Last November, If you would have told anyone that follows even a little bit of basketball that North Carolina guard Cole Anthony would fall all the way to the 15th overall pick in the draft, you would have been laughed out of the conversation.
The former New York City product and EYBL/AAU star, who was ranked second overall in the ESPN150 for the Class of 2019, exploded on the college basketball scene through the first few games of his freshmen season. Anthony scored 34 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in his collegiate debut against Notre Dame, solidifying his status among many in the industry as a surefire top 3-5 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
But fast-forward just over one year later, and the Orlando Magic were the beneficiaries Wednesday night of Anthony falling in the 2020 NBA Draft, selecting him just outside of the lottery that he was once assumed to assuredly be taken in.
Expect the unexpected - this is 2020 after all, right?
Welcome to Orlando, @The_ColeAnthony! #MagicTogether pic.twitter.com/g7qJdsotCd— The Orlando (@OrlandoMagic) November 19, 2020
With his family by his side (and Spike Lee?), Anthony wept as he detailed to ESPN studio host Malika Andrews how challenging the past year has been for him. Anthony, who arrived at Chapel Hill with incredibly lofty expectations, struggled mightily at times his freshmen year with inconsistency, nagging injuries, and a lot of losses along the way.
Spike Lee's reaction to Cole Anthony getting drafted by the Magic is priceless pic.twitter.com/e18TDhg5Wi— ESPN (@espn) November 19, 2020
"I'm healthy now and I just can't wait to play."— NBA (@NBA) November 19, 2020
An emotional @The_ColeAnthony is ready to get going with the @OrlandoMagic!
2020 #NBADraft presented by State Farm on ESPN pic.twitter.com/euV4URCf0L
“It was a tough year for me overall, I was dealing with a lot of things,” Anthony told reporters on a Zoom call after he was selected. “I was angry, sad, happy. Every emotion I was dealing with just came out in that moment right there. When I heard my named called, I personally just didn't know how to react.”
Anthony had an arthroscopic procedure done on his right knee in mid-December of last year after partially tearing his meniscus, a surgery which caused the lead guard to miss just over two months of action. Most NBA Draft hopefuls would have shut themselves down and started focusing on the next-step in their careers, but not Anthony.
“This was probably the hardest year that I’ve had in basketball,” Anthony told reporters. “On the court, off the court dealing with injuries. Whatever it was, it was rough. But what I've learned is that there’s a lot of beauty in the struggle.”
In deciding to finish his season out at North Carolina (or as much of it as he could before college basketball was shutdown due to COVID-19), despite his knee troubles and the overall struggles the Tar Heels were going through as a team, Anthony showed the kind of fight and competitive spirit that proved to attract the Orlando Magic organization.
“We like a lot about Cole (Anthony),” Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman told reporters on a Zoom call after the pick was made. “First and foremost, we love who Cole is as a person. He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s battled a lot of adversity, and we feel that he’s going to be an excellent NBA player.”
Weltman told reporters that Anthony was very impressive during his pre-draft visit with the Magic, describing the scoring guard as “healthier, bouncier, and stronger” than the organization had seen him in college.
“I said from my very first day here, we want fighters,” Weltman told me when I asked him about Anthony’s competitiveness and the pride he takes on the defensive end of the floor. “Cole Anthony is a fighter. He cares about winning, he’s going to do what it takes to improve, and he’s going to do what it takes to help the team win. And we do look at him as a two-way player.”
“I’ve watched quite a bit of film on him (Anthony), and I think it starts with his competitive spirit,” Magic head coach Steve Clifford told reports on a Zoom call. ““His dad was an incredible competitor, and he’s inherited that trait. There’s nothing more important than that.”
The Oak Hill academy product, who developed into somewhat of a cult figure on the EYBL/AAU circuit, is the son of long-time NBA veteran guard Greg Anthony. Anthony played for six teams over his eleven-year NBA career, including the first 293 games of his career for the New York Knicks.
A play that sticks out in my mind which exemplifies the kind of competitive spirit that both Weltman and Clifford spoke of regarding Anthony occurred in late November at a holiday tournament in the Bahamas. The Tar Heels (who were 6-1 at the time) were playing the Oregon Ducks, and Anthony got back on defense to slow down an Oregon fast-break opportunity. He reacted to the ball from the weakside of the floor, and met a Ducks’ big at the rim for what resulted in an electric blocked shot.
Cole Anthony with a huge block pic.twitter.com/ILHbikWqbe— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 29, 2019
“The contact plays which he makes, he hits the floor, he’ll take charges,” Clifford added. “And one of his biggest strengths - he’s a terrific rebounder. He’s got a knack for the ball, and again, he’s physical. Those are the game-changing momentum plays that are so critical at all levels of basketball.”
Now, obviously Anthony won’t be blocking a whole lot of shots in the NBA, that’s not my point. But the play does illustrate the kind of fire, ferocity, and competitiveness that drives Anthony - and will continue to drive him throughout his career.
“Look, I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t think there are fourteen players better than me in this draft,” Anthony boldly told an Orlando reporter when asked about his stock falling throughout this past year. “That drives me, not just in this moment, but (will) for my entire career.”
“To be able to get a guy like Cole, who was really a top-three guy coming out of his high school class, and really had that stamp. To be able to get a guy like that, who really had an injury-riddled year on a team that didn’t do as well as they had hoped, maybe that suppressed his value, but not for us it didn’t. We feel very fortunate to be able to get a guy like Cole at (number) 15,” Weltman added.
All in all, the Magic organization seemed more than pleased to be able to get their guy at number 15. Even Orlando third-year center Mo Bamba got in on the draft night fun, playfully tweeting at Anthony about the emotions he showed when he got the call to join the Magic.
@The_ColeAnthony Once you stop crying I’ll pick you up from the airport... let’s work!!— Mo Bamba (@TheRealMoBamba) November 19, 2020
“It was a flurry of emotions,” Anthony said. “It was one of the best moments of my life (getting drafted), besides going to North Carolina and being born, those are my top three right there.”
Welcome to City Beautiful, Cole Anthony!
Cole Anthony is speaking with Orlando media members now.— Orlando Pinstriped Post (@OPPMagicBlog) November 19, 2020
Welcome to Orlando @The_ColeAnthony pic.twitter.com/y6r0BBH4cf