The Orlando Magic have two exciting, young point guards who have shown they have the ability to score, but are yet to prove they can shoot.
The Magic brass broke their tradition of drafting lengthy, defensive-minded frontcourt players by picking 6-2 point guard Cole Anthony with the 15th overall pick in Wednesday’s draft. It was a modern-day selection by the Magic, with Anthony filling a positional need, hopefully providing some much-needed scoring punch off the bench, generating some “He-could-be-the-steal-of-the-draft!” excitement, and delighting a majority of the fanbase (even those who were targeting a more pure shooter).
Anthony and Markelle Fultz currently are the only point guards on the Magic roster, with D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams set to test free agency beginning Friday.
So, with two core pieces now locked into the point guard spot, the obvious question is: what will a Fultz-Anthony rotation look like in the short- and long-term?
Anthony is expected to, at least initially, back up Fultz, adding a shoot-first point guard to a second-unit that shot just 41.1 percent from the field, lowest in the league. After being a top recruit out of high school, Anthony somewhat underwhelmed at UNC during an injury-riddled season in which he didn’t have the customary Tar Heel supporting cast that provided poor spacing.
Spacing is not the Magic’s greatest luxury, and often was aided by the usually reliable outside shooting of Augustin, the player Anthony is expected to replace. Anthony shot just 38 percent from the field in college, including 34.8 percent from deep. In many ways he’s a more polished version of Fultz in that he can create off the dribble, absorb contact, finish at the rim, thrive in transition and the pick-and-roll, and knock down the step-back and midrange jumper.
“He plays a very skill-based game,” Steve Clifford told reporters after Wednesday’s draft. “He can play fast, he can play in transition, he can play in the half court. At North Carolina, he played a lot off the dribble. They also ran plays for him where he would come off staggered screens or pin downs, so he has a catch-and-shoot aspect to his game.”
But in order to also provide the change of pace typically offered by Augustin, a career 38 percent three-point shooter who even in a down year percentage-wise last season still could stretch the floor, Anthony will have to become a dependable outside threat, a skill he seems better equipped to develop than Fultz.
“I think Markelle is super, super skilled in his game,” Anthony told reporters after the draft Wednesday. “His struggles, I think the worst is behind him and he’s going to keep getting better. We can complement each other.”
While scouting reports suggest that Anthony is most comfortable with the ball in his hands, he and Fultz could be interchangeable pieces in Clifford’s two point guard sets, particularly if one or both emerge as a reliable perimeter shooter (Fultz and Augustin played 253 minutes together during the 2019-2020 season, posting an 11.2 net rating, per NBA.com.).
“It would give us two pick-and-roll players on the floor at one time,” Clifford said of the Fultz-Anthony pairing. “I could see that eventually as [Anthony] becomes more comfortable and they are comfortable together, I mean look at the great success that Toronto has playing [Fred] VanVleet and [Kyle] Lowry together. So, I think that we can definitely do it. They’re big enough to do it and they’re both physical enough to guard bigger players.”
Defensively, yes, Fultz and Anthony both may have the ability to defend both backcourt positions -- Clifford praised Anthony’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll, citing his speed, strength and knack for staying in front of the ball. Offensively, there is work to be done to prove they can approach the level of Lowry and VanVleet, two players who have shown the ability to hit the three at a 40-percent clip.
It’s a lofty comparison, but that’s the dream for an Orlando Magic team that now has a young point guard tandem, with both possessing the tantalizing upside that could make either the organization’s lead guard for the next decade.
“Look, I ain’t never been more prepared for a moment in my life,” Anthony said. I’m ready to step up to the NBA. I’m ready to go. It’s just not a matter of me being cocky. It’s just a matter of I’ve put in a lot of hard work. I’m ready to go.”