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Excellent fit: Why UNC PG Cole Anthony was drafted 15th by the Orlando Magic

It’s not always pretty, but the talents of Cole Anthony are undeniable. With the 15th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, just outside the lottery, the Orlando Magic selected the UNC point guard.

During his lone season in Chapel Hill, Anthony appeared in 22 games (20 starts); he averaged 18.5 points (45.1 eFG%), 4.0 assists (24.1 percent assist rate) and 5.7 rebounds per game. However, context is important when analyzing Anthony’s performance with North Carolina.

 

Take the good with the bad

The Tar Heels struggled on the court, while Anthony struggled to find efficient offense — night in, night out. A knee injury cost him 11 games; after his return, Anthony never quite had his usual burst. Anthony struggled to consistently separate from defenders amidst an offense that finished outside the top 300 nationally in both 3-point percentage and effective shooting.

While Anthony got to the free throw line consistently (6.7 FTA per 40 minutes), he shot under 40 percent at the rim.

In reality, the combination of fit and secondary shooting at UNC didn’t help matters; the situation in place wasn’t set to optimize Anthony’s talents. (Think about how this runs counter to Obi Toppin, who got to play with Jalen Crutcher and in the middle of Dayton’s electric continuity ball screen offense.)

A lack of wing shooting, plus the necessity to play two bigs — Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot — as  much as possible, caused UNC’s half-court attack and secondary break to short-circuit. Often, it was Anthony left to try and bail the Tar Heels out.

Still, according to Synergy Sports, Anthony posted an effective shooting rate of 44 percent on off-dribble jumpers this season, which is solid. He also hit an effective shooting rate of 60.3 percent on catch-and-shoots.

With Anthony off the floor last season, UNC scored nearly six fewer points per 100 possessions, according to Pivot Analysis.

That’s all in the past now, though. If you buy Anthony as an NBA weapon, the pull-up numbers are encouraging. Anthony now joins an NBA franchise that’s made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and features an exciting mix of young talent, although the bubble knee injury to former FSU star Jonathan Isaac is a substantial bummer.

 

Decision-making, lack of spacing

Cole Anthony has room for growth as a passer, but he already checks some boxes, too. Anthony showed the ability to make pocket reads — in transition (drag screen action) or in a half-court setting. He can also pick out weak-side shooters from pick-and-roll action.

Anthony has a fairly advanced handle; it’s clearly something the young guard has dedicated a lot of time to crafting.

However, his overall playmaking repertoire leaves more to be desired. Despite its roster limitations, Anthony struggled to get the most out of his teammates, or raise their offensive floor by generating easy shots, consistently. That’s not all on him, but his decision-making came and went; those ebbs and flows could manifest out over the course of a single game. (The home loss to Duke in February is one of those volatile games.)

Again, roster limitations at North Carolina must be considered when evaluating Anthony. There are plenty of example Anthony helplessly trying to attack a clogged lane at UNC. This possession in the ACC Tournament against Virginia Tech is one of the many, but is spells out the half-court challenges Anthony and Brooks faced on a nightly basis.

Anthony comes off a screen from Brandon Robinson, which the Hokies switch, and into a handoff with Brooks. Virginia Tech pinches Anthony with two defenders and the baseline; however, he makes a quick read and threads a pocket to Brooks on a short roll. Instantly, though, three defenders converge on Brooks; 6-foot-10 John Ojiako is right in his face with Bacot stationed in the dunker spot, instead of the weak-side corner.

From the opposite wing, Wabissa Bede eagerly helps off Leaky Black (25.4 3P%). Bede covers a lot of ground and leaves Black wide open; this would be a mistake against plenty of ACC-level wings. However, instead of shooting the ball off the catch, Black dribbles in for a pull-up long 2. Not only is this a less efficient shot, but it also gives Bede time to recover and contest.

The two-man game of Anthony and Brooks produced a great look here: an open spot-up 3. UNC just couldn’t cash in on this advantage last season, though.

 

Future Fit: Cole Anthony

Anthony will get to work with a coaching staff that has a track record of helping young guards develop. Prior to his time with the Magic, head coach Steve Clifford spent six seasons in Charlotte. Clifford is known more for his defensive tactics, but under his watch, point Kemba Walker emerged from an erratic/inefficient creator to one of the best pick-and-roll guards on planet Earth.

Clifford’s staff can also point to success with Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Fultz was set to be part of a Big Three in Philadelphia with Joel Emiid and Ben Simmons; however, a variety of pitfalls, both physical and profoundly psychological, befell Fultz.

Long story short: there was disconnect between Fultz, the front office and his future. Prior to the 2019 trade deadline, Philadelphia routed Futlz, the No. 1 pick in the freaking draft in 2017, to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons, a 2020 first round pick and a second round pick. (The new Sixers used that 2020 first round pick, from OKC, to draft Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey — an excellent selection.)

Regardless, Fultz has played his best basketball in years with Clifford and his staff; there’s still a long way to go, but for now, there are things to build on, too.

Anthony will likely come off the bench; Clifford is highly unlikely to give a large minutes share to any rookie. That’s just how he functions. However, Orlando needs shooting and playmaking; Anthony offers both. There’s a good chance for him to crack the rotation and play some with Futlz, who can guard multiple positions.

From a long-term value standpoint: With the 15th pick, Orlando selected a prospect that many had pegged as a top-3 pick prior to a season where everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong. That’s good return. And if Anthony hits his high-end outcome as a player, then the Magic have a foundational backcourt element.

 

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