Cole Anthony’s early inefficiency a necessary price for Orlando Magic to pay for his development

Cole Anthony stepped up with the game-winning shot as the Orlando Magic continue to believe and support their rookie. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Anthony stepped up with the game-winning shot as the Orlando Magic continue to believe and support their rookie. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports /

It was never going to be easy for Cole Anthony.

After a disappointing year at North Carolina, the 20-year-old fell out of the NBA Draft lottery completely despite being a consensus top-five pick coming out of high school.  Streaky shot selection, an inconsistency shooting the ball and struggles finishing at the rim had scouts and front offices doubting his overall ceiling.

And these weaknesses were evident in his early days as an NBA player.

Anthony shot just 33.3-percent from the field in the opening month of the season while making 23.1-percent of his threes. January saw a slight improvement with a field-goal percentage of 36.9-and a 33.9-percent shooting from deep. But, nonetheless, these were still far from efficient numbers.

Among the disappointing shooting, questionable decision-making and the inability to finish through traffic. He looked like a rookie in almost every way.

There were moments of enormous promise. A 21-point game against the Charlotte Hornets in February was the pick of the bunch and saw the young point guard’s persistent aggressiveness, willingness to get out in the fastbreak and consistency with catching and shooting rewarded in a 117-108 win.

In the middle was a two-month absence because of a fractured rib. Nobody ever questioned Anthony’s toughness even if his offense was shaky at best as the Orlando Magic had to start him sooner than they wanted because of injuries throughout the roster.

Cole Anthony’s roller-coaster rookie season appears set to end on a high note as the point guard has the freedom to attack and create while trying to help this young team find its identity.

The Magic were confident enough in Anthony’s upside to sacrifice short-term efficiency, a move which now makes even more sense following the decision to reset the team at the trade deadline.

Anthony’s heart, speed and ability to make difficult shots were never in doubt. The hope was, and still is, that over time his weaknesses would start to become less so.

Anthony is the type of player who, if it all comes together, could be a multiple-time All-Star. At the very least, he seems like a capable backup point guard. He has the raw ability and skillset to become a serious offensive talent that can hold his own on the defensive end too despite his lack of size.

That is why it is vital he continues to develop by trying things in games that might not necessarily come off. Throughout his time at college, Anthony has shown himself to be a player that is willing to try shots that can set him apart from the competition, like step-back threes and floaters.

They might not fall at the moment, but if practicing now means they can consistently come off in the future then it is absolutely worth it. And the Magic have to place confidence in Anthony that he can add these to his arsenal.

We have seen what an efficient Cole Anthony can be in some recent games. His 19-point performance in the defeat to the Toronto Raptors was hugely encouraging, knocking down three 3-pointers after going four games without making one.

The last couple of games have seen a dip in his shooting numbers, and there will no doubt be more moments of inconsistency before this season concludes. The main thing is that he keeps shooting and has the courage to experiment during a season which the team is not expected to win.

We have already seen development in his game. The former UNC guard is finishing far better at the rim than he was at the start of the season, making 60.5 percent of his shots at the basket since the trade deadline compared to 39.5 percent before it.

His 57.1-percent field goal percentage within five feet of the basket on 4.4 attempts per game is the seventh-best mark in the league among guards who shoot more than four attempts per game since the deadline.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Overall, Anthony is averaging 13.4 points per game since returning from injury, albeit on an icy 40.8-percent shooting and even cooler 21.9-percent from deep.

He is also demonstrating a better command of the game. Anthony notched nine assists in the defeat to the Houston Rockets and eight against the Atlanta Hawks, flashing potential as more than just a scorer.

His numbers this year might not be anything to shout about, but as the careers of many other players at his position have shown, an inefficient beginning is not necessarily a big concern.

Anthony has shown plenty of signs he could be a player for the Magic moving forward.

The comparisons

We often hear reporters, pundits and analysts talk about how point guard is the most difficult position to play for a rookie entering the league.

Unless you are Zion Williamson or LeBron James, and maybe a few others, it is incredibly difficult to assert yourself in your first year as an NBA player. But that is especially true of point guards.

For a smaller point guard like Cole Anthony coming into the league, it will take time for him to learn about his own game and exactly where he can hurt opposition teams. He is quickly discovering he cannot go full throttle all the time and challenge everyone at the rim. Even while he understands he has to be clever with his finishes.

Look at Kyle Lowry at the start of his career.

After playing just 10 games in his first season due to a wrist injury, he came back to play all 82 for the Memphis Grizzlies the following season but shot just 25.7-percent from 3-point range. It was not until the 2011 season that he broke the 35-percent mark. Now he is a knockdown shooter from beyond the arc.

The game has changed now, and players are expected to shoot way more threes. Particularly for a point guard like Anthony. Nonetheless, Lowry’s early inefficiency shows it really does not have any bearing on whether a player can reach their potential.

Another point guard whose rookie season compares to Cole Anthony’s is Kemba Walker.

The former All-Star is yet to reach the high standards he did while with the Charlotte Hornets but is a fine example of how he responded to a difficult rookie year by going on to become one of the best in the league at his position.

Walker made just 36.6-percent of his attempts that year and 30.5-percent of his threes. Currently, Anthony is at 38.4 and 30.3 for the same stats. The Magic guard’s 11.4 points per game are also close to Walker’s 12.1.

The then Hornets player — playing under coach Steve Clifford — took a leap the next year, boosting his field goal percentage to 45.9-percent despite still struggling with his 3-point percentage. Eventually, though, that came along and Walker has been a dependable shooter from beyond the arc for a lot of his career.

This offers enormous encouragement that Anthony can build on this year. Like Walker, his three-point shot has not been reliable in his first year but the potential is there for it to become a considerable weapon in the years to come.

An even more recent comparison to draw is Jamal Murray.

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A 40-percent three-point shooter this year before his season was ended through a devastating ACL injury (something Magic fans can sympathize with), the Nuggets guard made just 33.4-percent of his 3-point attempts in his first year.

Murray was clearly a guy Denver felt could be a good shooter, and the team was right. He was having a career year with an average of 21.2 points and is another indicator of young guards needing time to develop their game before they can flourish.

He is a perfect example of why patience pays off in the NBA.

The list goes on and on. The great Steve Nash was almost non-existent in his rookie year. De’Aaron Fox is now shining on a poor Sacramento Kings team but was underwhelming in his first season and point god Chris Paul made only 28.2-percent of his threes in his first year as an NBA pro.

There is no guarantee Anthony will reach the heights of any of these players, but the fact that he too has shown enough promise despite his slightly disappointing numbers is hugely encouraging.

The future is still bright

Orlando Magic fans should still hold out a lot of hope for Anthony. The road ahead for him is not easy with two potential lottery picks in this year’s draft and a host of guards already on the roster in Markelle Fultz, R.J. Hampton, Gary Harris and Terrence Ross.

But his improved finishing in recent weeks shows just how much he is determined to improve. He has that uncoachable desire to play hard every night, grabbing rebounds and throwing his body on the line for the defense. A lot of players are not built like that.

The Magic did the right thing taking Anthony.

Some might look at Immanuel Quickley’s performances for the New York Knicks or Saddiq Bey on a poor Detroit Pistons team. But Anthony’s potential is clear for anyone who watches this team.

Becoming more consistent with his three-point shot next year is the biggest improvement he can make. It could help him average six more points a game on a team that desperately needs more offensive firepower.

The fact he is an 84.6-percent free-throw shooter shows that he can shoot. He has had strong three-point shooting nights this year, just not enough of them.

Whether or not he will get as much opportunity next year is questionable, however. With Markelle Fultz coming back and the potential to land rookie point guards like Cade Cunningham or Jalen Suggs still very much on the radar, Cole Anthony could find himself down the rotation quite easily.

Next. Magic will have tough choices in the NBA Draft. dark

But the Magic must put Anthony’s development high on the list of priorities. He has the ability to be a special player, and someone the Magic have needed for quite some time.