Cole Anthony’s progression a sign of Orlando Magic’s needed aggression

Cole Anthony has grown by leaps and bounds as he continues to play aggressively since returning from injury. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Anthony has grown by leaps and bounds as he continues to play aggressively since returning from injury. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

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Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has been nothing but complimentary of Cole Anthony during his time with the team.

His stats have not been overly impressive this season. But that is not what a seasoned coach like Clifford is looking for from a rookie — especially with the disadvantages rookies are facing this year. Anthony has put up good numbers, even after returning from his rib injury.

This is not the important part with a player like Anthony.

What Clifford has cared about and cheered on most is Anthony’s competitiveness. How he has tried to work on one of his biggest weaknesses on defense, how he steps in on charges and how he stays on himself after he struggles.

The front office described Anthony as a fighter after drafting him. That has proven to be true throughout the course of the season.

Cole Anthony is leading a charge for the Orlando Magic to stay aggressive and attack even as the team has struggled to put together a consistent 48-minute effort.

And especially now as the Orlando Magic are sinking toward futility, now tied with the Detroit Pistons for the worst record in the Eastern Conference and the third-worst record in the league. Wins are going to be tough to come by, but Anthony is still driving to the rim and trying to push his team back into the game.

No one on this team is giving up. Most of all someone like Anthony.

"“It’s a lot of learning experience,” Anthony said after Tuesday’s game. “I feel like I’ve really been able to figure the game out. Pretty much differentiating between a good shot and a bad shot and just playing for my team. Regardless that can help us win, but just learning the game. I think that’s what we’re all trying to do right now. We all want a win. The biggest thing for us since we’re such a young group is just to learn the game. We just want everyone to learn so we can build for the future.”"

Anthony has really started to assert himself now that he has had some time since returning from a two-month absence with a rib injury.

He scored 17 points on 6-for-15 shooting and added eight assists and five rebounds. He made only one of his five 3-pointers, but Anthony displayed an aggression attacking the rim and paint that put him in some pretty strong class.

Anthony made four of his five shots at the rim in Tuesday’s game, according to data from For the season, Anthony is shooting 50.9-percent on 3.3 attempts per game from within five feet. Since returning from injury, he is making 57.1-percent of his 4.4 attempts per game from within five feet.

The statistics show that Anthony has always been good at getting into the lane but his pass-out and scoring ability have been relatively poor. That can be expected for a rookie as they are trying to acclimate to the league. But Anthony seems to have found his rhythm with it lately.

If the point guard sets the tone for the attack, Anthony is seemingly doing a much better job finding his way to the basket and finishing at the rim.

"“It’s all good experiences for him,” Clifford said after Tuesday’s game. “The one thing he’ll do is he’ll learn. I thought he played a good solid game. he had eight assists. Playing against all these guys the rest of the season will be a good experience for him.”"

Anthony has certainly been the player who has taken the biggest steps in the last few games. And there are many more steps for him to go. And like with any rookie, there will be moments of inconsistency.

Everything the team hoped to see from him, they are seeing.

The team is still pushing for wins and feeling the frustration of every loss. But this mindset and this attitude of trying to make things happen and still play hard are going to be what carries over to next season when perhaps the team will have a better chance to compete. At the very least, the Magic have to make other teams sweat as long as they can.

The mindset the Magic have to have is one of fearlessness. They have to keep pushing and keep driving and keep attacking. That will at least help them find their identity and something to build on for the rest of the season.

Anthony exemplifies this best with his ability to get downhill and into the lane. He is constantly driving and pushing the team forward. The 6-foot-2 guard is also quietly a very strong rebounder. And his willingness to mix things up on the glass has become important for the team.

Orlando will need to lean on this fearlessness and hope that this kind of aggression and edge spreads throughout the team. That can be tough with the seeming lack of motivation that comes with the end of the season.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

There are undoubtedly still going to be hard times for this team. The Magic lost to the Hawks 112-96 as their offense could not get over that final hump and cut into a six-point third-quarter lead.

Rebounding has continued to be a huge problem for the team. Atlanta grabbed 18 offensive rebounds and while they resulted in only 14 second-chance points, those were killers for momentum and potential transition opportunities.

The Magic went down by 17 in the second quarter thanks to a 21-4 run. Most of that damage came when the starters returned, going -9 in a three-minute span. But the starting group was always chasing the lead after being +1 before Clifford’s first subs.

Orlando, after two straight games with poor starts to the second half, started the third quarter on a 7-0 run, cutting the deficit quickly down to 10. They kept up the pressure and cut the lead down to six.

The starters played well for long stretches in Tuesday’s game just as they have the last few games. But they were climbing uphill for most of the rest of the game. And with the team’s poor shooting the Magic have struggled to erase these kinds of deficits and keep up any offensive push.

The bench and the starters are not working against each other. But injuries and trades have destroyed Orlando’s depth at this point. The team is not going to be able to rely on its bench and whether the team can compete or not is likely going to come from limiting the impact of the bench and the starters playing well.

Orlando is still struggling to put the whole picture together for a full game.

"“I’d like to see us grow as a team,” Anthony said after Tuesday’s game. “These past games, we’ve had some really good stretches even like up to three quarters in a game where we play our tails off. and we have just one quarter or not even a full quarter where we relax and catch our breath and that’s when the other team pounces on us. I’d like to see us put a full complete game together and hopefully result in a win.”"

Avoiding these lulls is going to be the difficult part for the Magic the rest of the season.

None of that is going to come by sitting and waiting. Someone has to make something happen. And the group has to have the collective fire to keep pushing. The Magic are still only showing that in spurts. Key players still tend to disappear for long stretches.

Certainly, some of that may still have to do with how young everyone is. Confidence can come and go with young players.

Next. NBA Draft will present tough choices for Orlando Magic. dark

But if the team wants to see them make gains, they will need the competitive fire and edge that someone like Anthony has brought to the roster on both ends.