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Cole Anthony gets a sooner-than-expected opportunity to shine

The Magic’s rookie point guard gets his first start on Friday against the Rockets

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Cleveland Cavaliers v Orlando Magic Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

On Thursday, Steve Clifford said the words we didn’t expect to hear quite so soon:

“Cole will start.”

So, ready or not, Cole Anthony, it’s time for the training wheels to come off.

What was supposed to be the next chapter in Markelle Fultz’s comeback story, instead will become the opening pages in Anthony’s introduction. In just his eighth NBA game, Anthony will take over at starting point guard following a season-ending injury suffered by Fultz.

“You never want to see anyone get injured on the court, but especially to be a teammate, like a big brother figure since I’ve been here,” Anthony said of Fultz after the game on Wednesday. “He’s just helped guide me. It really, really hurt me to see that happen. He’s in my prayers. I’ll be here with him. Just hoping he can get better fast. I’m just going to be right there trying to fill his role, hopefully, just on the court. It’s going to be tough. But I’m going to do what I can.”

Anthony believes he is ready for the expanded role and responsibilities, but after shooting just 29.7% on his 9.1 field goal attempts per in his first seven games, he says that seeing a few shots go through the basket would certainly make things easier.

“I feel like I’m very well prepared,” said Anthony, the 15th pick in the 2020 draft. “I think making a shot might help, but I think in terms of all the facets - defense, passing, rebounding, all that, leading - I think I’m really well prepared. Maybe making a shot might help, but it will come.”

Don’t call it a shooting slump, though. At least not in the eyes of Evan Fournier, who attributed Anthony’s early-season struggles to the toll that the truncated NBA offseason has had on the rookie point guard.

“To be honest, it’s nothing, cause like, it’s not even a shooting slump,” Fournier told reporters on Thursday. “You gotta understand, his last game is college was what, March? Maybe like February. The guy didn’t go through summer league, didn’t go through NBA workouts, short training camp. It’s hard. Being out there without knowing what NBA basketball is. Like I said, he has NBA talent, it’s obvious. He just needs time, I think, maybe to understand what the NBA is and how he’s going to get his looks. He plays point guard, that’s probably the hardest position to play. He has so much to take in that I think he’s playing and he’s thinking at the same time. So once he gets comfortable he’s going to be able to do more and more. So, I wouldn’t even call it a shooting slump. I would just call it a learning experience as a rookie, really.”

Clifford also addressed Anthony’s “shooting slump,” listing the other facets of Anthony’s game that have already improved in the early going.

“It’s a lot more than shooting numbers,” Clifford said. “There’s an organizational part, which he’s already gotten a lot better at. There’s the defensive part, which he’s improved tremendously since we started. NBA defenses are difficult to pick up, he had some great sequences last night in pick-and-rolls, some help reads that he was very good with. So I think he’s focused on the right things. He wants to make shots, every player does. But I think he understands that he’s talented and he can impact the game in many other ways when the shots not going down for him.”

Anthony, a physical defender and elite rebounding guard in college, takes pride in his defensive competitiveness.

“I take it personal when I see someone trying to get a bucket on me,” Anthony said. “So I’m just going to do everything in my power to prevent that from happening, and in turn. that’s going to help the team. They see that, if I set the tone by pressuring my defender, that’s going to make them wan to go pressure their defender, too. It’s a chain reaction and we can all just, as a team, we just get better defensively like that.”

Offensively, though, it will be key for a score-first point guard like Anthony to quickly develop chemistry with his teammates and further develop as a playmaker. Anthony is averaging 8.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per over 20.0 minutes per game. His current assist percentage of 23.9% trails Fultz’s of 30.3%, but that should improve with more minutes with the starting unit, especially as he plays more and builds a rapport with Nikola Vucevic in the pick-and-roll.

“He’s just gotta pass me the ball and he’ll be fine. No, I’m kidding. He’s right there,” Vucevic joked while pointing off camera at Anthony. Vooch added that it will take repetition to learn one another’s tendencies, but with time, that chemistry will develop, just as it did last season with Fultz.

“He for sure has the talent, we just have to help him out,” Vucevic said. “The good thing also is that our offense, we run a lot of stuff through a lot of different people so it’s not always as dependent on the point guard. So I think that will help him, as well. I’ll be there to help him and I’m sure as the season goes on he’s going to get better.”

Anthony’s teammates have expressed confidence in him, as have odds-makers, who after the injury to Fultz, have improved Anthony’s chances of winning Rookie of the Year from 50-1 to around 15-1.

“He’s built for this,” Terrence Ross said. “He is not shy of any moment. He’s a tough kid. He is improving really fast. He is picking everything up. It’s going to take some time but you gotta go through it. That’s how everybody goes through it when they first get into the league. They gotta figure out where they are, figure out how they can contribute every single night. It’s going to help him grow up a little faster. It’s all about how he handles it, but I think he will do well.”

Anthony will get his first starting opportunity - and his latest chance to improve on that “shooting slump” - against Houston on Friday night.

“There’s not an aspect on the floor I don’t think I can improve on,” Anthony said. “I’m what, eight games into my NBA season? Twelve including preseason. There’s so much for me to learn. And I’m exited. This is my dream. I’m living my dream right now. I embrace everything. I want to learn. So I’m going to try to learn from everybody on the team, and not just on the team, I can learn from other teams, too. So, I’m ready.”