AT MIDNIGHT TUE The night before the NBA Draft, Orlando Magic President Jeff Weltman and General Manager John Hammond walked to their cars together and discussed the event – and the decision – that could change the course of their franchise. With less than 24 hours to go before the team’s first pick at No. 1 since 2004, Magic’s top two basketball execs were at odds.
That day, at meetings with their scouts and personnel specialists, the group had made a tentative decision to go with Paolo Banchero, Duke’s powerful 19-year-old big man. Probably.
“If you’d told me Jeff had walked into the office that morning with a different decision,” Hammond said, “I wouldn’t have been shocked.”
The next day, the Magic created a modern rarity: a real surprise with the top draft night pick. They picked Banchero after weeks of believing most of the league they were leaning towards Jabari Smith Jr., a hard-shooting, defensive-minded forward from Auburn.
The late reveal came as a shock to Smith, who was preparing to join the Magic after training in Orlando in early June. And Banchero, who sidestepped an offer to travel to Orlando for formal meetings because he wasn’t sure the team was seriously considering him. And the Houston Rockets preparing to pick Banchero with the third pick.
All the main characters come together Thursday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) when Banchero and the Magic take on Smith and the Rockets in the Las Vegas Summer League in hopes of shaking off the awkwardness of draft night drama.
“We didn’t know [Orlando was taking Banchero] to 10 minutes before draft,” said Rafael Stone, Rockets general manager.
“I didn’t hear anything specific from Magic until a few minutes ago,” said Mike Miller, Banchero’s agent and a 17-year NBA veteran.
And as Banchero said, “I didn’t find out that I was actually selected until about 20 seconds before the commissioner took the stage.”
THE INITIAL THEORY was that the magic had misled the rest of the League, and Houston in particular, by concealing its intentions. But several members of the Magic said it was merely the result of a grueling process to choose between top prospects, which included Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren.
Weltman, who has led Orlando’s front office since 2017, is known for being both withdrawn and demanding. If there was a decision maker in the league who could perform such an operation, Weltman would be shortlisted.
“A lot of strategy goes into the design,” Weltman said. “There is much secrecy; there is much deception.”
He and the Magic just didn’t stop anyone when mock drafts were created and League intelligence leaked out with the general belief that it would be Smith at number one, even if the team hadn’t decided internally.
“Orlando never committed to taking jabari first,” said Wallace Prather, Smith’s agent. “Obviously the internet and social media create narratives and stories and we all know it’s a TV show. Orlando kept things tight.”
When Weltman met with staff just before the draft on June 23, he commended them for staying airtight as an organization since their plans were not leaked.
“I think that’s the best way to do business,” Weltman said. “It’s important for people to know that we handle information discreetly.”
Then there was the mystery of sports betting. Many of the top casinos went from lowering Banchero’s odds to making him the all-time favorite in the few days leading up to the draft – overnight.
While the Magic investigated – the team concluded that social media may have played a role – the Rockets began to react.
“When [the odds] moved, we noticed,” Stone said.
The Rockets turned to Prather, a veteran agent who has a long history with the organization. Houston had not met with Smith prior to the call-up, although they scouted and researched him extensively. With uncertainty growing about what the Magic might be doing, Prather gave the Rockets Smith the preliminary medical reports.
This personal data, which includes injury history, is often kept tightly by players and agents. Secrecy is sometimes used as a tactic to divert players away from certain teams. It’s also often not shared when an agent is sure the customer will be taken off the board before the team picks, as was assumed in this case. The Rockets also did not have full medical coverage from Holmgren; He had only provided them to the Magic and the Oklahoma City Thunder, which had the #2.
As the draft rapidly approached, veteran agent Bill Duffy, representing Holmgren, told the Rockets that he would release Holmgren’s medical reports to Houston if he received any indication that Magic and Thunder would release his client for it to prepare could.
The Thunder’s longstanding interest in Holmgren was well known across the league, but in the hours leading up to the draft, there were fears that all might not be as it seemed.
As speculation ebbed and flowed, the magic remained silent. Miller, Banchero’s agent, saw the fluctuating sports betting odds and communicated with Orlando throughout the day to review the situation. The magic revealed nothing.
“In poker,” Weltman said, “you don’t put your cards on the table.”
THE ROCKETS AND Donner deepened her intelligence gathering.
hours passed. After the Rockets were convinced Orlando would go with Banchero, Houston approached the Magic about a trade offer to get on top, sources said.
The Rockets wouldn’t have made an offer if they were sure Smith would slip up to them, sources said, but they were worried about having to make a decision about Holmgren without time to process his medical information.
Teams drafting side-by-side routinely conduct due diligence to check the availability and values of the picks. Perhaps, one thought, the Magic was running a smokescreen – an attempt to force last-minute trade offers only to back down and take the player they’ve allegedly been inclined to all along is a game so old is like the draft itself.
In 2017, the Boston Celtics famously traded the No. 1 for the No. 3 when the Philadelphia 76ers were promoted to draft Markelle Fultz. The Celtics had No. 1 Jayson Tatum on their draft board all along, so they got their player and an additional future pick.
But that trade between the Celtics and Sixers happened three days before the draft. Had the Magic really wanted to trade and retire that #1 pick, they would have made the decision a few days earlier, sources said.
So the Magic listened to the Rockets’ offer, but firmly passed. Negotiations were short and the Rockets understood: a deal was highly unlikely.
“You never know what’s coming your way,” Weltman said. “You never know what other teams are trying to do behind you.”
And when the time came, Weltman didn’t wait. Within moments of being put on the clock by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the Magic called out their picks well ahead of the five-minute time limit. Any last minute offers would have been moot.
Banchero and Smith were left to their twisted emotions, their early careers likely tied to this Brooklyn moment.
“Jabari ended up in a place that suits him,” Prather said. “There was nothing but excitement from Jabari to go to Houston. We love her young core. We love the city. We love the passion of their fanbase.”
After wiping away tears when he first heard his name, Banchero’s unease at the way it played out faded away.
“No, it’s not even a dream. I feel like a fantasy,” Banchero said. “I’ve dreamed of being in the NBA, but being #1 overall is crazy.”