Duke, Kentucky and UNC are recruiting Paolo Banchero, but family ties to Washington make his choice tough
The mother and father of Banchero, the No. 4 player in the Class of 2021, both played sports for the Huskies
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- When the early session was completed on Sunday, the 70-plus players attending USA Basketball's Junior National Team Minicamp were dismissed for the afternoon -- at which point most of them drifted away from the courts here inside the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, sat down, grabbed their phones and started to look like any other teenager in this country.
Not Paolo Banchero, though.
Instead, the 16-year-old forward went and found Aaron Gray, the former Pitt All-American, in an attempt to get a little more work in. Never mind that Banchero had already been going, like all other campers, twice a day for a week. Never mind that he was scheduled to be back in the gym in five hours. There was a big and strong NBA veteran serving as a USA Basketball instructor right over there. So why not pull him under the basket, ask questions, pick his brain and just do anything possible to take advantage of the opportunity?
"He's a coach's dream," Gray told CBS Sports. "His willingness to want to improve, when he's already at such a high-level, is impressive to a guy like me. He's got a cool and calm demeanor. But when he brings out that aggressive side, that mean side, man, the sky's the limit. His skillset is great. He's a great worker. So there really isn't anything negative I can say about him."
Unless you follow recruiting closely, or live in Seattle, there's a decent chance you're unfamiliar with Paolo Banchero because, I mean, how many basketball players are nationally known before they even enter their junior years of high school -- outside of Bronny James, of course? But, soon enough, Banchero, a consensus top-five prospect in the Class of 2021, should be a household name for even casual fans because he's a projected lottery pick who is now a priority for the sport's biggest and best programs.
Kentucky offered in June.
So Banchero's recruitment has risen to a new level -- one that he, and his father, both called "surreal" and understand will only get more intense over the next year because, well, I'll get to that in a moment.
"Up until last year, you would've thought, 'Man, if Coach K ever calls, or if Coach Cal ever calls, it would be done. It would be over,'" said his father, Mario Banchero. "But now [those things have happened, and] it's just the next stage [in the recruitment]."
The fascinating thing about Banchero's recruitment isn't simply that he's a 5-star prospect with offers from basically everybody -- among them the aforementioned blue bloods plus Baylor, Gonzaga, Memphis, Oklahoma, Tennessee and many others. The fascinating thing -- i.e., the thing that will make everything going forward highly-scrutinized and super-interesting -- is that he's a Seattle kid whose father and uncle played football at Washington, and whose mother starred in basketball for the Huskies. In fact, his mother, the former Rhonda Smith, left school as Washington's all-time leading scorer. She met her husband, Paolo's father, while both were enrolled at the Pac-12 institution.
So that's a wrap, right?
There's just no way a prospect from Washington, whose parents both played sports for Washington, is going to turn down Washington to leave home -- especially when Washington coach Mike Hopkins has already proven to be a high-level recruiter capable of luring 5-star prospects like Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels to campus. That's the perception in some basketball circles, at least. But Banchero's rise in prominence over the past five months -- he won a state championship in March, was MVP of the NBPA's Top 100 Camp in June, and was named the Nike EYBL underclassmen of the year in July -- has undeniably complicated things for the Huskies.
Banchero now has every great option on the table.
He swears he's "wide open."
"It's been a life-changing summer for me," Banchero said. "It's surreal, but not surprising, because I put in the work, and I kind of expected this to happen. But it's still nice to see it all pay off."
And how much pressure is there to stay home?
"None from my parents, which is good," Banchero answered. "My mom and dad don't push me to Washington — and they also don't push me anywhere else. They said that wouldn't be fair."
Obviously, this approach makes total sense because no good parent wants anything but their children to be happy and successful. So pushing a son to a place he might not want to be can obviously run counter to that -- especially if things don't go well, which is when resentment could set in.
"I think it's important for people to handle their own journey," explained Mario Banchero, which suggests he subscribes to this theory. But just because there's no pressure from the family to stay home, or from Banchero's friends to stay home, that doesn't mean there isn't pressure from fans to stay home. As Mario Banchero put it, "Seattle is a pretty polite city on the surface — but Twitter is rude everywhere."
For example ...
"There's a kid who is [a 5-star prospect] in the Class of 2020 for football [from the Seattle area], and he said, 'I wanna go away from home for school,'" Mario Banchero said. "Then, immediately, the less-desirable of our Husky brethren, they're like, 'Oh, he's a diva!' They turned on him. Then, two months later, he retweets a picture that has Washington in it -- and the same people are like, 'Oh, we love him!'
"It's so fickle," Mario Banchero added. "So you just can't pay attention to it."
Good luck with that.
Either way, the next step in this process will be to settle on official visits. At this point, the only thing Banchero said he knows for sure is that he's definitely visiting Duke and Kentucky, and that he'll probably use his other official visits on schools far from home that he's never seen, which means the plan is not to spend one on Washington because, as the family made clear, Banchero has literally grown up on the Washington campus and is already comfortable with every aspect of his hometown university.
"It just makes sense to take the officials to the schools that are far away because he already knows Washington," Mario Banchero said. "He knows the program. He knows the coaches. He grew-up with the AD's son. So that's all family. ... The best thing about Washington is that the trust in the program, from the assistants to the AD, is 100 percent. So that box is checked. He loves Washington."
But does he love Washington enough to turn down Coach K?
And Coach Cal?
Those are questions that'll consume Washington fans for much of the next two years -- unless, of course, Banchero reclassifies to 2020, which he said is something he'll possibly consider, in which case this recruitment would have to be settled, one way or another, in less than a year. Will Paolo Banchero be a 5-star stud who disappoints the local option to attend a blue blood like Malik Monk and Zion Williamson recently did when they turned down Arkansas and Clemson, respectively, to play at Kentucky and Duke? Or will Paolo Banchero be the next great prospect to pass on the blue bloods to stay home like Trae Young and James Wiseman recently did to play, respectively, at Oklahoma and Memphis?
As always, we'll see.
In the meantime, the texts and calls from coaches will continue while additional offers roll in. After an incredible summer in which Paolo Banchero impressed basically everybody he encountered, both on and off the court, he's now one of the country's most desirable prospects, a centerpiece to a recruiting class just waiting to be assembled -- either at home at Washington or somewhere with fewer family ties.
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