By Fawzan Amer
The pursuit of a ring and continuity has a strange way of forcing players to face their greatest inner conflicts. For the former 15th overall draft pick in 2020, his belief was "I am a starter in this league," he said after posting a 15 point outing alongside six assists in a road victory against the Houston Rockets. Yet, despite his role of coming off the bench a majority of last season, Cole Anthony knowingly signed a team-friendly three-year, $39 million extension constituting his belief of "believing we have a chance to build something here" in addition to his love for the city. "Main reason I wanted to get this deal done is beacause, obviously, I love it here," Anthony said.
In addition to his claims of being a "starter in this league," the former UNC product added "Whether I’m coming off the bench, whether I’m starting, I’m gonna play like I’m a starter. I’m gonna play like I’m one of them dudes". As of December 18th, his performance operating as the microwave scorer in his 25.1 minutes for an Orlando Magic team exceeding expectations league-wide has hoisted the 6'3 guard as one the leading candidates of the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Cole Anthony may not be the starting point guard but his ability to torch opposing bench units and bend defenses to his will as Orlando's primary creator has helped the 23-year old average 14.8 points, 3.6 assists, 4.2 rebounds and a career-high 37.4% from downtown.
"He and I sat in my office and talked the other day just about you know how he's playing, what we're demanding of him, what he expects and just constant communication" said Jamahl Mosley. The third year Magic head coach has handed the reigns to Cole Anthony allowing him free will to operate as the main scorer as opposed to being padlocked behind the likes of the star-studded duo of Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero. With a more spacious runway on the ball, Anthony has been allowed to mold the offense through similar schemes to those of 7-time All-Star Damian Lillard. Pulling a page out of Terry Stotts playbook during the opening minutes of the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics in a grudge match between the two ball-clubs, Jamahl Mosley called for "Horns V Action/Horns Up" with two of the teams elite shooters (Joe Ingles and Caleb Houstan) spaced out in both corners.
The Magic have him relocate off the ball, race around screens, and shoot off dribble handoffs (DHOs) allowing him to flourish alongside what's become the best second-unit in the league. Anthony has made an impressive amount of points off Orlando's signature double drag playcall which has become a consistent theme on a game-to-game basis. You'll often hear the play referred to as "77" from Jamahl Mosley on the sideline during games. With the defense having to navigate two consecutive screens, this naturally allows Cole Anthony to swivel downhill into his bread and butter, finshing around the rim.
What the Magic are doing this year is just the same, but brand new. Despite a multitude of changes to the offense, such as Head Coach Jamahl Mosley tacking on more offensive play-calling duties due to the departure of Nate Tibbetts -- the offense has become predicated to off-ball movement and cuts. However, Cole Anthony has remained as the operator with the ball in his hands primarily on DHOs alongside bigs.
Moving, cutting, and spacing the floor around a creator of Anthony's caliber are a part of Mosley's vision for how to succeed in the modern NBA. For a coach best known for stout defenses, Mosley's team is surprisingly better on offense this season.
Cole Anthony Via Handoffs
Points Per Possession (PPP)
29 Points (5th most amongst ALL Bench Players in the NBA)
Orlando's version of DHOs comes with subtle nuances that elevate the malleability of handoffs in both aesthetics and effectiveness. For instance, Moritz Wagner executed the DHOs in the above clip by literally handing the ball . Anthony, however, has showcased the ability to operate effectively on bounces in his handoffs as well, using it to give himself an extra step on the defense. In a blowout loss against the Brooklyn Nets on the road, the Magic cooked up some "Chicago Action" (pindown and DHO) as Admiral Schofield buried Anthony's defender behind his 241 pound frame -- allowing Cole to settle into a warmup 27 footer from downtown.
NBA teams can’t win a title without stars, but stars can’t win titles without some help from their bench. The importance of a productive bench is one of the big reasons behind Orlando's 16-9 start to the season -- and anchoring that ship has been Cole Anthony. There are no guarantees that the Magic reserves maintain this level of production, but so far the versatility they’ve shown appears to be sustainable in the hands of Cole. The best version of the Magic is drawn by Anthony making instantaneous decisions, attacking in so many ways so quickly that the defense never has a chance to recover. He's not afraid to get creative or take risks in the open court, using his eyes to manipulate defenses to find or generate wide open receivers.
One of the virtues of Anthony's game is that he genuinely wants to throw the ball ahead to make life easier for his teammates. One of the virtues of Harris' game is that he provides spacing for a team that aches for consistent shooting on a nightly basis. The duo has found their rhythm quickly coming off the bench as sparkplugs, their on-court collaboration has set the tempo for the entire Magic second-unit. Harris has made eleven 3s (more than any other player off the hands of Cole Anthony) primarily because his point guard is looking for every opportunity to give the ball up early.
Cole Anthony Passing Chart -- Gary Harris
82 Passes to Gary Harris
Orlando's offense predicates itself on being a terror in transition but last season their second-unit stalled out in the half-court sets as the schedule wore on. But Cole is the tip of the Magic spear. Whenever the offense hints at a dry-spell in the portion of the game, he and Moritz Wagner fall back to a common pairing between the two to jumpstart things back into full throttle. These nuances unwrinkle themselves in so many ways, it makes opposing defenses head spin. Here, Orlando uses the duo of Moritz and Cole in their "Stagger Screen" set with two staggered screeners (Moritz/Isaac) to allow Anthony to receive the ball in space. Moritz Wagner's defender shifts his hips to "show" allowing Cole all the time he needs to find the cutting older Wagner in stride for a slam.
In devious twists between the duo, when Moritz Wagner catches his defender leaning to take away the handoff, he’ll instead abort the action and just drive the lane himself. In transition, Joe Ingles is starting to set a pin-down for Franz Wagner -- instead, off the catch from Cole Anthony he drives down the lane for a scoop handed layup.
For an offense that’s seemingly random and employs off-ball cuts, and whirling movement in space, Cole-Wagner pick-and-rolls are the closest thing Orlando has to a consistent line. These efforts are the intro and outro of a humming offense. And the deeper into a game the Magic go, the more they tend to lean on the pair collabing together to put opposing defenses in a whirlwind of doom. 187 passes to Moritz Wagner have led to 48 field goal attempts watching him convert on 41.7% of them.
The possibilities Cole Anthony invents for the second-unit is almost endless from his scoring to his array of versality. But what makes one of the front-runners for the Sixth Man of the Year Award all the more special is his ability to stop the offense and get them into a designed set that will faciliate a bucket.
The expansion of Cole Anthony's overall game comes as he finally finds himself in the optimal role, with the right players who fit around him. Until now, Anthony had never found an opportunity to stretch his entire skill set with a full complement of supporting players. The Magic hope all their small advantages carry over to the playoffs, too, because they will likely look like underdogs despite their lofty fourth seed. But given the return of Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter Jr, and the sparkplug of Cole Anthony, has Jamahl Mosley feeling good, having a lot of shiny new, but old, toys to play around with.