One is a 7-foot-1, 190-pound unicorn with guard skills whose closest NBA comparison might be Kristaps Porzingis.
The other is a 6-10, 250-pound freight train who moves like one and has drawn early comparisons to Julius Randle, Blake Griffin and Kenyon Martin.
Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Duke’s Paolo Banchero are the projected top two players in next summer’s NBA Draft — and they will be the showcase players when No. 1 Gonzaga meets No. 5 Duke on Friday night in Las Vegas (10:30 ET, ESPN).
“Studs,” one NBA scouting director said.
I asked Duke coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer, who recruited the No. 1 class in the nation for 2022 and the No. 2 for 2023, his thoughts on what makes the two one-and-done prospects special.
“I’ll start obviously by saying Holmgren is a terrific player,” Scheyer said. “There’s not many guys like him. His ability to impact the game on both ends was very apparent [Tuesday] night in the UCLA game, so I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done so far. Obviously, I think it shows – him going there, he wants to play with other really good players, so I respect that and give a lot of respect for playing him on Friday.
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“Paolo has blown us away in terms of how coachable he is. For a guy with the amount of hype that he had coming in, he always takes coaching, always wants to improve. His work ethic is as good as anyone on this team. So I start there, and then I go into his game itself.
“At 6-10, 250, being able to rebound, push the ball, really being able to score the ball at all three levels. At the start of the year, he was turning the ball over too much. He had one assist and 10 turnovers. The last three games, he’s had 11 assists and one turnover. You think about the playmaking, the scoring and then the defending. He’s a complete player, and someone who is really just scratching the surface of who he can be.”
Holmgren is a native of Minneapolis where he won four state titles at Minnehaha Academy. Banchero is from Seattle, has an Italian father and chose Duke over Kentucky, Gonzaga and North Carolina, among others.
By all accounts, both players are high-character young men — and team-oriented players.
Asked about his skillset after going for 11 points, six rebounds and four blocks in the win over UCLA, Holmgren said on ESPN, “I try not to pay too much attention to things that don’t affect me too much…I’m worried about our team and how I can help our team get better every single day so that when it comes to March, we’re the best we can be. That’s pretty much what I’m focused on.”
Said Gonzaga coach Mark Few: “The best thing about Chet is he wants to be coached and he always wants me to push him, he’s very driven. He’s an intelligent player and everybody just needs to understand that he’s a work in progress. He was so much better [against UCLA] than he was a week ago.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made similar comments about Banchero on opening night when he went for 22 points and seven rebounds in the win over Kentucky.
“He’s a lot better than he was a month ago because he’s learned to play strong with the ball,” he said. “He over-dribbled a couple times, but usually he’s been smart with it. And he’s becoming a better athlete.
“But he’s a special player. You can coach him hard, he’s smart. I’d like to see him talk more. I told him, why don’t you say what you’re thinking…But he’s going to keep getting better. He’s the real deal, there’s no question about it.”
Duke has had three No. 1 picks under Coach K: Elton Brand (1999), Kyrie Irving (2011) and Zion Williamson (2019). None of them won a national title, although Brand’s team reached the championship game.
Led by Banchero and fellow freshmen Trevor Keels, A.J. Griffin and Jeremy Roach, along with a complement of older players, Duke has a chance to send Coach K out with his sixth championship this season.
We’ll learn a lot about their chances on Friday when they face a Gonzaga team that is hungry and re-loaded after losing last year’s title matchup to Baylor in a game that saw their undefeated season come to an end.
On Friday, a slew of NBA decision-makers — and fans of college basketball — will have their eyes on how Holmgren and Banchero perform.
“I think what’s most impressive is he’s a guy who understands how to play with this frame,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jon Crispin said on air of the rail-thin Holmgren.
“Another guy that has a grown-man frame, an NBA frame, is Paolo Banchero. I was impressed the very first game he played [against Kentucky], he and Trevor Keels were guys I would define as dudes. They just go out, they ball, they make this Duke team a much better defensive team. I think the fact that Duke is better defensively, that gives Duke a bit of an edge but I also thought UCLA had the edge with their physicality against Gonzaga and that proved not to be the case.”