The Orlando Magic’s season is still a month away. The anticipation for it is killing everyone as Magic fans feel the team is on the cusp of something special.
They have two budding stars in Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner to build around. The rest of the season is figuring out which of their young players make sense to help the team in the long term.
Nobody quite knows where this season will end up. The team hopes there will be enough internal growth to take the leap from just outside the postseason chase last year to in the postseason in some form. There is no other place for the team to “level up” if that remains the goal.
The question then becomes who has to step up to get the team there? Who is the player who could flip the team in one direction or another?
The Orlando Magic are optimistic about their group and what they can grow to become. To make the postseason push, they will need a big bench performance from Cole Anthony. He could be the factor that gets the team over the top.
The answer to that question was pretty clearly seen in the way the Magic finished their season. Their trio of ball-handling guards each seemed to find something they could build off of in the final weeks of the season.
There is legitimate excitement for how comfortable Markelle Fultz started to look later in the season and for how Jalen Suggs seemed to finish with a big shooting spurt. It seems very few people are talking about Cole Anthony and the way he finished his season.
The reality may be that there is a natural progression and a clear role for Fultz and Suggs to fulfill. Anthony becoming a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate and a major scorer off the bench could be the thing that flips the Magic into the postseason.
The fact it is a contract year for Anthony only adds to the urgency and the potential for him to have the kind of breakout season that truly makes a difference for Orlando this season.
Anthony’s story, much like Suggs and Fultz, has been filled with injuries and false starts.
In college, he played through a knee injury that significantly hampered his efficiency and effectiveness. He missed time his rookie year with an arm injury. He missed the first 20 games of this past season too.
Still, Anthony had his best season in his three-year career last year. Playing fewer minutes as he adjusted to a role off the bench, Anthony averaged 13.0 points per game and 3.9 assists per game, but he shot a career-best 51.6 percent effective field goal percentage, 57.0 percent true shooting percentage, 45.4 percent from the floor overall and 36.4 percent from deep. His 18.1 points per 36 minutes were in line with his sophomore-year scoring production.
His 13.0 points per game though were still eighth among reserve players who played at least 41 games last season.
Anthony is a scorer at heart. That seemed to make him perfect for the sixth-man role. And he seemed to really get a boost toward the end of the season. And he really embraced that role later in the season.
After the All-Star Break, Anthony averaged 14.9 points per game and 3.6 assists per game (not to mention 5.2 rebounds per game). He shot 47.1 percent from the floor and 41.8 percent from deep for a 54.0 percent effective field goal percentage and a 58.8 percent true shooting percentage.
His scoring average was fifth among bench players after the All-Star Break who played at least 10 games.
Anthony averaged 19.5 points per 36 minutes after the All-Star Break. And that included games of 28 and 23 points in losses to the Milwaukee Bucks and a 21-point effort in the late-season win over the Brooklyn Nets.
That should show Anthony has some untapped scoring potential if the Magic can find a way to unleash him a bit more — whether that be playing him more off the ball as a potential spot-up shooter, where he made 36.6 percent of his spot-up opportunities for a 50.4 percent effective field goal percentage and 1.01 points per possession, or using him as the team’s full-time backup point guard.
Being able to mix and match him with other ball-handling guards like Jalen Suggs or Anthony Black could indeed help him get more efficient shots and focus his driving and scoring opportunities.
There are still a lot of pieces to put together for Anthony. And he, like so many players on this team and this team as a whole, has to prove he can put together that kind of efficiency for a full 82-game schedule. Let alone prove he can impact winning.
The Magic had a -0.1 net rating with Anthony on the floor, which is good for a team that finished as far below .500 as the Magic did. The team had a surprisingly strong 112.5 defensive rating with Anthony on the floor.
After the All-Star Break, the Magic had a +2.0 net rating with a 110.9 defensive rating — a sign of how strong the bench group played after the All-Star Break.
It is also a sign of how good the Magic can play if Anthony is firing on all cylinders. That is not something anyone can guarantee. But Anthony’s presence and his success could be something that flips the Magic’s season in their favor.
Orlando feels confident in what it will get in its starters. But a lot of its potential success comes down to its depth.
It is easy to sit at the beginning of the season and believe the Magic are a deeper team now. It certainly feels the depth of talent is there. But Orlando needs a big boost from several bench players to make that promise work.
That goes especially for Anthony, who has a lot on the line personally to perform well but who also has shown he can reach another level with the way he finished the season.
Orlando will need to see that growth continue. It could be and will be essential to the team’s postseason push.