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Retracing Paolo Banchero’s Seattle high school basketball rise: ‘It’s how I imagine people talked about LeBron James’

The freshman phenom has led Duke to the Final Four in Coach K's last season. He's a can't-miss NBA Draft prospect, according to those who coached against him in high school.

Editor's note: This story was initially published on April 3 ahead of the Final Four. 

The first time Mike Bethea saw Paolo Banchero was on a football field.

The longtime Rainier Beach boys basketball coach heard talk from Darryl Henning, co-founder of the grassroots basketball program Seattle Rotary, of an incoming freshman with a bright future.

Bethea knew of Banchero's family. He’d bought meat from Banchero’s father Mario’s family business, Mondo & Sons — a link that makes big-city Seattle feel tight-knit, like its basketball culture. But Bethea’s first chance to see Paolo play a sport live was as a 6-foot-6 freshman quarterback suiting up for O’Dea’s football team.

Wowed by his rare blend of talent, poise and athleticism for his age, Bethea had one thought after seeing him.

“Man, I just hope you don't grow no more,” Bethea said, laughing, “and stay and play football.”

Banchero quit what promised to be a bright future in football to focus on basketball, where his potential was even greater. He sprouted several more inches and developed a jumper, guard-like handles, a rare blend of tenacity and poise and vaulted to one of the top prospects in the nation in the class of 2021.

At O’Dea High School in Seattle, Banchero made an immediate impact as a freshman. He overcame an injury to lead the Fighting Irish to a Class 3A state title as a sophomore (2019) and a state runner-up finish as a junior, before he opted out of his senior season, which was postponed and shortened due to COVID-19. And he showed maturity beyond his years, sharing a potentially life-threatening incident with the police at a rally for George Floyd in 2020.

Bethea isn’t surprised to see the kid he once saw tower over his peers on a football field as a 14-year-old carve out such a bright future. Nor has he been surprised to see Banchero lead Duke to the Final Four and firmly place himself in the top three of most 2022 NBA Draft boards.

As a freshman, he’s led Duke to the Final Four in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last season. The Blue Devils play rival North Carolina on Saturday at 5:45 p.m. PT.

Banchero is the latest basketball superstar to emerge from Seattle, a city that keeps adding to its rich basketball tradition. Bethea has coached several NBA players, such as Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson, Kevin Porter Jr. and DeJounte Murray.

What makes Banchero a fitting addition to the city's top basketball products?

“You're talking about a kid who's 6-10, 250 pounds,” Bethea said. “I mean, he’s like Karl Malone on steroids."

SBLive spoke with high school coaches who had to game-plan for Banchero during his tenure at O’Dea. Here's what they had to say:

Preparing all year for the ‘Paolo show’

Banchero warms up for a home game against Garfield during his junior season at O'Dea High School.

Banchero warms up for a home game against Garfield during his junior season at O'Dea High School.

In 2018 and 2019, Mt. Spokane coach David Wagenblast knew that if his team were to make a run at a Class 3A title, chances are they would have to go through O’Dea.

The matchup came in the first round in 2018. Banchero was just a freshman, and not the focal point of O’Dea’s offense, but his presence was felt — especially on the defensive end. O’Dea pulled away and won by 20, and Banchero was a force.

“I’ll never forget us trying to do some backdoor Princeton plays,” Wagenblast said. “Paolo, as a freshman, snuffs it out and swats it, even though it’s not his guy. We were like ‘Wow, that’s incredible.’ ”

The following year, Mt. Spokane had a team capable of a deep 3A state run. The only problem was Banchero was taller, more filled out and, for an opposing coach, scarier — both on film and in person.

The Wildcats were led by now-Boise State freshman Tyson Degenhart, and they were well aware O’Dea, would be a problem, though the team struggled with Banchero and Noah Williams, now a standout guard at Washington State, missing time due to injuries.

“We still prepared in practice as if the endgame is ‘at some point you have to beat Paolo,’ ” Wagenblast said. “That was kind of how we prepared each season — sure this might work against certain teams, but what do we do to prepare to beat O’Dea, knowing he just cleans up so many plays?”

The two teams ended up on opposite sides of the bracket and met in the finals.

“You see him standing next to Tyson as a sophomore and you’re like, 'Uh, this isn’t going to go so well,’ ” Wagenblast said. “You just look at his calves, such physical specimen.”

Banchero was dominant. He had 20 points, seven boards, six assists and five blocks. O’Dea won the Class 3A state title 70-39.

As a junior in 2020, Banchero was on top of the state. He was also a measuring stick for other great players. During Degenhart’s recruitment, Wagenblast would send around footage of him playing Banchero to show he could hang with a future lottery pick.

Seattle Prep coach Mike Kelly had a young, scrappy and talented group that year led by then-sophomore point guard Braeden Smith (now a Colgate commit), senior center Nic Welp (Western Washington) and sophomore forward Tyler Mrus. And after upsetting Mt. Spokane in the first round, they were stringing together one of their best games of the season against O’Dea in the quarterfinals.

The Panthers led by four at half and as may as 10 in the third quarter. Then, Banchero took over. He swatted away a Smith shot attempt like a fly. Caught the ball in the post and drop-stepped into a two-handed dunk through two defenders.

When Seattle Prep forced overtime, Banchero had eight points. He got to the foul line and went 6 for 6 to ice the game and win it for O'Dea.

“In the third quarter, Paolo just made the decision that any time he touched the ball, he was going to go score,” Kelly said. “That’s what always stood out to me most — his ability to take over a game.”

Their ‘holy s***’ moment

An underclassman Banchero rises for a dunk against Eastside Catholic.

An underclassman Banchero rises for a dunk against Eastside Catholic.

Kevin Porter Jr. had firmly established himself as the state’s top prospect as a senior at Rainier Beach in 2018.

But when the Vikings faced O’Dea, the now-Houston Rockets guard had to deal with a player who was on a similar trajectory three years behind him:

“Kevin was being Kevin, and was in a league of his own at that point,” Bethea said. “But if Kevin was the best player on the court, at that time, (Paolo) was the second-best player. And that was only as a (freshman).”

Bethea recalls the first time the two teams met in Metro League play. At one point, Banchero got the ball in the corner and took baseline, rose up and threw down a one-handed dunk.

“He exploded baseline and went up in front of the rim, and it's just like, ‘Oh my God, I hope the rim doesn’t come down,’ ” Bethea said. “Then he came down man and his ball handling skills … it's almost like, at that time, you’re having visions of a 6-10, 250-pound LeBron-type guy in high school. He was kind of the scary looking dude out there.”

After losing to O’Dea in the first round at state in 2018, Banchero’s freshman year, Wagenblast had his team stay and watch O’Dea play Garfield in the quarterfinals the next day before trekking back across the state from Tacoma to Spokane.

He’ll never forget watching the level of athletes both t teams had, and watching the likes of Marjon Beauchamp, PJ Fuller, Daejon Davis and the freshman Banchero fly around the court during warmups. Imprinted in his brain is a sequence where Paolo swatted a dunk attempt by Fuller, who went on to play at Washington, which set off a series of several volleyball spike-like blocks.

“He did that a freshman and you’re like, ‘What on earth?’ ” Wagenblast said.

When Banchero was a sophomore, O’Dea beat top-seeded Eastside Catholic in the state semifinals on its way to the 3A title.

Crusaders coach Brent Merritt knew Paolo from a young age, and he admits his team that year — led by Shane Nowell (Arizona), Nolan Hickman (Gonzaga) and J.T. Tuimoloau (Ohio State football) — couldn’t stop Banchero.

“I always knew he's gonna be a pro from freshman year — but there's nothing we could do with him,” Merritt said. “He beat us from the perimeter and at the line, and we just had no answer for him. So that sophomore year when he beat us in the state tournament, I was like, You know what? This kid? He's different. He's definitely different. There's just no answer for him. He's gonna be an all star.”

A mother’s (tough) love

paolo banchero

Paolo Banchero, as a freshman at Duke, celebrates during the Blue Devil's Elite Eight win over Arkansas.

By the time Rhonda Smith-Banchero — then just Rhonda Smith — graduated from University of Washington, she was the women’s basketball program’s all-time leading scorer.

The 6-foot-2 post was a third round WNBA Draft pick and played around five years of professional basketball. She was a bruising low post player.

Merritt was a standout track & field athlete and basketball player at UW at the same time, and remembers the tenacity she played with clearly.

“Just mean, a dog,” Merritt sad. “She didn’t play (around). Rhonda was a beast in college.”

Him and Smith-Banchero have stayed close in the years since. Merritt saw Paolo grow up, and quickly recognized how much talent he had from a young age. He just wasn’t tough enough for his mom’s standards.

“I’d seen him play and I was like ‘Oh s*** he’s good, he's gonna be really good,’ ” Merritt said. “And he just kept getting better and better, but his mom said he was soft.

“After his freshman year played against him, she's like ‘Brent, he’s just so soft.’ I'm like, ‘Sweetie, I just played your son and nothing about your son is soft.’ Like you are crazy? I don't know what's wrong with you. I’m just like, ‘No, he's gonna be fine. Believe me. He is not soft.’ ”

How does he stand up to Seattle other pros? Take it from a coach who’s seen them all.

Paolo Banchero cuts down the net after leading Duke to an Elite Eight win over Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

Paolo Banchero cuts down the net after leading Duke to an Elite Eight win over Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

Kelly has seen the Seattle Metro League at its best over the past two decades. He coached Martell Webster and Spencer Hawes at Seattle Prep, who went on to play in the NBA, has seed up close the many future pros that have come through one of the top city high school leagues in the country.

So he has perspective.

Aaron Brooks could control a game like a puppeteer. Brandon Roy made the improbable look easy. Kevin Porter Jr. . Michael Porter Jr. could make an entire gym full of jaws drop.

But to Kelly, what separates Banchero is his presence on the court and his command of a given game.

“I never got to see him at the high school level,” Kelly said, “but it’s how I imagine people talked about LeBron James, just figuratively and literally a man.

“Obviously Michael Porter Jr. was impressive, but Paolo’s presence on a basketball court was so big. He’s so big. I just remember sitting there being impressed with the will he had to take over the basketball game.”

Merritt is among those two believes every team that passes on Banchero in June’s NBA Draft will come to regret it.

“There’s just no answer for him,” Merritt said. “He’s going to be an all-star.”

More Washington high school standouts in the Final Four

(Lead photo by Kyle Terada, USA Today)