By: Fawzan Amer
For years, the Orlando Magic have drowned in the standings failing to establish elite-level guard play. Having a point guard in the NBA to quarterback your offense is imperative to team success. The ideal point guard is a court-savvy floor general possessing both a high basketball IQ and a toolbox with a full complement conveyed of dynamic ball skills. Point guards are tasked with controlling the game's tempo by taking care of the basketball (especially while under duress) and making the appropriate reads based on time, score and situation. Orlando's inability to manifest one via the draft or free agency had hindered their development from a roster construction standpoint. Cycling through a plethora of dead-end point-guards, praying one would break out as a star to quarterback the offense and take the role of the designated play-caller became an endless nightmare as Orlando shuffled through the likes of several mediocre names, such as Shelvin Mack, D.J. Augustin, Elfrid Payton, Michael Carter-Williams and a plethora of other names, only to come up empty in their search...
The Orlando Magic looked to the 2020 draft to put their everlasting point guard woes to rest as they selected Cole Anthony with the 15th overall pick. He missed time with an injury that limited him while he averaged 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, four assists, and 1.3 steals in 22 games with the Tar Heels. However, his rookie season gave him ample opportunity to regain lost ground in the wake of an ACL injury in 2020-21 to Markelle Fultz, limiting him to just eight games that season. It didn't take long for Cole Anthony to become acclimated to the Orlando Magic as a focal part of the rotation, galvanizing head coach Steve Clifford and his Magic teammates with how coachable and purely talented he was offensively. It translated into major statistical success as he scored in double figures in nineteen of the Magic’s last 22 games – dishing out seven or more assists seven times throughout the season. Appearing in 34 games as a starter in his rookie season, Anthony gave the Magic a much-needed breath of fresh air putting to bed any conversation of the “dead-end point guard syndrome” portraying high-end talent at a position of need with Fultz’s injury concerns mounting despair.
As we fast forward mid-way into Cole’s third season and first time playing with another primary ball handler (Markelle Fultz), it's been a struggle for him to find consistency as the primary initiator and play-caller coming off a depleted Magic bench that has faced adversity in multiple facets this seasons from a plethora of injuries, suspensions and on-going changes with player(s) being brought in and out of the G-League affiliate Lakeland Magic.
Prior to this season, Cole Anthony averaged 14.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in 112 games between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 seasons. Excited for the return of Markelle Fultz, and latching onto the rookie sensation Paolo Banchero, the Magic were excited to benefit from Cole Anthony’s scoring on all levels to lead the second unit this season. However, it's been a dwindling effect since Cole's detriment remains to be consistency this season, averaging a mere 11.7 points, and 4.4 rebounds through 48 games this season (both career lows). In the past 12 games, Anthony has surpassed double digits only thrice. In three of the past twelve games, he’s surpassed double digits; he’s shooting an unreal 66.7% from the floor, 44.4% from beyond the arc, tallying 56 total points in 79 minutes of action. It's been a tale of game(s) for him this season, going stretches where he looks as if he was placed on a heater with the basket looking like the size of an ocean, sparking his shot creation and making abilities, boosting his swagger and confidence of teammates around him to the level the Magic envisioned when selecting him.
Anthony displays effective handling in his unique pairing of length and ball security which allows him to loosen his dribble and exaggerate his on-ball movement while remaining in complete control when attacking through traffic or with added defensive pressure. His use of his off-hands aids him in protecting the ball at all times, averaging his fewest turnovers per game (1.5). His package of go-to combinations includes crossovers, in-outs, spins, and half-spins to break down his defenders.
Cole’s agility makes his offensive assonance as lethal as it is. Anthony’s quick twitch and change of direction when planting his feet to cut on a limb are augmented by his ability to change speeds rapidly. Stopping and going at will, leaving defenders second-guessing his movement. He can explode from stationary positions for blow-by's with his utilization of jabs and pivots, making it a staple of his offense. His underhand dominance usage of scoops, reverses, and up-and-unders allow him to get the ball down the floor quickly with some nice layup versatility, helping his game translate to the NBA and finish through contact.
However, this is the first season Cole Anthony is averaging single-digit drives per game (8.1 DPG) despite connecting at a career-best 54.4% clip. While his self-creation has helped him come into his own and ramp up his explosive volume, his drives to the rim help him cater to an efficient 1.03 points per possession as P&R Ball Handler, connecting on 4.7 points on 50.5% shooting. His deceleration on drives by slamming his breaks while still maintaining balance has vanished from his shot diet as his drives per game stats are perishing slowly as the years progress despite his efficiency suggesting otherwise.
Cole Anthony Drives
Due to Cole’s small stature and frame, it makes it difficult when trying to score against rim protectors while absorbing contact. Throughout the years, he's developed a few counters, the go-to being the usage of the floater. This allows him to get the ball over shot blockers and still do damage when he can't get inside the painted area. To start this year, he's not only been going to but converting in this area for a large chunk of his scoring, adding more versatility to his shot-creation diet and making him a nightmare to contain when he gets to the floating aspect of his offensive skill-set. Through 30 games this season, Anthony has attempted 41 floaters and connected on 19 of them, shooting an uber efficient (46.3%). You’ll see him oftentimes use his off-hand and upper-body strength really well to create space, initiating contact and bumping defenders prior to rising up and connecting on his coveted move.
With all of that being said, it's on the perimeter where Cole Anthony’s shot diet relies on doing the most damage . More specifically, through his pull-up shooting. He’s got a superfluid transfer of energy from a live dribble to the shooting pocket, which allows him to pull the trigger at a moment's notice, whether that means coming off a screen with a tight window of opportunity or in transition prior to opposing defenses finding their footing in order to recover.
Despite Anthony's addiction to these shots, they have not granted him much success in the category, shooting a mediocre 37.5% on pull-up jump shots from downtown connecting on only 6 of his 16 total attempts this far into the season. Anthony has a tendency to rely on tough three-pointers too much. Carting out his transition bombs could make him a more efficient shooter. His shot diet, which consists of 83 field goal attempts from 25-29 feet (the most FG attempted from anywhere on the floor by a wide margin by him), shooting a disgusting 27.7% hasn't stopped him from casting out his near half-court heaves. His willingness to attempt these shots, though, poses a constant threat to the defense, making him a nightmare to cover in pick-and-roll actions. Despite the minimal success Anthony has posed as a perimeter shooter this season, of his 30 made shots from beyond the arc, 27 have come from “Above the Break '' threes. Attempting 89 of them, he's only found a 30% success to show for it.
Playmaking has always been a question mark for Cole, but he’s still capable of incrementally serving as a first-advantage creator. However, obvious limitations as a passer and ball handler have held him in a choke hold from consistently initiating, but he still capitalizes on his drive and kick game.
Freeing up shooters who can knock it down on the perimeter or attack inside. From the middle of the floor, he does a decent job of finding teammates in the dunker's spot on laydown or overhead passes to free them inside the paint on mismatches.
On occasion, he leverages his perimeter shot diet and driving threat to open up passing options showing flashes of a true play-maker. Cole Anthony is no Markelle Fultz on the floor, but he does just enough to keep the offense afloat as a play-maker. As a result of his driving and floating shot diet threat and interior threat, teams are forced to send extra help pre-rotation and play ultra-aggressive coverages to bump him off the line. This has opened up opportunities for him as a true point guard playmaker. Anthony has passed on 40.6 percent of his drives (3.3 times per game), averaging 0.8 assists on those passes. His passer rating of 6.8 ranks in the (83rd percentile)
The primary beneficiary of Anthnoy’s driving passing kicks has been sophomore sensation, Franz Wagner. Wagner attempts 1.0 attempts from beyond the arc connecting on 53.3 percent of his threes assisted by Cole.
Zooming out, six different players shoot 50% or above on shots from beyond the arc when the pass is initiated by Cole Anthony . This domino effect has played a vital role in freeing up multiple players all over the court. Cole feels out helps extremely well, making finds across the court. His vision isn't yet all the way there as he misses openings that higher-level passers and initiators would anticipate, but if he scopes out an easy high-value shot, he’ll do what it takes to connect with the pass catcher, which is critical in developing as a lead creator.
It's no secret that Cole has struggled offensively this season, unable to piece together his groove in the sixth-man role. Consistency continues to plague him as the Magic bench scoring has suffered as a result, but his inability to cover defensively has posed looming problems Orlando has started to drown in. Multiple injuries to premier defensive guards such as Jalen Suggs and Chuma Okeke have exposed Anthony's defense, bringing to light his liability on that end of the floor. His lack of size is apparent, often getting bumped downhill or in the post and failing to hold his position by absorbing contact. He doesn’t make up for his size by moving well laterally. Ball handlers are often able to get around him with ease or catch him off balance on a perimeter standstill. Opposing point guards when guarded by Anthony have accounted for 277 points on 41.9% shooting.
Cole Anthony Overall Defensive Numbers:
PTS Allowed: 408
FG% Allowed: 43.5%
3P% Allowed: 35.8%
DRTG: 114.9 (9th WORST on team) (4th WORST not including 2-way players)
He has decent hands that allow him to offer him some resistance (0.7 steals per game), but his screen navigation is awful. Head Coach Jamahl Mosley tries to hide him defensively as much as possible, playing a low activity role where he's tasked to help and recover with perimeter close-outs allowing him to sharpen his lackluster awareness. Opposing players hunt him defensively due to his limitations both on and off the ball on that end of the floor. His versatility offensively remains to be his calling card... When Anthony doesn't provide offense for Orlando, he is a negative on the floor, doing more damage than good.
Orlando is nearing the end of their rebuilding venture as they have pieced together 9 of their last 12 home games as players have started coming back from a plethora of injuries. As they continue to ride the wave of rookie sensation Paolo Banchero and “fourth quarter,” Franz Wagner HC Jamahl Mosley is certainly getting a more in-depth analysis of the lineups and rotations he wants to deploy on a nightly basis. The return of Jalen Suggs, Chuma Okeke, and Jonathan Isaac will certainly do a more prolific job of Anthony being hidden more in Orlando’s deployed defensive schemes. Anthony is still a critical component of this team. Since December 7th Cole has surpassed double figures ten times. In those games, the Magic are undefeated. It can be excruciating to sit on the bench for the beginning of the game, but Jamahl Mosley hasn’t wavered in Cole Anthony's abilities on both ends of the floor as he continues to be amongst the first players on the bench. Magic exercised their 2023/24 option on Cole Anthony earlier this season, further indicating their want and need for him in Orlando as Jeff Weltman and John Hammond try piecing this roster back into playoff contention and beyond at the hump of their young core.
Follow Fawzan Amer on Twitter