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A conversation about Cole Anthony with a UNC writer

Akil Guruparan of Tar Heel Blog joins us for a Q&A about the Magic’s new point guard

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Michigan at North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Cole Anthony soon will be wearing a new shade of blue.

Before he does so, we thought it would be a great idea to speak with someone who followed his every move in Carolina blue while playing for the Tar Heels.

Enter Akil Guruparan of Tar Heel Blog.

Akil was nice enough to answer some questions about Anthony, giving an in-depth look at the newest member of the Magic’s core...

Were you surprised that Cole Anthony was selected with the 15th pick?

2020 NBA Draft Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Guruparan: Since the end of the college season, anybody who tells you they had an idea of where Cole was going to get picked in the draft is lying. Projections were all over the place, and rightly so after the season he had. But I’ll say this: close to the draft, most of the professional mocks I saw had him slated in the 21-27 range, and I suspected he’d go earlier than that: In the THB writers’ Slack room the morning of the draft), I predicted he’d go 16th + 5. A big range, sure, but I ended up being pretty close! In that range, Orlando wasn’t one of the teams I thought was particularly likely to grab him: I know they’ve valued length recently and Cole doesn’t have much of that, plus I figured they were looking for more of a pure shooter, probably on the wing, to play off Fultz. I was looking at New Orleans, Boston, Dallas, Miami, and Philly: places with either bigger distributors who Cole could play off, or scoring point guards that he could back up. So I was a little surprised by the pick, but not the general position. That said, I do love the fit after thinking about it, and I’m sure it’s rewarding for y’all to see the FO break from the tradition of lanky first-rounders who might be able to play basketball for a stubbier guy who despite his faults is definitely a basketball player.

What were Anthony’s biggest strengths and weaknesses while at UNC?

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Michigan at North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Guruparan: There are a couple of things I’d consider to be Anthony’s biggest strengths (pull-up shooting, overall skill), but I’ll go with his stamina: the guy is absurdly conditioned for the game of basketball. I’m sure growing up with an 11-year pro as a father helped him know as soon as he got serious about basketball exactly what kind of conditioning was needed for an NBA player, and as a result he is already way more ready for the length of NBA games and the wear of an NBA season than, I’d wager, any of his rookie classmates. Even being the sole target of opposing scouting reports and dealing with a delicate meniscus for most of the season, the dude was simply never tired. I’ll be very surprised if he hits the rookie wall around 50 games in like you usually expect a first-year player to, and that’s a huge gift. Going forward, now that the game is his full-time job, it puts him in a great place to become the kind of guy who can put a team on his back at the end of particularly long and hard-fought games - I think there will be overtimes in his future where he’s just on a different level from the other nine dudes on the floor, like we’ve seen from Damian Lillard (he’s not Dame, to be clear).

His biggest weakness was his first step, which was at times debilitating. As explosive as he can be getting off the ground, there were way too many times where he could just not figure out how to use that explosiveness getting to the basket, and got stonewalled or forced into tough finishes against mediocre defenders instead of blowing by them like he should’ve been able to with his handle and burst. He’s got the traits to fix this, but it’s probably the one physical aspect of his game that he really needs to be coached on.

I’d also mention his inconsistency as a floor general: he’s a very good passer in that he can make good reads and accurate passes from a lot of different angles, but there are times where he lapses in his passing mentality and plays 1-on-5. That was only exacerbated by how awful his supporting cast was last year. That said, I think having NBA-level teammates, and especially having Steve Clifford as a coach (as a Hornets fan, I know how Cliff works), should snap him out of this tendency pretty quick.

Why should Magic fans be excited about Cole Anthony?

Guruparan: Look, watching UNC this past season was bleak. Outside of Anthony, the roster was lacking in shooting, athleticism, and general basketball skill. Even Garrison Brooks, who’s a preseason All-American at power forward, isn’t particularly skilled so much as he is tenacious and really smart with his positioning - his game works in college, but it’s not pretty and he’s certainly not an NBA player. Amidst all of that, Anthony at his best made UNC look like an actual basketball team, elevating his teammates with difficult passes to the right spots, creating spacing for the interior with his pull-up shooting ability, and bailing them out with great individual play when, and this was embarrassingly often, they forgot to play basketball and just watched him work. Even at his worst, and there was plenty of that, he gave us fans something actually worth watching with his skill and talent, like this lefty finish:

He just makes a team fun to watch, that’s undisputed. The worry from some is that this doesn’t translate to making a team better, but personally, I’m all the way buying that there will be a lot less of his worst now that he’s going to be surrounded by NBA players, and all the things he does do to make a team better are going to be rewarded. But even if that promise isn’t all the way fulfilled immediately, the simple truth is that Cole Anthony is an exciting player. He’s an elite pull-up shooter, he’s got a flashy handle, and plays with an attitude that’s really easy to love. Oh, and with just a little space on the interior, he can do stuff like this:

The Magic desperately need shooting, and Anthony’s percentages are a little concerning. How good of an outside shooter do you think he will be in the NBA?

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Guruparan: He’ll be fine - I don’t think he’s going to become one of the NBA’s elite shooters, but he’ll be a legit threat. He shot 34.8% from outside, which isn’t phenomenal, but a couple of things:

1) a disproportionate number of those attempts were pull-up jumpers: only half of his three-point makes were assisted (Coby White shot a similar percentage in 2018-19, for comparison, and 72% of his makes were assisted), and if I remember the Synergy screenshots I’ve seen, he was somewhere near the 80th percentile, at least, in pull-up shooting. That’s going to be his main contribution to the Magic, in my opinion: he’s really good at creating shots for himself with handles and footwork, and that should create a lot of space for the rest of the team to operate.

2) He also didn’t have any playmaking teammates, so even the passes he did get weren’t the type to create really good attempts, so that further depresses his percentage from what I think his actual quality is as a shooter.

3) He got better as the season went on and he’d adjusted to the college game: In conference play, he shot close to 37% from three. Also, Roy Williams’ freshmen, for some reason, have a history of not being great shooters even when they are really good shooters: Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington had easily their worst seasons as freshmen before turning it up the following year(s). I think Cole ends up a 36-39% shooter from outside, but it’ll feel like he’s a lot better because he makes so many attempts of the more difficult kind. If he’s catching and shooting a lot more because he’s next to a really good distributor, he could have a lot nicer numbers. Also, I know NBA analysts nowadays like to look at free throw shooting as a shooting indicator, and 75% doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but throw out a couple outlier games where he went 3/8 and 2/7 and he’s at 81% - which looks a ton nicer. Maybe that’s statistically unsound, but he was a college freshman carrying the entire load of a team - variance happens. He’s going to be a better shooter as a pro than a college player, I’m sure of that.

After being highly touted in high school, Anthony somewhat underwhelmed at UNC. Why do you think that was?

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Guruparan: Buckle up, this is about to be even more long-winded than normal. A lot of things combined to make Anthony’s year at UNC as short of expectations as it was, some of it his fault and some of it not.

First and foremost, he was playing with a roster that was bereft of talent when it was healthy and then further got decimated by injuries, including to himself. The team had one player other than Anthony who made more than 16 threes all season, and he was in and out of the lineup all year thanks to injuries. And even the players who made 16, 16, 16, and 13 threes shot them at rates of 32%, 22.8%, 22.5%, and 20% - given even average shooters for teammates, Anthony’s assists probably go over 6 per game instead of an underwhelming 4. Because of that lack of threat on the outside, he also didn’t have space to operate inside the paint. Like I said before, there are real concerns about his first step and slashing ability that weren’t there in high school because he was athletic enough to cover it up against high schoolers, but that was compounded by defenses that were able to pack the paint with no fear of getting burned by a kick-out pass for an open 3. This ability of his was overrated when he was a recruit, for sure, but he’s definitely not as bad at it as his college stats indicate.

For his part, Cole holds his teammates to high standards, so having teammates unable to cash in on the opportunities he was giving them made him slow down on, or stop entirely, giving them those opportunities, and trying a lot more to play 1-on-5, which just compounded his issues with tough shot selection and turning the ball over in tight spots - he was doing so a bit anyways, but it would have been much more “he’s a talented college freshman adjusting to increased talent level, these things happen” and less “he seems to not remember that basketball is a team sport, this is worrying.” It would have been asking a lot for him to keep trusting the system and his teammates even when they kept failing, but if he had, his percentages and turnovers probably aren’t as bad as they ended up being - though the team might have actually been worse for it.

For what it’s worth, Roy Williams was adamant all season that he didn’t blame Cole for trying to play hero ball with the way his teammates were playing, and he is far from the kind of coach to coddle a freshman point guard in public. Nevertheless, it’s an attitude he’s going to have to leave at the door in the NBA.

And finally, Anthony didn’t totally mesh with Roy Williams’ extremely college system after training for the pros his whole basketball-playing life. Anthony grew up with the pick-and-roll as his bread and butter, Williams doesn’t do a ton of pick-and-roll actions. Being really good in transition is a staple of Williams’ philosophy, Anthony’s much more of a halfcourt player (he’ll take advantage of having numbers in transition, but won’t beat a defense down the floor on his own a la Coby White). Anthony would have loved some spacing, Williams wants to play with and through two interior bigs. They found a kind of marriage near the end of the season that looked like it might work, but it still wasn’t perfect, and both of their flaws ended up getting more exposed than anything else.

Which NBA player would you say Anthony is most similar to?

Oh man, I hate doing player comps because they can so easily make me look dumb. The name Austin Rivers has been thrown around a fair bit as a comparison for Anthony, and besides it making me instinctively gag as a UNC fan, I think that’s pretty uncharitable: when willing, he’s a much better passer than that, and a better athlete too. Even as his floor, I’d say higher-end Terry Rozier before I’d say Rivers. As a ceiling comp... maybe a stubbier, slightly more willing passer Bradley Beal? Somewhere between those two sounds right.

Tell us something we might not know about Anthony....

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

I want to take this space to note how much Cole embraced being a Tar Heel. He was widely - and not incorrectly - assumed to be coming to college basketball with a foot already out the door to the NBA, even more so than most one-and-done prospects thanks to how much he’s been preparing for the NBA since he was 15. But you wouldn’t know that from how he was on campus. He involved himself in campus affairs, he went out of his way to attend and publicize lower-revenue and lower-visibility sports games, like women’s basketball, field hockey, track and field, etc. One notable example was during a football game last year, where UNC has a tradition of our cheerleaders doing push-ups after every score to match the total points they have, and Cole took the place of a cheerleader for a score, which was pretty cool. Contrary to any reports that he’s selfish or anything like that, he is going to have no trouble buying into both the Magic team culture and the community around him.

Fill in the blanks: Five years from now, Cole Anthony will be a ____________ in the NBA because ________________________.

1) Above-average starting point guard in the NBA.

2) He’s taken well to his coaching, gotten his attitude in check after realizing he’s playing with grown-ass men, and gotten teammates who help him help them.

Thank you again to Akil for taking the time to provide some great insight on Cole. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @akillesheel17 and check out his work on Tar Heel Blog, including a recent draft profile on Cole Anthony.

Also be sure to check out OPP’s conversation about Chuma Okeke with an Auburn writer from last year.