Chet Holmgren vs. Paolo Banchero: Who's the NBA Draft's Best Prospect?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterNovember 26, 2021

Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren reacts after his dunk during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Bellarmine, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Spokane, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Young Kwak/Associated Press

Scouts and executives from NBA lottery teams will gather in Las Vegas on Friday night for their most important evaluation event of the season. A rare battle between No. 1 overall favorites will take place, with Duke's Paolo Banchero and Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren expected to spend the majority of their minutes matched up. 

After strong starts, Banchero versus Holmgren has quickly become the hottest prospect debate of the 2022 draft discussion. 

Scouts should have more answers by the weekend, but we already have a take based on years of scouting both and how they've each looked early in college.


Holmgren Is a Defensive Game-Changer

Young Kwak/Associated Press

Whichever lottery team adds Holmgren immediately becomes tougher to score on. He'll instantly change its defensive identity, something few NBA players are capable of doing single-handedly. 

Holmgren possesses special instincts and timing to maximize the effectiveness of his enormous 7'6" wingspan. He's averaging 3.5 blocks and changing more shots in only 24.8 minutes per game. His rejections or contests have come when defending on ball, from the weak side, away from the basket or in chase-down situations. It's looked like a foolish idea practically every time an opposing player has tried to make a move or take a shot on Holmgren. Per Synergy, opponents are a combined 2-of-13 against him between isolation and post-ups and 3-of-13 when facing him from a spot-up position. 

Banchero has looked good containing forwards and wings in space, and he should be able to add value to a defensive unit with the body to guard bigs and the foot speed to slide around the perimeter. But he doesn't add much rim protection (four blocks in six games), and the level of impact he's capable of making defensively doesn't compare to Holmgren's. 

One is a solid link; the other is a game-changer. 


Banchero's Self-Creation Potential Fuels Half-Court Scoring Upside

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Teams like the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs will be drawn to Banchero for his ability to create his own offense in the half court. He's a lot more decisive, nuanced and shifty in tight windows compared to Holmgren, whose one-on-one delivery/execution is slower and choppier.

Through six games, Banchero is 10-of-18 out of the post (1.13 PPP, 88th percentile), and with 6'10", 250-pound size, he's 6-of-9 out of isolation and 7-of-15 shooting off the dribble. Holmgren hasn't recorded an isolation bucket yet. Banchero has demonstrated an incredibly high skill level creating space for himself and shot-making off his own dribble moves/footwork. It reminds of Jayson Tatum's obvious fundamentals and polish when he was at Duke, just from a different position. 

While Banchero has wowed with the face-up fluidity of a wing, he's also showcased his strength playing with his back to the basket. The ability to mix it up with both power and finesse should create routine matchup problems for opponents and scoring versatility that the NBA values.

While Holmgren projects as more of a complementary offensive piece, Banchero projects as a player an offense runs through. Teams can go to him at the end of shot clocks or games when they need a basket, whereas Holmgren's scoring will be more reliant on him being set up.


Holmgren's Elite Offensive Efficiency and Fit

Young Kwak/Associated Press

Though not as likely to occupy a No. 1 option role as Banchero, Holmgren may have an equal chance at improving a team's offense by giving it an elite finisher, floor-spacer and passer. 

He's 13-of-14 around the basket this season and 25-of-29 (86.2 percent) inside the arc. Aside from being an outrageous lob target above the rim, Holmgren has an excellent nose for the rim and how to counter-finish with pivots and off-hand lay-ins. Despite skinny legs and arms, he doesn't require open airspace for a dunk, although his mobility and length generate a lot of those unchallengeable opportunities. 

When he's not waiting in the paint, he's often stretching the defense behind the arc, where he's made 5-of-13 threes after shooting 7-of-13 from deep this summer at the U19 World Cup. High school results and the eye test suggest we should buy Holmgren's three-ball as real and an eventual every-game weapon. 

While the analytics-friendly combination of finishes and threes make up a good chunk of Holmgren's scoring production, he's also flashed the ability to attack closeouts or post defenders in space. His handle is tight enough to beat bigs, and he possesses the coordination to convert on the move, over attached defenders. 

As valuable as Banchero's creation can be, he also has a tendency to let the ball stick, and it can take some time for him to get into his one-on-one move while teammates watch. There won't be many games or possessions where Holmgren hurts the offense, even if he's not scoring or shooting well. Being a vertical and floor-spacer adds value, as does his passing.



Chris Seward/Associated Press

Kristaps Porzingis comparisons end when breaking down Holmgren's passing and feel. Gonzaga's 7-footer is second on the team in assists (3.0 per game, 4.8 per 40). He processes the game quickly and with an unselfish mindset. The hit-ahead bombs to streaking teammates make the highlights, but Holmgren is a useful half-court passing weapon with his height and vision. He sees cutters and over double-teams in the post.  

Along with the spacing he provides, the ability to capitalize on his gravity as a passer helps him check a "makes teammates better" box that teams covet in a No. 1 pick. 

Banchero has made some quality passes as well, and there is some playmaking upside tied to his improving handle. He's more of a threat to dish on the move in transition, however. 

Against The Citadel (six assists) and Lafayette (three assists), he did a better job of recognizing the simple read to feed teammates who were in a strong position to make a quick move and score. He showed more of a willingness to see the floor with kickouts and high-low passes. 

Still, the edge goes to Holmgren in the passing department, as he's shown too much IQ and awareness for a player who can distribute from such an advantageous height.


Signature Grab-and-Go 

There are only a few NBA 7-footers with a green light to bring the ball up. Holmgren will be the next. He's already recorded four field goals (on four attempts) as a transition ball-handler with the ability to change direction, plus he has body control for finishing at higher speeds on the move. 

He's given Gonzaga a few easy points each game just by being able to take a defensive rebound and quickly initiate a break the other way. 

Banchero has this in his game as well, though he hasn't scored yet as a transition ball-handler. He lacks a degree of pop around the basket when there isn't enough room for liftoff. Still, both players can help give their offenses a few open looks each game by pushing the ball off the defensive glass. 


Fear with Holmgren, Banchero 

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 22: Paolo Banchero #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts against the Citadel Bulldogs at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 22, 2021 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 107-81. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

As dominant as Holmgren may look from now until April, there will always be a fear that his game won't fully translate due to his blatant lack of muscle. Can his frame fill out? And if not, how much will it negatively affect his ability to finish, defend in the paint or attack? 

At 19 years old, Banchero looks like he could hold his own physically in the NBA today. 

If there is a reason to hesitate on Banchero, it's the fear that for a player who'll command a lot of touches and shots, he spends a lot of time in the mid-range attempting contested looks. He also lacks some explosiveness in traffic, where he's forced to frequently operate when playing the 4.

Shooting will ultimately be a key swing skill for Banchero. He's looked more comfortable as of late, making four threes over Duke's last two games. But he didn't have a credible three-point track record entering college, and some of his misses so far have been flat or way off the mark. 


Holmgren vs. Banchero

If the draft was tomorrow, Holmgren would sit atop our board, as there isn't another prospect capable of impacting a game as dramatically as the shot-blocking shooter with ball-handling, passing and finishing skills.

There are too many instances of skinny players overcoming their thin frames and limbs, including 2021 No. 3 pick Evan Mobley. 

Belief in Holmgren's upside doesn't mean selling on Banchero's. Players with his physical tools and skill level are rare, and all signs point to a franchise cornerstone scorer and mismatch. 

But Holmgren has the chance to be one of a kind—different from most in the NBA and harder to game-plan for than anyone else in this draft. 

Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports