From Starter to Sixth Man: Cole Anthony has found the perfect role

When the Orlando Magic selected Cole Anthony, there were a ton of doubts about the small, score-first guard. But the Magic banked on his upside and that he would find a place. They are now reaping the benefits of that, as he is one of the best sixth men in the NBA.
Orlando Magic v Cleveland Cavaliers
Orlando Magic v Cleveland Cavaliers / Jason Miller/GettyImages

Cole Anthony's career has always been a roller coaster with a lot of adversity.

He tore his meniscus in his lone college season at North Carolina, which made it even harder for him to get into a groove. Then, when he was drafted into the league, he had no summer league due to the COVID-shortened 2021 season.

Very early in that season, Markelle Fultz tore his ACL and Cole Anthony was put into the fire as the Magic's starting point guard just eight games into his young NBA career. He then injured his shoulder and missed 20 games as the Magic sank down the standings.

Anthony had to figure out everything on the fly while getting himself healthy and finding his fit on the team. He did that with not only the scoring chops everyone expected from him but his attitude toward his teammates. He was everyone's biggest cheerleader even as he set the mark with two buzzer-beating shots in his rookie year.

Anthony kept building though heading into his second season and then again into his third, as he transitioned into a role off the bench.

There has been a lot of chance for Anthony and around Anthony.

But the great part of all that was his mindset. He took it all in stride and let the challenges he faced turn him into a better player. Anthony was never short on confidence and took each bit of adversity into something he could on.

He worked extremely hard on both ends of the floor to improve his game, improving his efficiency, playmaking and his defense in the process. All while he began seeing his role somewhat diminished.

All winning teams need sacrificing. Whether its some players taking on a reduced role or whether it is some players taking fewer shots. Anthony has done both of those.

Could he be a starter on an NBA team? Absolutely, he could be and he was for the Magic for his first two seasons, leading the team in scoring during the 2022 season. But in sacrificing this opportunity by taking a reserve role off the bench, he is a major reason why the Magic currently sit at 16-7 as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

It is why Anthony is one of the favorites to win Sixth Man of the Year. He is averaging 15.1 points per game off the bench with a career-best 58.1-percent true shooting percentage.

He is no worse for the wear from coming off the bench. He is still doing all the things that made him one of the top high school prospects in his class and a seeming steal for the Magic with the 16th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

He got rewarded for that from the organization with a three-year contract extension just before the start of the season. A great accomplishment for any NBA player.

Anthony always just needed clarity and simplicity. His role was constantly changing due to injuries.

Some nights he would be asked to score a ton, some nights he would be starting and some nights not. For any player, that just throws off their rhythm.

One of the many great things coach Jamahl Mosley has done is he has simplified the game for everyone. Each player knows what their role is. That goes for Anthony too.

Anthony's job is to score the ball, and he has done a brilliant job doing that. Whether the Magic are trailing when he checks into the game or they are leading, he plays the game the right way and involves his teammates and takes what the defense gives him.

For the Magic's part, they have done well to put him in the best positions to score. By playing him with Joe Ingles a lot, Cole Anthony is not th eonly playmaker on the floor and he can work more off the ball to get to more advantageous scoring positions.

Anthony has accepted and thrived in this role. But even he would admit it was not easy. He told Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast last week that he did not really accept the bench role until the midpoint of last season. When that happened, his play picked up and he could clearly see he could find success without starting.

That is maturation.

In years past, like many young players, Anthony would look more for his own shots to the point that it felt like he was forcing the issue a bit too much. This season, he has looked under control and the game has slowed down for him.

A lot has to do with his bench running mates in Joe Ingles and Moe Wagner, who are playing extremely well alongside him on one of the highest-scoring benches in the league. Everything is just simply starting to gel together for both Cole Anthony and the Magic.

Anthony's leadership has been on another level too. His locker room presence has been well-established. He cheers his teammates on, before the games he leads the huddles to get the Magic players hyped up. He is a very comical guy off the floor, but when it is time to play the game, he is serious.

That is what a great leader does.

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Accepting a reserve role is half the battle, adjusting to that role and being impactful is the other half. It is safe to say, Anthony has checked both those boxes and is a massive reason why the Magic are one of the best teams in the NBA at this stage in the season.