On Thursday, the Orlando Magic made the first overall pick in an NBA Draft for the fourth time in their franchise’s waterlogged history. The first three times around (1992, 1993, 2004), they were lucky enough to do so when there was an obvious number one pick (Shaq, Chris Webber, Dwight Howard, respectively). As the 2022 class was not one of this past decade’s four or so draft classes with a no-shit first overall pick, the Magic had to sift through a top tier of players that most evaluators had as either three players deep, or if they really liked Jaden Ivey, four players deep. That’s an unusual amount of players in consideration for the top pick, though a rough consensus emerged: the Magic would select Jabari Smith. Instead, they picked Paolo Banchero, upending months of speculation and fooling the NBA’s premier information merchants until the last second.
The last time the very top of the draft deviated from its predicted outcome this late was in 2013, a surprise that happened because that draft class was wretched and the Cavaliers took a moronic upside swing on Anthony Bennett, who now plays for the fifth-placed team in the Taiwanese league. Banchero is not Bennett, and the Magic’s choice this year was about which of the three extremely different tall guys at the top of the draft they wanted to hitch their wagons to. Chet Holmgren is svelte and defensively omnipotent, Smith is the best shooter in the draft and a potential three-position defender at 6-foot-10, and Banchero is a huge athlete and maybe the best passer in the draft. All good fits for a team that won 22 games last season, though most of the mock drafts worth taking seriously centered on Smith in May and kept him in the top slot until Thursday morning, which was when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted the following:
Taking any mock draft too seriously is a fool’s errand, though in many cases, there is at least some logic to the allocations. Sourced-up knowers like Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony of ESPN and Shams Charania of the Athletic spend the month or so before the draft working the proverbial phones, yakking with front office people who are intent on spreading self-serving narratives to the public. The trustworthiness of those narratives should always be in question, because teams are all at each other’s throats during draft month, attempting to leverage any possible advantage over each other. Knowing which team is going to select a given player or which pick is available in a trade gives you a tremendous competitive advantage, so keeping things secret is imperative and thus lying to Wojnarowski and other reporters is a legitimate front office strategy. But even then, it’s not all subterfuge, and while the specifics remain blurry until Adam Silver starts calling names, the basic outline of a draft snaps into place a few days before: Bennedict Mathurin and Jalen Williams shot up draft boards, and they went sixth and 12th, respectively, after being mocked 11th and 48th after March Madness.
The problem is that while most of the information being filtered down to the public is true, it’s incredibly difficult to determine what is a lie and what is meaningful intelligence. For example, the idea that Holmgren and Smith, not Banchero, were the only two players in serious contention to be selected by the Orlando Magic was bolstered by, well, the Orlando Magic. Orlando hosted private workouts for several of the draft’s top prospects, including players who are appreciably less valuable than Banchero, like Keegan Murray and Shaedon Sharpe. Meanwhile, Smith and Holmgren only chose to work out for the Magic and Thunder, which further cemented the notion that they’d go 1-2 in some order. Teams tend to want to get a close-up view of a player before they spend an incredibly valuable draft selection on them, though there have been plenty of exceptions. However, the difference between Sacramento picking a clearly shellshocked Davion Mitchell at nine after never working him out is fundamentally different than Orlando picking Banchero at one under similar circumstances because the number-one overall pick is orders of magnitude more valuable than nine. So while the Jabari Smith smokescreen worked incredibly well, it was a smokescreen that didn’t necessarily require the Magic duping Woj et al. to work.
Magic GM Jeff Weltman was asked a straight-up question about whether or not Banchero worked out for the team, and his very long answer to a yes-or-no question boiled down to, It is my job to lie to you, so it’s best for all of us if I don’t answer that.
Weltman got his guy, and though they kept a lid on their intentions until minutes before the draft, Wojnarowski eventually did break the news that the Magic were going to pick Banchero. Weirdly enough, when a gleeful Woj reported the pick, he congratulated Weltman for conducting “one of the great stealth pre-draft operations,” which is an odd way of saying that he conveyed a bunch of information that turned out to be purposeful bullshit to ESPN viewers. Banchero seems like he will be a very productive NBA player very soon, and he is maybe the only player in this draft class with a clear path to being a good team’s number-one offensive option, so it’s not like the pick is a shocker or even a surprise in purely basketball terms. It’s the rest of the process that was so confounding. This sort of thing happens up and down both rounds of every single NBA draft, though almost never this high in the draft.