NBA draft No. 1 pick debate: Chet Holmgren or Paolo Banchero?

Las Vegas has been the center of the basketball world since Sunday, with team presidents and general managers bouncing back and forth between arenas to evaluate the next wave of NBA players. After a long week of scouting and schmoozing, the large contingent of NBA executives will be treated to the premier evaluation opportunity of the season, and one of the best true head-to-head prospect matchups in recent memory: Duke‘s Paolo Banchero vs. Gonzaga‘s Chet Holmgren.

The battle for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft continues Friday at T-Mobile Arena at 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Two of the best programs in the country, featuring the two best NBA prospects in the nation. Banchero and Holmgren are about as different big men prospects as you’ll find. Banchero is the more polished of the two. Physical, powerful and skilled with an NBA-ready body and game. Holmgren is lean and lanky, with shot-blocking instincts, 3-point shooting and grab-and-go ability that are staples of the modern NBA.

So what will scouts be looking for? What is the argument for and against either Holmgren or Banchero as the No. 1 pick? Can anyone else challenge them?

What is the case for and against Holmgren as the No. 1 pick?

As we’ve seen with Cleveland Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley, today’s NBA is about length and skill, and no player in this draft class brings more of those two things to the table relative to his position than Holmgren. With a 7-foot-6 wingspan, a huge standing reach and some of the sharpest shot-blocking instincts you’ll see from a 19-year-old, Holmgren is a future NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate. His timing, reach and compete level have helped him block over six shots per 40 minutes through six games. He’s a true defensive anchor who plays much tougher than his paper-thin frame suggests, as he put a lid on the rim and helped shutdown No. 2 UCLA 83-63 on Tuesday. While not quite as quick-footed as Mobley, Holmgren is also more than comfortable stepping out and switching on guards, using his length and high-level feel to deter smalls from either attacking him or pulling up from deep.

On the other side of the ball, the NBA values bigs who can shoot, handle and pass, all of which Holmgren does at a relatively high level. His block turned into a length of the floor push and full extension dunk against UCLA was the perfect example of just how well-suited Holmgren is for today’s positionless NBA. Shooting 5-for-13 (38.4%) from 3 so far, he has an effortless stroke, even knocking down self-created step-backs at the high school level. Scouts have marveled at his pregame routine in Las Vegas, as you simply don’t see bigs his height with his footwork off the dribble. Holmgren almost always makes the right basketball play as he’s a great short-roll and high-low passer and someone you could even use in 4-5 pick-and-rolls like Cleveland does with Mobley.

On top of all that, Holmgren has an edge. Sitting down with him for an ESPN Film Session, he’s locked in on every possession with a serious approach. Watching him up close in Vegas, he’s a fiery competitor and no stranger to playful banter. After hitting a late-game 3 against the Bruins, Holmgren waved goodbye to the crowd. Despite his slender frame, he plays unafraid, and NBA fans and teammates alike should be drawn to his competitiveness and showmanship.

So why would scouts pause in taking Holmgren No. 1 overall? His frame and durability. Standing what looks like close to 7-2, Holmgren weighs 195 pounds and it remains to be seen just how much weight his body type can carry. Although he does have a mean streak to him, teams will question whether or not he can make it through an 82-game season, especially in a more finesse-based NBA. While he’s a defensive anchor in terms of rim protection and welcomes contact, can he truly defend a Joel Embiid, or a Nikola Jokic, or will he need a more physical big alongside him?

Although he’s more than capable of switching and Holmgren is a smart pick-and-roll defender who is well beyond his years in drop situations, his naysayers will wonder how he’ll fare against hyper-fast small-ball teams like the Miami Heat or the Toronto Raptors. That will surely be tested against a big with the perimeter skill and handle of Banchero, especially if Duke plays him some at the 5.

On the offensive end, can Holmgren punish a switch if teams opt to simply switch everything, crowd his airspace, take away his 3 and push him off spots? Can he create enough offense in the half court to function as a No. 1 option on a championship team? The one-legged Dirk fadeaway he hit against CMU and his face-up bucket against UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez are both encouraging, but Holmgren will have to answer that question against more physical teams like the Blue Devils. With Kristaps Porzingis‘ lack of durability as a cautionary tale, those are the debates that will come up in NBA war rooms. How he answers those questions against Banchero will go a long way in determining whether he can hold onto the top spot.

What is the case for and against Banchero as the No. 1 pick?

Banchero is as ready an NBA prospect as you’ll find. Plug him in an NBA game tomorrow and he could give you 20 points and 10 rebounds. As expected, he’s been incredibly productive through his first six games with averages of 17.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 steals in just 28 minutes a night while shooting 62% from 2 and 31% from 3. For context, only three high-major prospects have reached those per-game averages throughout a full collegiate season since 2000: Zion Williamson (Duke), Ben Simmons (LSU) and Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse). Not bad company for the potential No. 1 pick.

Most executives left Madison Square Garden on opening night enamored with the 19-year-old freshman and his polished offensive game. It’s rare to see a player with his powerful, 6-10, 250-pound frame handle the ball with such grace and effortlessness. Not only is he a load with the physicality of a young Blake Griffin or Julius Randle, but he’s also incredibly fluid and has the type of shot creation potential teams look for in a No. 1 option. Unlike Holmgren, he can get to a shot whenever he wants in midrange areas, using a variety of pro moves ranging from spins to inside pivots to turnarounds, and he’s a nightmare cover in transition with a head of steam a la Simmons. A former quarterback, he can really pass the ball in space as well. That vision was more apparent than ever during his 28-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist game in a win over The Citadel on Monday, highlighted by an effortless, one-handed flick pass that went 50 feet in the air right into the hands of a streaking teammate for the open finish.

He’s the type of modern big you can run your offense through with regularity, while Holmgren isn’t quite there yet as a true hub given some of his physical limitations. Banchero moves his feet incredibly well for his size and even has the agility to function as a big 3 in some jumbo lineups — like we’ve seen from forwards like Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris — while possessing the strength to slide up to the 5 for stretches.

So why would NBA executives second-guess selecting a 250-pound wrecking ball with the handle of a guard and the mid-post polish of Jayson Tatum or Anthony? While Holmgren possesses incredible length, Banchero has an average wingspan (7-1) and reach relative to his position, and he doesn’t make up for that with the elite standstill vertical explosiveness you’ll see from the NBA’s top leapers. Although equipped with incredible touch, will he be able to power through opponents and finish with the same level of efficiency against NBA length? We’ll get our answer after he faces the draft’s best shot-blocker in Holmgren.

Against Holmgren in a practice setting at the Iverson Classic in Memphis, Banchero struggled to create efficient offense, living off his midrange jumper quite a bit. The question then becomes: How many of the NBA’s best bigs are true power forward types who don’t really protect the rim or shoot 3s at a high level? Banchero’s free throw stroke and midrange game indicate he’ll be a good 3-point shooter, potentially even off the dribble someday given his footwork and handle, but he is only 5-for-16 from distance so far and it remains to be seen how his stroke will translate to the NBA line. Much like Tatum at Duke, he also has some catch-and-hold, dribble-happy tendencies that he’d benefit from addressing as he’d become far more efficient and would further unlock his passing potential. While Banchero is more physically ready and polished, does he impact the game in enough ways when he isn’t scoring? Does he hold the same upside as the shot-blocking, 3-point shooting, passing Holmgren?

Who is the player that could make this a 3-man race?

The one player who could truly threaten either Holmgren or Banchero for the top spot is Auburn‘s Jabari Smith, the No. 6-ranked player in his high school class and the No. 3 prospect on our top-100. The 18-year-old has been excellent for coach Bruce Pearl through his first three collegiate games, averaging 20.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 3.6 steals and 2.0 blocks per 40 minutes while knocking down 47% of his 3s. At 6-10, 220 pounds with solid length and some of the quickest feet you’ll see from a player his size, Smith is arguably an even more modern player than Holmgren or Banchero. He’s an unbelievable switch defender with an outstanding shooting stroke, even pulling up from 3 in transition and creating space with step-backs. Although not always as physical as he could be, he plays with great spirit on both ends and is a full year younger than Holmgren and six months younger than Banchero, not turning 19 until May.

The only real questions I have about Smith are his feel and passing. He plays a somewhat sped-up style and doesn’t quite have the same level of top-end prep experience as Holmgren or Banchero, coming out of Sandy Creek High School in Georgia. But Smith grew up around basketball as the son and nephew of a former NBA players — Jabari Smith Sr. and Kwame Brown — and brings the type of defensive energy, versatility and shooting that will buy him time as the game slows down for him. With a strong showing in the Bahamas at Battle For Atlantis, don’t be surprised if you start to hear Smith’s name quietly mentioned as a potential No. 1 pick alongside Holmgren and Banchero.

Who is your No. 1 right now?

I’ve long considered Holmgren the best prospect in this class, and while I’ve been blown away by Banchero’s NBA-ready game and skill level, I’m a firm believer Holmgren should be the No. 1 pick if the draft were today. Like we said about several of the top picks in last year’s draft, both Banchero and Holmgren are special prospects, No. 1-caliber guys and franchise pillars. Some top-end executives see Holmgren as the clear-cut top prospect, while others favor Banchero and his ready-made game.

With that said, I’m not sure Holmgren is getting the type of credit he deserves as a truly elite prospect, largely because he doesn’t have a prototypical NBA body. To signify just how unique Holmgren’s all-around impact is, he’s the only player in college basketball history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 blocks per 40 minutes.

He’s far tougher than a prospect like Porzingis ever was, and you could argue that Holmgren is even more advanced as a shot-blocker and shooter than Mobley was as a freshman. Playing alongside an aggressive All-American like Drew Timme, I’m fairly certain Gonzaga’s star freshman won’t be as outwardly productive as Banchero in the points and rebounds department, but his impact on the game is more widespread, and it’s harder to find players in his mold, especially with his no-nonsense approach to the game.

How badly has a team like the Pelicans needed a shot-blocking, floor-spacing big man to pair with Zion? Don’t be surprised if Banchero bullies Holmgren some in their one-on-one possessions in T-Mobile Arena, but past evidence suggests he won’t back down from the challenge, talking a bit of trash along the way. While it’s early and there’s still a lot to learn, I’d bet on Holmgren’s length, shot-blocking, shooting, passing and all-business attitude if I were on the clock with the first overall pick.

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