The Orlando Magic wanted to bring along their rookies slowly. But injuries have forced them to throw Cole Anthony especially into the fire early on.
There are the external pressures of everyone trying to tell him how he needs to play and the weight of expectations that comes with a player of his profile.
Then there are the internal expectations that Cole Anthony has for himself. He is not someone that is OK with a poor game by any means. He wants to play well.
Through six games, that fire has been evident with some of the positive plays he has made. He has stepped up with some big passes and drawn some fourth-quarter charges.
But some of that frustration has bled through too as he forces shots and struggles with his individual defense.
This is life as a rookie no doubt. But that does not make it any easier for Anthony. And things have only gotten more complicated as the team has faced injuries this season.
"“I really have not shot the ball well,” Anthony said after practice Sunday. “I can’t let that get me down. I still have to get out there and still trying to rebound, still trying to make plays for my teammates. I am going to keep trying to take good shots. At some point, they’re going to fall. I’m not going to lose confidence. They’re going to fall at some point. it hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen.”"
Cole Anthony has struggled especially through the first six games. He has posted 8.7 points per game on just 33.6-percent effective field goal percentage. Anthony has found difficulty getting his shot going and it is clearly weighing on him.
Some of this has been because of his forcing shots and trying a bit too hard to get out of the hole he has dug himself early on this season. But nobody would fault Antony for being aggressive. He is finding an ability to get in the lane, he is just rushing perhaps against a league that is still a bit too fast for him.
Steve Clifford said he and his coaching staff are constantly reviewing tape with Cole Anthony trying to minimize that learning curve. All they can do it seems with such little practice time is to try to teach through the film.
But Anthony has had to learn by diving into the deep end head first. He did not have the usual prep time rookies get and he is clearly playing catch-up, requiring maximum levels of patience.
"“This poor kid had no summer league, no summer, no September workouts,” Clifford said after practice Sunday. “He’s a perfectionist. He’s putting a lot of pressure on himself. He’s one of those guys who will do three good things and one bad thing and he’ll remember the bad thing. . . . You have to do it step by step. I think it’s more important they get into a rhythm with their teammates and they feel good about things and they are playing well on both ends of the floor and you build from there. Unfortunately, because we have taken these injuries, it’s made it tougher. He is playing a position he has barely practiced.”"
Steve Clifford’s approach has been to try to carve out narrowly defined roles for both rookies — Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke. Injury has disrupted both of their activities forcing them either out of the lineup or into roles they are likely not prepared for.
Chuma Okeke will be out indefinitely — likely a few weeks — after suffering a bone bruise in his surgically repaired left knee. He said the injury feels better and he is already back lifting weights. But there is still being discomfort. While an MRI revealed no ligament damage, the Magic are going to be careful bringing him back.
That is a frustrating start and stop for a young player who has worked hard to get back from a major knee injury. Okeke will have to display patience getting himself back and then working his way back into the lineup with the Magic’s compressed schedule.
Injury and adaptation
Injuries have become the story in the last week for the Orlando Magic. They were already down Jonathan Isaac for the year with a torn ACL and Al-Farouq Aminu has missed time after a procedure to clean up his injured knee. But the team lost starting forward James Ennis in training camp and now are down Evan Fournier with back spasms.
Both Ennis and Fournier are listed as questionable for Monday’s game. While Mohamed Bamba is no longer listed on the Magic’s injury report, Steve Clifford usually likes to see players participate in practice and 3-on-3 or 2-on-2 drills extensively before re-inserting them into the rotation.
The problem is — and this is the same for the rookies — there is no practice time to sharpen skills. The team spent Sunday’s practice focusing on driving into the paint and getting paint touches more effectively. Any defensive adjustments they made were discussed through film.
There was simply no time to get live action on the court outside of games anymore. The Magic do not have consecutive days off again until Feb. 3.
That has put everything in flux for the rookies. They have faced a whirlwind that is tough for anyone to handle, especially with the pressure of being on a winning team.
"“I feel like each game and each practice I was getting more comfortable on the court,” Chuma Okeke said after practice Sunday. “I was feeling more relaxed. We were starting to bond as a team. When I get back out there, hopefully, I can pick up where I left off at.”"
Both Okeke and Anthony’s stats resemble rookies still figuring things out and players struggling to find their place in the league.
Okeke, like Anthony, has struggled. He has averaged 3.0 points per game on a 42.9-percent effective field goal percentage. Okeke has found the most comfort making quick two-dribble pull-ups. He has made some heady defensive plays but is still clearly trying to process plays at NBA speed consistently.
Anthony has shown flashes of brilliance. The team is still very confident in his abilities. But his offense is still too sped up. He will make the right read attacking the basket but then rush a floater. Everyone is confident his game will develop and that he is doing the right things.
"“I’ve been a little more than frustrated with myself because shots aren’t falling,” Anthony said after practice Sunday. “That’s the beauty of the NBA. Struggle one game and you’ve got another the next day if not two days later. That’s what I’ve been focusing on. Focus on what’s ahead of me and not lingering in the past.”"
The Orlando Magic have put Cole Anthony in some odd spots.
The much-anticipated Cole Anthony-Markelle Fultz lineup has come out on a few occasions already — 11 minutes total already — to little effect. The group has not worked.
But Clifford anticipated that at this point.
The Magic want to run this lineup at some point in the future, but even they feel like it is too soon to put Anthony in an off-ball role that he might be uncomfortable playing. They have unfortunately had no choice thanks to the injuries.
In the last two games, as injuries have really hit the roster, they have put Anthony in these uncomfortable spots. And he did that against teams that has long guards like Matisse Thybulle and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to bother him and make it difficult for him to drive — he scored the majority of his career-high 18 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in the fourth quarter with the game long decided.
The Magic are clearly displaying a measure of patience in these young players as they get thrown into the deep end through all the upheaval of this season — both on and off the court.
"“We know that we’re going to make mistakes knowing that it’s our first year,” Chuma Okeke said after practice Sunday. “If I see him getting frustrated, I say it’s cool. Cole is always doing good things on the court. He might make a couple of bad plays. He might overlook those bad plays from the things he is doing good. I try to remind him he did this good. Just keep playing good.”"
For now, Anthony is going to have to find the little victories. The little moments he does the right thing and build upon those, brushing off and minimizing the areas where he still struggles.
Anthony has done plenty of good things so far this season. He has contributed to the team’s wins. There is plenty to grow from.
But Orlando has asked a lot more of their rookie guard than they probably wanted to at this point. The season requires necessary adjustments. And Anthony as had to adjust as much as any other.