Orlando Magic need Cole Anthony to find his level this season

Cole Anthony has rode some ups and downs this season as he adjusts to a critical role for the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Cole Anthony has rode some ups and downs this season as he adjusts to a critical role for the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

There are undoubtedly great moments from Cole Anthony.

It was just a few weeks ago when Cole Anthony seemed to embrace his bench role completely and deliver in a big way, helping the Orlando Magic race past the San Antonio Spurs with 23 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Things seemed so much easier at that point as Cole Anthony fit in with the hybrid bench group with the returning Wendell Carter and Gary Harris.

It seemed like Anthony would be a perfect fit. And with his penchant for shotmaking, it seemed like he would give the bench a solid offensive push. Especially as he continues to improve his playmaking and his defense.

Then there are undoubtedly frustrating moments, where Anthony struggles to find the right shots and run the second unit effectively. Even Orlando’s efforts to move him off the ball and play alongside Markelle Fultz or with Franz Wagner as the main ballhandler have not seemed to unlock the scoring instincts that made him such a fan favorite (at least before this year).

The bottom line is that in year three with Anthony, he has struggled to find consistency. Now that he seems to be settling into the role the Magic ultimately envision for him, the journey for Anthony is even more critical. Not only for his future with the team but also for this team’s immediate postseason future.

Cole Anthony has shown tremendous promise off the bench and plenty of struggle. As the Orlando Magic think about the team’s next development, Anthony needs to find consistency to help the team improve.

For anyone to find success this season, Anthony has to find his level. He needs to give the Magic a consistent scoring punch, that is his ultimate value. And the Magic need to be able to see that most nights.

Already, the team is starting to more clearly see its flaws and how it will have to develop to take its next steps. And that has put the spotlight on Anthony more and more as he continues to go through this rough patch.

For the season, Anthony is averaging 11.6 points per game and 4.2 assists per game while shooting a career-best 41.3 percent from the floor but on just 31.1-percent shooting from deep. His scoring and assist numbers are down from last year, but so are his minutes to a career-low 26.1 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, then, Anthony is averaging a career-low 16.0 points per 36 minutes.

Surprisingly, the Magic have a -4.2 net rating with Anthony on the floor overall this season, a mark that surpasses Fultz’s -6.2 net rating this season.

It has undoubtedly been a season of adjustments for Anthony. He has essentially been the starting point guard for the team when he plays since Fultz tore his ACL in January 2021. There was going to be some adjusting as Anthony moved to the bench — he has started just three games this season, all before his own oblique injury knocked him out for 16 games.

Since that return, Anthony has ridden a kind of wild wave of effectiveness and ineffectiveness this season.

He started out fairly hot, averaging 12.7 points per game and 3.9 assists per game on 46.1-percent shooting (30.3 percent from deep) in his first nine games after his injury. The only blip on that radar was a scoreless effort against the Milwaukee Bucks.

He had five straight games in double figures during that run. Modest figures for sure with 50-percent shooting in four of those five games. That is a signal of what can make Anthony successful.

Orlando posted a -0.6 net rating with Anthony on the floor during that time, the same as the team’s average over that time.

Since then, however (in his last 12 games), he is averaging just 9.5 points per game and 4.5 assists per game (at least those are up) on 37.0-percent shooting and 29.7-percent shooting from deep.

In that run, he has only three games with more than 10 points. The Magic have a -5.1 net rating with Anthony on the floor during that run (again surprisingly still better than Fultz’s on-court net rating of -6.0 although for different reasons, with Anthony the defense is awful and with Fultz the offense is awful).

As obsessive as everyone can be with his 3-point shooting, Anthony may just turn out to be a mediocre 3-point shooter (and far better as a pull-up shooter than a spot-up option). The real difference in Anthony’s shooting has come at the rim and in the paint.

During those first 10 games, Anthony shot 22 for 40 (55.0 percent) inside the paint. During the last 12 games, he shot 17 for 35 (48.6 percent) inside the paint. Note too how his field goal attempts in the paint dipped from 4.0 per game to 2.9 per game.

This signals a player who is both shooting worse inside the paint and a player who is not getting into the paint nearly as much. Even if it is just a better percentage in the paint or a mindset shift that gives him two or four more points inside the lane, Anthony has improved as a passer enough to make this little change impactful for the team.

The Magic overall have played fine with Anthony on the floor, as frustrating as Anthony’s individual run might be.

Even during this awful stretch, the Magic have a -0.9 net rating with Anthony off the floor. Just further proof that playing groups with Anthony and Fultz together has been fairly ineffective (-17.7 net rating with bad offense and defense in 139 minutes this season, by the way).

Considering scoring is Anthony’s most valuable skill set right now, this is a very bad sign for the team overall.

Still, the Magic get a small boost from Anthony and his presence on the floor. Even if that advantage is given away by his defense or the poor defenders around him.

This is all to say that Anthony’s raw numbers matter. The team needs his scoring to help those bench groups hold serve and maintain stability for a starting group that has shown promise — the Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero, Wendell Carter lineup has a net rating of +21.1 points per 100 possessions (122.5/101.4 split) in 65 minutes and five games. Especially now with Harris likely to miss some time with a finger injury, the Magic are going to need that offensive boost more.

There is one thing everyone should understand about the way the Magic operate right now: They are focused on long-term development over short-term wins as much as they want to win and stay in the postseason hunt.

They are going to stick with Anthony and give him the space to figure things out. They may curtail his minutes if he struggles — especially in the second half when Jamahl Mosley tends to tailor his rotations around what works — but Cole Anthony will get his chance to find himself and improve.

The team has seen how effective and important he can be when he does get it right. And it may just turn out that Anthony will go through some of these wild swings.

The question then for Anthony and the Magic is whether he will reach that consistency. And exploring that is vital for this team to figure out its future and what it will need to add. There is discovery even in struggle.

Next. Fourth-Quarter Franz Wagner is everything the Orlando Magic need. dark

That puts the pressure on Anthony in the second half of the season to find his level and find his firm place on the team.