Cole Anthony’s Orlando Magic future will be mapped by his defensive improvement

Cole Anthony knows he has to improve his defense to hang around with the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Kathy Willens/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Anthony knows he has to improve his defense to hang around with the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Kathy Willens/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports /

When Cole Anthony arrived at Summer League in Las Vegas in August, he made it clear what his goals were: He wanted to be a better defender.

Anthony is never one to pull back when he speaks to the media. He is open and honest and usually pretty optimistic. No one has emerged as more of a cheerleader for everything going on within the Magic organization.

And Anthony is usually pretty critical of himself — in an optimistic constructive way. He understood he did not shoot well enough during his rookie season (33.7-percent shooting from deep). He also understood he is not a good defender either.

Without a doubt, Anthony showed hustle on both sides of the ball on a team that was not destined for immediate success. But his defense may be the difference between a starter or a sixth man.

Cole Anthony has turned himself into a popular and potentially strong player for the Orlando Magic. But his future will be mapped by his defensive improvements.

Anthony entered college as one of the top prospects. He struggled in both those areas during an injury-filled freshman year. But Anthony, despite being undersized, still has immense talent the team is discovering.

Magic fans have made Anthony one of the most popular players on the team for his personality and this frankness. But if Anthony wants to become a player entrenched in this young team’s future, he has to be more than a cheerleader.

He has to become a better defender. That is where Anthony knows a lot of his work has to be.

Anthony’s biggest question mark since college has been his defensive body of work. His lack of footwork, wingspan and help defense have been in his scouting report since entering the league.

First off, Anthony’s below-average footwork allotted opponents to coast to the basket. There were plenty of clips of Anthony’s on-ball defense being lackadaisical. Anthony struggled to prevent drives and consistently left his feet even though the ball handler still had a dribble.

Anthony knows he needs to get better defensively. It was something he said he wanted to improve upon during the team’s Summer League run. He clearly knows there is a lot of work to do there.

For the Magic last year, Anthony just did not measure out as a strong defender. He had a -0.8 D-LEBRON, -0.7 Defensive Box Plus-Minus and -3.0 Defensive RAPTOR, according to data from Basketball Index.

Anthony was not good at getting into passing lanes by the numbers and was constantly picked on and attacked. That is normal life for a rookie. But Anthony struggled to find his footing on the defensive end.

Anthony has a tendency of not standing in an active defensive position.

Below is a video of Cole Anthony guarding the San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White. Almost immediately, Anthony is beaten off the dribble and a distasteful foul ensues. He takes away the middle, but the stance he portrays lacks a conducive approach to on-ball defense.

Last season, Anthony was eighth among rookies with 2.1 fouls per contest. Developing a disciplined mindset is crucial for Anthony’s longevity and relevance in the league. Experience will almost certainly help with that.

About the only defensive metric he measured good at was in creating steals and recovering loose balls — a 66.7-percent loose ball recovery rate according to Basketball Index. He was also good at taking charges. He was second on the team with six charges last year (Michael Carter-Williams led the team with eight).

Anthony certainly seems willing to put his body on the line and play with energy and effort. That is always a start for a good defender.

With superb leaping ability, Anthony can contest and defend the arc while also disrupt the passing lanes. He should improve in those areas after struggling with it in his rookie year.

Orlando is in need of a durable, two-way backcourt. Last season, the Magic allowed 113.3 points per game. Although the young roster forced 12.7 turnovers per contest, Anthony will need to help implement a fiercer defensive regime. He has already proven to be opportunistic on that front — 0.9 steals per 75 possessions placed him in the top third of the league (barely).

Anthhony’s 6-foot-3 frame is an adequate size for an NBA guard. On the other hand, his athleticism and the ever-changing landscape of the NBA may force Anthony to defend larger perimeter players.

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With this being said, using his athleticism on defense can benefit not only him, but Orlando as well.

Anthony developed confidence throughout the season. Throughout the entirety of the season, his points-per-game average steadily increased. He averaged double digits every month during his rookie season.

To be clear, Orlando knows the offensive production Anthony contributes. His questionable defense is at the forefront of his improvements.

Undoubtedly, Anthony will not single-handedly turn the Magic into a dynasty. Moreover, Orlando should look to build around its youthful talent over the upcoming seasons.

Drafting blue-chip talent in the past two seasons has helped create a young foundation. With the Eastern Conference strengthening year after year, Orlando strives for relevancy while relying on a grassroots approach to building a contender.

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Anthony is one piece to a strong, young backcourt. If he continues to develop, there is a strong indication the Magic can cultivate its young roster into a regular playoff contender.