The Orlando Magic got their first looks at rookies Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke. Both showed signs of their potential and that they have a lot to learn.
The first time Cole Anthony touched the ball, it was easy to see there was a pep in his step.
He checked in near the end of the first quarter for his first turn on a NBA court in a preseason game. He got the ball off a rebound and immediately pushed the ball up the floor. That is part of the directive from coach Steve Clifford — to see the team push the pace.
Cole Anthony looked natural as Nikola Vucevic came over to set a screen. Anthony turned the corner and got into the lane and put up a floater.
It was a quick moment. Something that belied the composure and calm the veteran players showed in building a 13-point lead in the first quarter. Anthony was all energy and nerves in his first game.
He found his first points when he took a dribble handoff and stepped into a shot just inside the 3-point line. No one would fault Anthony for being active.
But there is clearly a steep learning curve. One made only bigger by the shortened offseason for rookies. There were plenty of rookie moments.
Anthony got caught failing to remember a switch call and watched as Cam Reddish flew by him to the basket. Dwayne Bacon was pointing to Cole Anthony to go with the cutter off the screen. Anthony immediately acknowledged his error, pointing at his chest as the team switched back on offense.
Those mistakes are to be expected at this stage of the preseason, following a 116-112 Orlando Magic win over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday.
"“I didn’t play well, to be honest,” Anthony said after Friday’s game. “I was probably a little nervous out there. but once I got into the game, I realized this is basketball. this is what I love to do. I got into a little bit of a rhythm and the game started to open up for me. But my overall performance was terrible.”"
Anthony finished with seven points on 3-for-10 shooting. He had three assists against three turnovers. Hardly an impressive stat sheet and a line that clearly showed a need to improve. but it is just one preseason game and Anthony will surely grow.
Chuma Okeke had to wait a bit longer for his turn on the court.
Playing his first game since March 2019, Chuma Okeke did not check in for the first time until late in the third quarter. He struggled to find his legs and keep up with Danilo Gallinari in his early stint.
That was a bit of a baptism by fire. A quick lesson for Okeke to build upon as he gets his rhythm back. He had to catch up to the speed of the game and the craftiness of NBA veterans.
He did not hit his first shot until midway through the fourth quarter, breaking a 96-96 tie with a corner 3-pointer. Okeke finished shooting 3 for 8 for nine points, making two 3-pointers.
"“It felt really good out there, especially being my first tie on the court in a long time,” Chuma Okeke said after Friday’s game. “I just have to keep working to be where I want to be at. The first experience was fun.”"
Okeke said he felt he played OK. He said there was too much to name to improve. This was indeed just about getting his feet wet.
That first basket was a relief, according to Okeke. It was clear he was a bit nervous and hesitant as the game got going. There was also a seeming green light to let him get into some sort of rhythm. He definitely played like it.
Whatever he has to do to get back into rhythm after nearly two years away from the game to rehab a torn ACL.
Anthony felt the same way. He said he did not play well but the experience was a good one to learn what spots he can get to and where his teammates are at. Like Okeke, he said he needed to improve on every aspect of the game — finding his spots on offense and learning how to navigate defenses.
Clifford said he thought both Okeke and Anthony did good things on the floor. They will get the chance to review their games on tape to begin correcting things for practice Saturday.
Indeed, they both seemed to settle in as the game went on, making better plays and consistently helping the team win. Anthony was certainly not shy about shooting, but his fouling decreased as the game went on and he seemed to be more active defensively.
Okeke got better too. He was quick to put up his shot and clearly did not have his legs completely under him. But he got himself going with his first make and had an and-1 and putback at key moments for the Magic to hold on for the win.
It is those little victories that will matter for these young players as they begin to grow.
"“I think I learned so much from this one game right here,” Anthony said after Friday’s game. “The next game is going to be a different performance. I think I will 100-percent be ready by that point. We have a couple of weeks. There is a ton of learning that is going to happen within this time. Even when the season starts, I’m still going to learn. I’m not going to master the game by day one. There is a lot to learn.”"
Anthony said he spent a lot of his first game testing to see where he could get on the floor and where his teammates might be. He displayed some flashy passes in tight spaces that did not necessarily lead to any points.
All the pieces will still have to come together.
The trick to any preseason is to build progress and get better throughout the course of the preseason. So now both players have this baseline set.
And now they can begin to grow.