The knock on Cole Anthony in the draft process was a simple one.
Yes, Anthony was a potentially gifted scorer with good instincts and plenty of bounce to match. But he was small. And that would limit him in every way.
Considering he struggled with his shooting percentages at North Carolina, those defensive deficiencies became even more apparent (his knee injury did not help either). Anthony went from the No. 3 prospect in the high school class of 2019 to the No. 16 pick in the NBA Draft.
As the Orlando Magic made him their selection following the 2020 bubble, the questions about his defense remained. It was never that Anthony did not put in the effort defensively. He always gives it his all.
But even three years into his career, defense remains his biggest question mark.
The Magic have seen Anthony become a well-rounded offensive player in year three. He became an efficient scorer shooting 45.4 percent in field goals last season and was a 35-plus-percent shooter from three-point land.
The concern with Anthony however remains his defense. The roster for Orlando is starting to get cluttered within the backcourt and moves may need to be made. If Anthony wants to retain his spot, the play on the defensive end must improve.
Cole Anthony has established himself as an energy player and sparkplug scorer. Despite improvements, Anthony still faces questions about his defense and that could be a sticking point for the fourth-year guard again.
For Anthony, it is mostly about an improvement in his defensive awareness and help. He is a better defender than his reputation suggests.
Coach Jamahl Mosley took advantage of this by using him in full-court pressure to try to slow the other teams down and keep them from initiating their offense quickly.
The Magic had a 112.5 defensive rating with Anthony on the floor, a mark that bested the 113.7 defensive rating the team had for the season. That certainly suggests the Magic can build a decent defense around Anthony — considering he shared the floor with solid defenders like Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner and Jonathan Isaac often, the Magic could hide Anthony.
Indeed, according to Basketball-Index, Anthony had a +0.64 on-ball perimeter defensive rating. That suggests that in isolation, guarding his man, Anthony can hold his own.
It is the other aspects of defense that get him in trouble. By nearly every metric he was a negative defender — -0.8 D-LEBRON, -5.3 defensive real plus-minus and -0.5 defensive RAPTOR.
The superficial low numbers for Anthony in the steals and blocks department stand out initially for the third-year guard out of North Carolina.
During the 2023 season, he averaged 0.6 steals per game (tied for ninth on Orlando) and 0.5 blocks per game (tied for fourth on Orlando). The block numbers are not too bad, but the steal production could be higher for a player that mainly plays the point guard spot.
He is not a high-deflection player or a disruptive player off the ball, averaging 0.9 steals per 75 possessions and only 1.6 deflections per 75 possessions (placing him in the 31st percentile).
Anthony mainly suffered with the points he would give up to players he was guarding and foul trouble. He committed a lot more fouls last season having 23.6 percent of all the personal fouls Orlando had during 2023. He had a game average of nearly three personal fouls per contest.
Another concerning part of Anthony’s production on the defensive end was the frequency with which he could get the Magic a steal or block. Anthony would play 42 minutes of game time for every steal he got and a full 50 minutes of playing time for every block he would get.
He also played around 9 minutes in between committing personal fouls. The comparison between this time and the times for steals and blocks is concerning when you look at the volume of contribution he is providing on defense.
Anthony did not rate well as an off-ball chaser — +0.13 rating according to Basketball-Index put him in the 57th percentile — and he was not particularly strong against screens. According to data from NBA.com, opponents scored 0.91 points per possession against him in pick and rolls, placing him in the 49th percentile in the league.
Again, for a guard who plays the point often, it would be ideal to see those times decrease in year four.
The potential for Anthony to be more active on the defensive end is there. He is 6-foot-3 with a 40-inch vertical jump. He most certainly can go get blocks and be more prevalent on defense. He certainly uses that leaping ability to rebound far better than his height would suggest.
There are hints of this happening as he led every member of the backcourt in Orlando last season in total blocks (31). He was also ranked high on the team last season in steal totals (37). But, for the amount of playing time he gets, this could be improved.
For the time being, Orlando still is a steadfast defensive team. They have a defensive rating that ranks 16th in the league. Although this is not astronomically high, it is better than last year’s team offensive rating ranked 26th in the NBA. This shows there is still an emphasis on defense within the Magic organization.
With the guard room being cluttered, there are plenty of backcourt players in Orlando that are already known for their defensive prowess.
Jalen Suggs is very quick with his hands and has similar blocking numbers to Cole Anthony. The newly drafted guard out of Arkansas, Anthony Black, was known in college hoops for his great play on the defensive end. At 6-foot-7, he has the wingspan and length to get active on defense.
If Anthony is going to see his future with the Magic through, the improvements on defense have got to start showing up in year four.
He has the offensive capabilities to be a standout and help the Magic with scoring, but the question now is what exactly can he do on defense.