Orlando Magic Rookie Review: Cole Anthony embracing change

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 16: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Cole Anthony #50 of the Orlando Magic in action against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on January 16, 2021 in New York City. The Nets defeated the Magic 122-115. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 16: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Cole Anthony #50 of the Orlando Magic in action against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on January 16, 2021 in New York City. The Nets defeated the Magic 122-115. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

The Cole Anthony experience has gone mostly as expected in year one for the Orlando Magic.

Anthony has checked off many firsts in his rookie year. He scored his first 20-point game, hit his first game-winner, sustained his first NBA injury and now is wrapping up his first NBA season with steady improvement.

We wrote a profile on Cole Anthony just before the 2020 NBA Draft, calling him the home run pick for the Magic. We were intrigued by his potential, offensive ability and aggressive confidence.

With the 15th pick in the draft, the Magic solidified our prediction and selected Anthony, making him the newest member of a roster poised to make another playoff run.

Things have not always gone according to plan for Anthony. And there are things the Magic hoped to get from him they have not and things Anthony has done that has surprised them.

So what has changed for Anthony between then and now?

The Orlando Magic drafted Cole Anthony to be a solid backup point guard to help guide the team back to the Playoffs. Now he is one of the top scorers on a remade team as the Magic changed around him.

In terms of individual performance, Anthony himself has had a pretty standard rookie season. He struggled in the first month of the season, especially shooting. January brought slight improvement, but this was halted when he suffered a rib injury on Feb. 9.

After returning from injury on April 7, Anthony has played some of his best ball of his young career. He recorded 19 points and eight assists versus the Toronto Raptors,16 points and nine assists against the Houston Rockets and 17 points and eight assists versus the Atlanta Hawks.

Overall, he is averaging 11.6 points per game, 4.2 assists per game and 4.5 rebounds per game. He is shooting an icy 38.7-percent from the floor including 30.3-percent from three. But rookies struggling to shoot is not a strange story to tell.

For a rookie guard, especially one that is undersized, this is the timeline that is expected. Anthony is becoming more comfortable with the NBA game and is continuing to play with confidence despite some inefficiencies.

From our draft profile to now, the biggest change for Anthony has nothing to do with perceived potential or performance. Those are all chalk.

The most uncertainty, and the possibility the biggest opportunity, for Anthony has everything to do with Magic front office’s new direction.

Anthony’s role in a new direction

When the Orlando Magic selected Cole Anthony, one of the biggest concerns was fit. At the time, he was going to need to be able to fit in seamlessly on a roster that had just made the playoffs and looking to take that next step.

This was thrown out the window weeks into the season. After a hot start, Markelle Fultz suffered a torn ACL on Jan. 6. This almost immediately ended any deep playoff hopes, but also thrust Anthony into the starting lineup right away.

The winds of change hit even harder for Magic at the trade deadline. As the most active team, the franchise traded their top three scorers in a complete teardown of the roster.

With only rookie guard R.J. Hampton coming in to run point guard, Cole Anthony (still out with an injury at the time) was going to be the most experienced ball-handler on the team outside of Michael Carter-Williams.

There are young pieces up and down the roster who are actually getting solid minutes. Wendell Carter, R.J. Hampton, Chuma Okeke and, of course, Cole Anthony have now become the core of the Magic’s development.

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Orlando Magic

This is a huge opportunity for Anthony as he can now take the reins and begin to help the Magic front office decipher this young roster. As possibly the most natural scorer remaining on the team, this is Anthony’s chance to solidify his position heading into the offseason.

This is where the uncertainty comes in. Anthony was drafted to plug into an already-shaped roster with pieces like Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon. The team was hoping it could bring him along slowly and rediscover the talent that had him as one of the top prospects in his draft class before his college days.

But that is no longer the case.

This team is now rebuilding. The Magic have two upcoming lottery picks, meaning there is an opportunity to gain one or two young centerpieces.

With their own pick, the Magic are looking at the possibility of a top-five selection, maybe even the number one overall pick. What effect would drafting a guard like Cade Cunningham or Jalen Suggs have on Cole Anthony? What would that mean with Markelle Fultz set to return at some point next season?

It is unlikely the front office will consider the current roster makeup during the draft. The best move in this draft is to select the best available player.

Even the Bulls’ pick brings up more questions. If the pick conveys to the Magic, they will be bringing in a second young player, potentially another wing or guard.

This all goes without even mentioning the return of Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac. Anthony and Fultz did not play great together before the injury so there is still work to be done on that front.

The Magic’s roster is in flux, as is expected with any rebuilding franchise. It is hard to predict which players currently on the roster will be a part of the franchise in the next year, let alone three to five years.

Anthony currently finds himself in the driver’s seat of his own destiny in Orlando. If he continues to show promise over the next month, the Magic will likely lean on his consistency as they make decisions on the future of the franchise.

Encouraging signs of progress

Cole Anthony has navigated this change better than expected for a rookie. It is rare that a player is drafted to fit in on a playoff team, only to have the roster completely flipped in a matter of months.

Although his per-game stats do not jump off the page (11.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, & 4.2 assists), there have been some encouraging signs of growth for Anthony — most notably in the past month.

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Returning from injury to an entirely new offense has been good for Anthony and he has embraced this change with his famous tenacity and aggressiveness. His constant attacking in the paint is finally starting to pay off, as we have seen a small rise in his field goal percentage at the rim.

His playmaking has also shown improvement, as his assist numbers lead the team since his return to the starting lineup.

Since returning from injury, Anthony is averaging 13.4 points per game, 5.6 assists per game and 4.6 rebounds per game. All while shooting 41.4-percent from the floor overall (although just 25.0-percent from deep).

A quick look back at our draft profile would confirm these strengths. We were excited for Anthony’s scorer’s mentality to be showcased in the NBA. There was no doubt was Anthony possessed elite playmaking skills that just needed to be harnessed.

In the same way, our biggest concerns with Anthony as a prospect are still things that need to be addressed. We were lukewarm on Anthony’s shooting ability, especially at deep ranges. While he has found some recent success, Anthony’s shooting numbers for the season are still not great. (30-percent from three, 43-percent effective field goal percentage).

Luckily for the Magic, Anthony shoots an encouraging 82.5-percent from the free-throw line which is always a good sign for potential moving forward.

With the concerns of fit being now thrown out the window, it is safe to say Orlando made the correct pick by selecting Anthony. Despite successes from many of his contemporary guards, Anthony has still solidified himself at the top of the draft class. He currently ranks fifth in points per game in the class.

The truth is the Magic got value with great upside by selecting Anthony with the 15th pick.

Anthony cannot be tagged as a future All-Star quite yet, but he is already in the top end of talent you could expect to get in that slot.

For the Orlando Magic, this is a great first step towards a rebuild. They took a flyer on a guy just outside the lottery with huge upside, who now has a chance to take control in the upcoming weeks.

Next. Veterans are key to making Orlando Magic lineups work. dark

However it shakes out, you can’t say the opportunity was taken out of Anthony’s hands.