Paolo Banchero entered the 2021-22 season at Duke as 1 of 3 players many considered to be in the mix for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, along with Chet Holmgren of Gonzaga and Jabari Smith Jr. of Auburn.

But, during the season, he wasn’t necessarily as dominant as the other 2 guys, and that led many analysts to drop Banchero to No. 3 on their big boards, with Smith and Holmgren battling it out for No. 1.

Well, fast forward to the Final Four. Banchero is the last one standing. Duke is 2 wins away from a national title. Holmgren and the Bulldogs lost in the Sweet 16. Smith and the Tigers fell in Round 2. Meanwhile, Banchero has elevated his game.

He scored 22 points and had 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals in Duke’s gritty win over a tough Texas Tech squad in the Sweet 16:

When a coach as good as Texas Tech’s Mark Adams mentions you in the same breath as LeBron James, you know you’re doing something right:

Banchero has stepped his game up a couple of notches during March Madness. He’s taken over as a leader of this Duke team and he’s not afraid to have the ball in his hands in clutch situations.

His mid-range game is NBA-ready. His 3-point shooting has a bit of room to improve, but he’s 8-for-15 (53.3%) from beyond the arc this tournament. And, to cap it off, he’s 14-for-18 from the free-throw line (77.7%) during March Madness.

Those are the sorts of shooting numbers that signify a big-time player elevating his game when the lights are the brightest. If he continues to shoot the ball well against North Carolina, Duke should win comfortably. Ditto against whoever would then await in the national title game.

But, what really has set Banchero apart this postseason is his passing. If he can start creating more offense for his teammates at the next level, he’ll be borderline unstoppable.

Right now, big man Mark Williams is the beneficiary of a lot of Banchero’s dimes. He loves to get into the lane, let the defense collapse on him and then dish it to Williams for an easy slam:

It’s not just Williams who gets open looks because of Banchero, though. Here he is getting other teammates easy buckets (or, at least, shots they should have knocked down):

So, where does that leave Banchero when it comes to NBA Draft status? Well, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor had Banchero going No. 4 overall in his most-recent mock draft, behind Holmgren, Smith and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey.

After Banchero’s performance in the first 4 rounds of the NCAA Tournament, he should be above Ivey. At 6-10, he’s the ideal height for a forward in today’s game. He doesn’t have the dynamic speed Ivey has, but he’s a better overall player.

Holmgren has so much untapped potential. But, that potential doesn’t always translate to success at the NBA level. Smith’s closest NBA comparison is Kevin Durant. His offensive game is that good. But, he’s not the facilitator and passer Banchero can be.

So, how does Banchero take advantage of the spotlight he has at the Final Four to become the No. 1 pick? He’s going to have to be transcendent.

But, if he posts 20/7/5 lines in back-to-back games, makes some clutch shots and knocks down 80% of his free throws, he’ll have a chance to move up to the top of some teams’ draft boards. Then, it just comes down to which team gets the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft lottery. He might not be a good fit on a team like the Detroit Pistons alongside Cade Cunningham. The Orlando Magic or Sacramento Kings might be better fits for him.

Still, even if he “drops” to No. 3 overall (the absolute lowest he should be drafted, in my opinion), well… that’s where Carmelo Anthony was drafted back in 2003 after leading Syracuse to the national title as a true freshman. Sound familiar?