When No. 1 Gonzaga takes on No. 5 Duke on Friday, Nov. 26, it goes well beyond the surface level of a meeting between two of the best teams in college basketball.
Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Duke’s Paolo Banchero – the consensus top-two prospects in the 2022 NBA Draft – go head-to-head to give us a rare showdown that occurs far less frequently than one might think.
With all the different paths to the NBA these days, we hardly ever get to see the two best pro prospects in the world take the floor against each other prior to the NBA (excluding high school and AAU, of course). Between the G League Ignite, Overtime Elite and overseas programs like the NBL’s Next Stars in Australia, top prospects have so many avenues to display their talent and recently, it’s steered some players away from taking the traditional NCAA route.
Over the last two decades, only three times have we seen the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the NBA Draft face off prior to the league.
All of that to say: don’t take this battle between Banchero and Holmgren for granted. Yes, there’s a lot of time between now and draft day, but these two unique prospects are beginning to separate themselves from others in their class, both hybrids in their own way.
Only a few games into the college basketball season, we’ve already seen each player display the skills that have them so highly touted as prospects.
Let’s start with the projected No. 1 pick, Banchero.
The star forward was dominant in Duke’s most recent matchup with the Citadel, as you’d expect. Notching a season-high 28 points to go with eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and one block, he had everything clicking for the Blue Devils.
And while there were his typical assertive plays in the paint on both ends of the floor and impressive pull-up jumpers off the dribble or out of the post, it was this one play that was deserving of a second look.
Banchero grabs the defensive rebound off of a failed lob attempt before a Citadel player comes charging at him for a sneaky steal in the backcourt. In a complete read-and-react scenario, he smoothly puts the ball behind his back while keeping his eyes up the floor, looking to make a play in transition. (Now seems like a great time to remind you that Banchero is 6-foot-10, 235 pounds and it is not normal for a 19-year-old of his size and stature to be able to handle the ball like that).
At this moment, Banchero knows there’s only one man to beat and he could get to the rim with ease. Instead, he elects to be unselfish, delivering a perfect lob to his teammate Mark Williams off of a live dribble.
Since opening night, Banchero has been an extra option for Duke to initiate offense or start the break, a skill that is atypical and invaluable from a big man at the NBA level. He’ll only improve in that area with more reps as the season goes on and as is, he’s already ahead of schedule in that aspect, which plays into him being the top prospect.
Now, on to the projected No. 2 pick, Holmgren.
On Tuesday, in his first game in the eyes of a national audience against UCLA, the first thing that caught the attention of social media was the Gonzaga star’s thin frame. At 7-foot-1, 195 pounds, the concerns are valid towards Holmgren’s build as an NBA prospect, but it all makes sense when you see his competitive attitude and skill set.
The 19-year-old put on a show against the No. 2 team in the country, going for 15 points, six boards, four blocks and one steal with a handful of plays that screamed “future NBA player.”
None, however, were more impressive than this sequence below.
As Johnny Juzang takes the handoff from Myles Johnson, Holmgren elects to stay with UCLA’s leading scorer, trying to force the ball out of his hands while also giving his teammate time to recover from the screen. He knows Juzang wants to pull up or get to the rim, but he also knows he has the length to recover quickly on a pass. When Juzang makes the pass to Johnson, he probably thought it would lead to an easy bucket – and if so, he thought wrong.
In one simple turn, Holmgren is already in position to protect the rim and he does. What happens after that explains exactly why the Gonzaga big man is expected to be a top pick.
He controls the ball off of his block and starts dribbling up the floor in transition. When the slower big man tries to pick him up on the perimeter, Holmgren switches gears with a shifty behind-the-back dribble before only needing one more bounce to get all the way to the rim for a dunk.
That play is everything that sets Holmgren apart as an NBA prospect. His high IQ on defense and elite shot-blocking will make up for what he lacks in weight and strength at the next level. The flash of promising handle with a slight change in speed and an exclamation point dunk exploits his ability to be a walking mismatch against clunkier bigs who will have to try and mark him in the NBA because of his height.
Now, the real test is how these two prospects fair against each other, both versatile enough to keep the other in check.
For college hoops junkies and NBA fans alike, clear your calendars for this matchup between Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren, the potential future top-two picks in the 2022 NBA Draft.
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