Orlando Magic First Quarter MVP: Facts, Cole Anthony was really good

Cole Anthony had a stellar start to his season as the Orlando Magic began their rebuild. Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Anthony had a stellar start to his season as the Orlando Magic began their rebuild. Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports /

Cole Anthony was getting serenaded with M-V-P chants as he went to the foul line late in the Orlando Magic’s win over the Utah Jazz.

He did not want them, as he thanked fans and said after the game. But fans will still bestow that serenade on who they choose — and they did so again Wednesday night against the Denver Nuggets as Anthony returned from a six-game absence with a sprained ankle.

For a team that is now at the bottom of the standings and often hears those chants serenaded on opposing players (and legitimate candidates at that), having that moniker placed on one of their own players speaks to a special connection.

Something clicked between Anthony and the fans that made him seemingly indispensable.

Part of it was his play — a statistical burst of scoring that is impressive even with the expected improvement of a rookie to his sophomore year. The other part was a personality and an attitude that play backed up.

In a season fans probably already had an inkling and an understanding the team would sink toward the bottom of the standings, they were going to latch onto someone who would defy that idea and seek to be better.

Cole Anthony made an otherwise difficult start to the season a whole lot more bearable as he put in nearly All-Star numbers to lead the Orlando Magic early this year.

Anthony had the viral moment of the season in a walk-off interview on Bally Sports Florida with Dante Marchitelli following that win over the Utah Jazz just shouting “Facts” after statements from Marchitelli and then shouting out all his teammates after he hit big shot after big shot in a 33-point, nine-rebound and six-assist performance.

No one would accuse Anthony of lacking confidence. Just as no one would accuse Anthony of not putting in the work to improve on his less-than-impressive rookie year (except maybe Charles Barkley, who is apparently paid to follow the NBA).

The Magic were better with Anthony by a mile.

He is right that he does not deserve those M-V-P chants he has been getting from the Amway Center. But for this team? Sure, absolutely.

Anthony is the easy and obvious choice as the MVP of the Magic’s first quarter of the season as he continued his stellar finish to last season and put to rest Summer League and preseason struggles.

He turned in a performance that has to have the Magic rethinking some of the assumptions they might have made about their roster and gave them perhaps a new player to experiment with as they form the kind of team they want to be.

It is hard not to believe Anthony — both humble and all about his teammates but playing with the swagger and confidence to finish a game and take every big shot the team faces — has found a place in the Magic’s long-term plans somewhere with the energy that he has played.

And it is hard to imagine how far back this team would be without Anthony.

In the first quarter of the season — the team’s first 21 games — Anthony averaged 19.6 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game and 5.9 assists per game. He shot 41.6-percent from the floor and 36.6-percent from beyond the arc.

For his rookie season, Anthony averaged 12.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game with shooting splits of 39.7/33.7/83.2.

That is improvement completely across the board.

Anthony is scoring like he is an All-Star. He is rebounding better, something this young team desperately needed despite its big frontcourt. He is passing the ball better, a continuation of his improvement as a playmaker from late in his rookie season. And he is shooting the ball far more efficiently.

The ball is in his hands a lot too as the team’s point guard. And the Magic, with so many young players, are still figuring out how they want to play. Anthony is someone who gets to his spots, can set up his own shot and generally continues to make the right plays. He then steps up at the biggest moments.

Anthony built a good clutch reputation for his buzzer-beating shots at Minnesota and against the Memphis Grizzlies during his rookie season. But he continued to build that reputation in his second year.

In the first quarter of the season, Anthony scored 6.3 points per game with 47.8-percent shooting in the fourth quarter. In clutch situations, Anthony scored 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting in 17 clutch minutes.

For a team with just four total wins in the first quarter of the season, the team went 3-3 in these clutch games. Anthony had a big hand in all of those, scoring the most in these moments by far.

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And those clutch minutes do not end up including the 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting and 4-for-5 shooting from deep in the fourth quarter of the win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Anthony just came up with big shot after big shot, stepping up at every moment when the lights were the brightest. But then also happy to set someone else up and celebrate their success.

But Anthony was key to the team functioning at any basic level.

In the first quarter of the season, the Magic had a net rating of -1.2 points per 100 possessions (107.7 offensive rating/109.0 defensive rating). That is not a crazy good number and points to how poorly the team is playing.

But with Anthony off the floor, the team had a team-worst -21.2 net rating (91.5 offensive rating/112.7 defensive rating). That was among the biggest splits between a team’s net rating with a single player on and off the court.

It was no coincidence too how much the Magic’s offense suffered with Anthony out completely during the final six games of the team’s seven-game losing streak. Orlando was the only team during that stretch to have an offensive rating worse than 100 points per 100 possessions.

The offense just died with Anthony out of the game.

Not that it was that great even with him in. Orlando still lacks a lot of consistent options. Anthony just seems to be the one who has taken the most to the way the team is hoping to play offensively. And that has helped propel the team when everything else seemed to click.

Getting everyone else to click — especially high-usage players like Jalen Suggs and even Mo Bamba or Wendell Carter — will be the biggest trick.

But it was clear even when Anthony returned how much an aggressive and natural point guard can do for this team. The Magic transformed once Anthony got his legs under him in the second half as they erased a 16-point deficit at the half and zoomed ahead to the win.

The fact this is still his second season — and early in his second season at that — shows promise he can continue to grow and improve.

In reality, Anthony is no longer playing like the late-Lottery pick the Magic made him in the 2020 Draft. He is playing more like the No. 3 high school recruit who arrived at North Carolina with big promises.

Defenses are still adjusting to this proposition. So too are Magic fan expectations. And Anthony will have to spend the rest of this season proving this is no fluke.

Next. Orlando Magic accept the defensive challenge. dark

For now, it is easy to sit back and enjoy what Anthony did to start his second season.