham.

“I’d been trying to make it up in my head, what it would be like, but I couldn’t do it,” Banchero told reporters afterward. “I really just didn’t know. When we got out there, it was electric. And if it was that electric for Countdown, I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like when we get opponents in here.”

In that brand-new environment – friendly and relaxed yet unflinchingly abuzz – Banchero “definitely (had) some jitters,” he said, and they showed early on. Playing for the White Team as a power forward, he fumbled one of the first passes thrown his way and hit the back rim on consecutive pull-up jumpers.

Still, the skills that made him Duke’s No. 10 all-time commit in the internet recruiting era last fall were evident: none more than his sheer size. At 6-10 and 250 pounds, Banchero towered over everyone on the court except for 7-foot center Mark Williams (who he still outweighs by around eight pounds).

A quick right-side post-up and twist on defender Bates Jones gave Banchero his first field goal of the scrimmage. During a later timeout, with Banchero drifting father away from the basket and neutralizing his own advantage, veteran teammate Wendell Moore Jr. reminded him how easy that play had looked.

“Wendell got on me like: ‘Yo man, get to the basket!’” Banchero said, laughing. “I was getting open looks, but I was shooting midrange jumpers. Why not get to the basket? So that was on my mind.”

Oct 15, 2021; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero (5) dunks as his jersey is pulled by forward Theo John (12) during Duke Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium. © Rob Kinnan, USA TODAY Sports Oct 15, 2021; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero (5) dunks as his jersey is pulled by forward Theo John (12) during Duke Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Possessions later, Banchero caught a pass on the wing and looked for a guard to swing the ball to. But those passing lanes got denied, he said, so he turned back toward the rim and thought: “Let’s attack it.”

And attack it he did, throwing off his defender with a jab step before taking one dribble and cocking back the ball for a one-handed slam, Duke’s most impressive dunk on a night with plenty of them.

That rim-rattler sent him into a groove he never got out of; by the end of the first scrimmage, he was gliding down the floor, moving the ball with a purpose and stuffing an opponent’s layup on defense.

“He does a little bit everything on the floor,” Williams said, “so playing with him is great.”

Added guard Jeremy Roach: “I love Paolo. The dude’s 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds and moves like a guard. It just makes things so much easier for me. It’s fun to watch – he’s fun to watch.”

Banchero only got more comfortable in the second scrimmage, which paired him with Moore, Roach, Williams and freshman guard Trevor Keels in what could be an early-season starting lineup for Duke.

That group breezed past the Blue Devils’ reserves, 34-14, while scoring 18 points in the paint and six on the fast break. Banchero had a hand in both statistics, what with a slick two-on-one transition Euro step score and a driving and-one layup and on-target dimes to teammates Keels, Moore and Williams.

“I thought he played well,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “But I think he can play a lot better.”

Oct 15, 2021; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski addresses the crowd during Duke Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium. © Rob Kinnan, USA TODAY Sports Oct 15, 2021; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski addresses the crowd during Duke Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Krzyzewski, who’s entering his 42nd and final season at Duke and got many a standing ovation on Friday, pointed to Banchero taking early jumpers without first moving the ball, plus a tendency to “put a little bit too much pressure on himself right now,” as future points of improvement for the star freshman.

“But they have to be given time to grow, you know?” he said, noting that Countdown to Craziness is just Duke’s 12th official practice so far and complimenting his entire freshman class as “physically mature.”

Banchero, already drawing buzz as the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft weeks before his first college game, agreed with Krzyzewski that he had some nerves early in Friday’s happenings.

He expects those to fix themselves, though, as Cameron Indoor Stadium’s raucous environment quickly becomes more familiar than foreign for a freshman already playing with flash and a whole lot more.

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Chapel Fowler is a recruiting reporter for The Fayetteville Observer and the USA TODAY Network. Reach him by email at cfowler@gannett.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Top freshman Paolo Banchero makes Duke basketball debut. Here's how it went

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