Orlando Magic find a fighter in Cole Anthony

The Orlando Magic say they look for toughness and players who will fight to get better. They think they found it in the undervalued Cole Anthony.

It might be easy to assume Cole Anthony has had everything handed to him.

As ESPN showed throughout the NBA Draft shows, he was featured in a documentary about elementary school basketball players a decade ago. As broadcasts showed throughout the season whenever North Carolina was on, his father is former New York Knicks point guard and CBS and NBATV analyst Greg Anthony.

Anthony had all the talent to back that up too. He was the No. 3-rated high school prospect in the class of 2019 and the MVP of both the Nike Hoops Summit and the McDonald’s All-America Game. The accolades and his talent followed him everywhere.

It felt like he was destined to make it to the NBA and destined to be a top pick.

Then his year at North Carolina proved to be a difficult one. It would have been easy to pack it in, shut things down and think about his future in the NBA.

But that is not who Cole Anthony is. That is not the kind of person or the character he has. He kept fighting.

When Adam Silver announced Cole Anthony’s name to the Orlando Magic with the 15th pick, Anthony immediately started to break down crying. It was clear this was nothing that seemed guaranteed to him. It was something that he had to scratch and claw for.

And that is ultimately what made Anthony stand out and made the Magic attracted to him.

“I had a really tough year for me overall,” Anthony said in a teleconference Wednesday. “I was angry, sad, happy, every emotion I pretty much had just came out at that point right there when I heard my name called. I didn’t know how to react. I was kind of laughing, smiling and crying at the same time. It was just a flurry of emotions. It was one of the best days of my life.”

It was a rough year for him on the court, to say the least. One that had him tumble from a surefire top-5 pick — if not the top pick in some early mock drafts — to the middle of the first round.

He partially tore the meniscus in his right knee in December, causing him to miss two months of the college season. When he returned, the Tar Heels were far out of the NCAA Tournament picture.

He could have easily shut it down then, protecting his draft status, already depressed some by his struggles with his efficiency and playmaking and the burden he had to carry as North Carolina continued to struggle.

But he kept playing. Anthony said he felt a sense of loyalty to his teammates and coaches. He was not about to turn his back on them. And he played well despite the losing and difficulties that clearly weighed on him.

He averaged 18.1 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per game with a 34.2-percent clip from beyond the arc. The Tar Heels still lost, winning just four more games the rest of the way. But no one would fault Anthony’s efforts.

Magic coach Steve Clifford said he was impressed with how Anthony was able to control the pace of games and attack downhill. He said Anthony lived in the paint and could get there whenever he wanted. But his ability to score off catch-and-shoots and off screens was also impressive.

Despite his relatively low assist numbers, Clifford said Anthony played unselfishly and looked to get others involved. He liked his reads on pick and rolls.

Steve Clifford said Cole Anthony had a competitive spirit that reminded him of his father, Greg Anthony. Anthony was not known for his defense at North Carolina, but Clifford said he believes Anthony’s competitiveness and skill will get him caught up on that end.

Doggedness and stubbornness

That kind of doggedness and perhaps even stubbornness can be viewed as a negative — detractors have called him a ball hog at times — or it could be viewed as a positive — he refused to quit and continued to compete.

That chip on your shoulder is vital for young players on the team. President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman called it one of the most important attributes for a player. It drives them to be greater.

The Magic might define it another way: Toughness and passion.

“I said from my very first day here we want fighters,” Weltman said in a teleconference Wednesday. “We. Want. Fighters. And Cole Anthony is a fighter. He cares about winning. He is going to do what it takes to improve and do what it takes to help the team win. We do look at him as a two-way player. We believe he will buy-in and sacrifice and help lift the group.”

And those are some of those intangible skills the Magic look for too among their penchant for length and wingspan. The kind of players they focus on have that intangible skill.

Weltman has talked about the Magic’s focus in the Draft being more about finding guys who are fighters, who display toughness and who have high basketball IQs.

Anthony’s outpouring of emotions, Weltman said, was a sign of the passion that Anthony showed them through all the tape they watched and the interactions they had with him — including an in-person workout under the NBA’s protocols.

That is what they think they found in Anthony.

“We look for basketball players,” Weltman said in a teleconference Wednesday. “We look for guys who make others better and have toughness and IQ and skill. To be able to look at a guy like Cole who was a top-3 guy coming out of his high school class and had that stamp. To be able to get a guy like that who had an injury-riddled year and struggled a bit on a team that didn’t do as well as they hoped that might have suppressed his value. For us, it didn’t. We feel very fortunate to get a guy like Cole at 15.”

Weight of expectations

Cole Anthony is still carrying the weight of those expectations. It colored how people perceived him and his time at North Carolina. Perhaps even where he fell short in the end.

Everyone is human and how someone plays to expectations definitely affects how they view them overall. Anthony showed enough promise to warrant those expectations.

So if there is a chip on his shoulder, it is to get back to those expectations. He said this season was full of struggle too. The injuries he faced tested his resolve. So too did the struggles of his team and the losing that mounted.

That certainly gives him a chip on his should to prove himself too. Anthony still has not lost any of the confidence or swagger. He is eager to get to work and prove a lot of doubters wrong, but most importantly win.

“Look, I’m going to be honest with you,” Anthony said in a teleconference Wednesday. “I don’t think there are 14 people in this draft who are better than me. That drives me every day. This moment and throughout my career, I don’t want to be judged by my individual play. I want to be judged by my team. I want to win. I’m going to do everything I can to help my team win wherever I’m at.”

Anthony said he sees the Orlando Magic as a team on the cusp of doing something special. They are a team on the rise. And he is eager to help them get going.

And he was not afraid to say that this Magic team is on course to compete for a championship. Bold words from a rookie with plenty to prove and to fight for.

But that is who he is. He never hid from the challenge at North Carolina. He stubbornly stuck to it and kept fighting for it.

That is who the Magic wanted. Someone who would not give up and would keep competing and keep playing.

They wanted a fighter.