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The offensive ascension of Cole Anthony

The second-year guard is off to a blistering start this season — let’s find out why

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this season, the Orlando Magic often felt more like a series of questions than a legitimate basketball team. How long will this rebuild take? When are Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz coming back? What’s the future of the veterans on the roster? Can Mo Bamba and WCJ play together? Might RJ Hampton actually be a wing? Will this side ever enter a game as the presumptive favorites?

And the most significant question of all: when is this team going to land a star?

It’s a pertinent thing to ask of any team either thinking about or in the midst of a full-scale teardown. Genuine superstar talent is ultimately what creates contenders in the NBA, and for a team racking up losses the best way to acquire such a player is with a pick in the upper echelons of the annual draft.

The Magic are evidently aware of this fact, having made the decision last season to blow up what they had and invest even further in the potential of youth. The team now features six recent lottery picks on the current roster, along with three other players taken in the Draft’s first round. However, the front office has never personally wielded a pick higher than fifth in the annual entry event, a fact which theoretically makes nabbing that much-needed franchise-altering talent a slightly more difficult proposition. As such, the search continues.

So we arrive back at the driving question. Where is the star that is going to lead the Magic back to contention? When will the draft gods show mercy on a long-starved franchise and gift them the luck they need to return to relevance?

Or … what if they already have? What if instead of inquiring about the star’s arrival, we changed the equation and asked instead about the star’s ascension? Is there someone already on the roster who could yet rise to the occasion?

Cole Anthony certainly thinks so, and his game is starting to suggest as much, as well.

Rookie down

Orlando Magic v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Anthony endured what was a visibly rocky start to his rookie season, with the young point guard struggling to make efficient contributions to a team that had its sights set on the postseason. Although he opened his career as a reserve, it wasn’t long before he was thrust into a much more significant role for the Magic; a cruel season-ending injury to teammate Markelle Fultz presented an early opportunity for Anthony as he was asked to step into the vacated starting backcourt slot in just his ninth game. Unfortunately — predictably — he wasn’t terribly effective before a rib injury forced him to the sidelines for an almost two-month stretch.

This lack of impact across the opening 25 games of his career can largely be attributed to poor shooting numbers. In that time Anthony made just 37.5% of his attempts from the floor, including an unpalatable 32.5% from deep. He also wasn’t able to offset this by generating either free-throws or assists, with a miniscule 2.2 attempts from the charity stripe and only 3.8 helpers each night. Some of this was a result of the fact that he was a long way down the pecking order on a roster still dominated by veterans, but it also remained true that he wasn’t able to reliably convert in terms of the things that were being asked of him. To watch Cole at the time was to see a player obviously uncomfortable navigating the speed, length and athleticism of the professional game, and it dulled his scoring capacity significantly.

Rookie up

Charlotte Hornets v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Anthony was only able to return from the injured list with 22 games remaining in the season, at which time he rejoined a team that looked vastly different compared to the one he had last taken the court with. The vast majority of his most talented teammates were now out of the picture, the rebuild in Central Florida finally underway in earnest. As a result Cole found himself suddenly one of the Magic’s most relied upon players, paradoxically a veteran presence despite being very much still a rookie himself. His natural confidence and positional importance launched him into a significant leadership role, even with very little experience.

Despite the poor team results of the tank job stretch, Anthony’s individual play began to flourish in the back half of the season. Like it was pre-All Star break, the determining factor in his performance largely came down to shooting numbers. He pushed his field goal accuracy to 41.7% and his three-point stroke to 34.8%, both major improvements considering the significant increase he also experienced in frequency — an extra 2.1 shot attempts each night (despite similar court time) and a usage rate up from 21.5% to 25.8%.

Also significant was the increased aggression he showed in getting into the lane, along with the improved body control he exhibited in those moments. The result was 3.5 free throw attempts each night, a rate more than 50% greater than he had previously been racking up. Consider this alongside the improved finishing numbers and you’ve got a player who added almost five whole points to both his effective field goal and true shooting percentages, bumping the former to 47.2% and the latter to 51.8%. Both are far from superstar figures, but contextually they represented significant improvement and an upward trajectory for a player still learning the ropes in his rookie campaign.

An early ascension

NBA: Utah Jazz at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If visible development was the positive takeaway from Anthony’s first year in the big leagues, it would be entirely fair to say that he’s seemingly intent on making such an observation part and parcel of his basketball experience. Across 14 games to open the 2021/22 season, the effervescent sophomore has racked up averages of 20.2 points, 5.6 assists and a whopping 6.6 rebounds each night, with 1.5 stocks (combined steals and blocks) for good measure. He has arrived at these on the back of significantly more efficient shooting numbers, converting from the field at a clip of 43.8% and from beyond the arc at a tropical 39.4%. Elsewhere, his trips to the line have also jumped up (4.0 per game on a .260 free throw rate), the net result being that his true shooting percentage has rocketed up to 58.1%. It’s the best non-center mark of anyone on Orlando’s roster.

That last figure — a 58.1% true shooting percentage — is of further interest. It’s something that Anthony has managed to nudge above the league average, and that looks even more impressive when you isolate just the league’s backcourts. Among all guard-eligible players seeing at least 30 minutes per night, Anthony currently ranks twelfth by true shooting percentage, a smidge behind Chris Paul and James Harden but ahead of names such as Ja Morant, Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, and the Ball brothers, among others. Relatively speaking, Cole is pushing his offensive play into a category somewhere closer to ‘elite’ than ‘acceptable’.

There are still other elements of his game worth noting at this early juncture as well. Although smaller, Anthony is making some strides as a playmaker and game conductor, with a slight hike in his usage rate — 25.6% this season compared to 24.3% as a rookie — being accompanied by a 2.6% increase in his assist rate (now up to 26.7%) and a 0.2% reduction in his turnover rate (now down to 14.6%). Although slender shifts, they’re complementary numbers that are pushing in the right direction and that speak to an improved read of the game. Anthony has also raised his already impressive rebounding numbers to historically elite levels, with the 6-foot-2 guard swooping up 6.6 caroms each night courtesy of a beastly 20.3% share of all available defensive rebounds — that’s a rate not far off what Mo Bamba grabs!

Predictably, the advanced metrics love Anthony’s game so far this season, particularly when one factors in the handicap he carries as a result of Orlando’s shoddy record. Let’s rattle off the list: Anthony is currently sporting a PER of 17.8 (2nd on the team), VORP of 0.4 (1st), a 1.7 box plus/minus figure (2nd), a win shares per-48 rate of .111 (4th), and a whopping on-off rating of +32.5 per-100 possessions (1st). The Magic clearly haven’t been great, but Cole has hardly been the cause. Rather, he’s been the closest thing the team has to a dependable star.

Shooting stroke

NBA: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

It’s one thing to notice that a player is making more shots but another to understand why that might be the case. For Anthony, much of it comes from the combination of a recalibrated shot profile and the re-emergence of his shooting stroke.

More important than having simply increased his shot attempts each night is the fact that the second-year guard has committed to stretching opposing defenses out, with almost half of all of his looks this season coming from beyond the arc (109 of 219). Considering the almost 6% increase in accuracy from deep this has been a real boon to his efficiency, and a welcome sight for a team long-starved of long-range threats. Catch-and-shoot triples now make up 28.8% of his overall shot diet (17.2% last season), while pull-up attempts account for a healthy 20.7% (up from 13.0%). He’s also getting way more of them with what NBA tracking categorizes as either open or wide-open defensive attention, with 43.5% of his total attempts each night coming from deep with the nearest defender at least four feet away (compared to just 27.5% last season).

Anthony is also getting up significantly more long range attempts off the bounce, testament to his developing feel for the rhythms of the professional game. Last year he took only 1.5 three point shots per-game after one or more dribbles, a rate he has more than doubled in his second season with 3.2 long-range launches each night coming off the back of a bouncing ball. It’s important to note that Anthony has always been more accurate when his shooting motion involves a dribble gather, as opposed to the feet-set mechanics of catch-and-shoot attempts; it’s a trend that has continued this season, with Cole shooting no less than 40.0% on attempts that are preceded by anywhere from one to seven-plus dribbles. He’s noticeably comfortable hunting for his own shot with the ball in hand, particularly on hard-left drives and feints that create a little separation between him and his defender.

Speaking of his dribbling, it’s also clear that Anthony is a more assured ball handler in just his second year. He’s always had an impressive set of heels, but he’s making much more effective use of angles, opportunities and tempo variation this season. He’ll frequently use a burst of speed to get his direct opponent back-pedaling, before slamming on the breaks and settling into a balanced pull-up jumper on the perimeter or in the extended mid-range. He’s active in hunting out switches, with a demonstrated ability to roast any slow-footed bigs who happen to find themselves temporarily adrift from their preferred assignment. And now that his three-pointer is falling there’s an uncertainty as to what he’ll pull from the bag of tricks next, gifting him the opportunity to simply select the right option when the opponent commits too far in one direction.

During the season’s early stages Anthony has also been significantly better at finishing in the areas around the hoop. He has connected on 60.0% of his attempts at the rim, as well as an enormously improved 41.9% of shots in the 3 to 10 foot range; the eye test screams of a floater game that is more effective this year, with the crafty use of his body to create space and soft banks off glass now peppering his resume. Last season, particularly early, Cole appeared to only really be looking to attack seams at speed, a straight line drive that was frequently stymied in the painted area by aware help rotations. This year’s version of the young point guard is a little less predictable and, as a result, a whole lot more impactful.

NBA: Orlando Magic at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Some of this extra juice is a result of the effective two-man game that is emerging between Anthony and Wendell Carter Jr. There were flashes of this post-trade last season, but across the first 14 games this duo is emerging as the team’s primary cog on offense. There is no one on the side that Cole dishes the ball too more frequently than WCJ, with 12.9 passes per game, or 21.4% of all Anthony passes, going to the big man; likewise, Carter Jr. puts the ball directly in Anthony’s hands 19.5 times each night, a whopping 28.0% of all passes that are directed towards Anthony. When these guys share the court, the offense is essentially funneled through the pair.

Interestingly, the passes that come from WCJ result in 3.3 shots each night for the young point guard, attempts on which Anthony is currently shooting 48.8% from the floor, including 51.4% on those within the arc. It speaks to the burgeoning effectiveness of their pick-and-roll game, with Cole benefiting from the solid contact his teammate is routinely able to establish on screens; space and separation creates opportunity, and Anthony is finding ways to exploit this for shots, assists, and give-and-go chances. He’s currently generating 0.92 points per possession as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, a figure that places him in the 65th percentile league-wide. WCJ, by comparison, is at 1.10 points as the roll man, a 44th percentile mark that isn’t great but that paces the Magic bigs by a country mile (for reference, Bamba currently ranks in the — shield your eyes! — 2nd percentile). These individual figures aren’t exclusive to the pair as a duo, but they certainly are each other’s most frequent dance partner.

(A side note and something worth monitoring: Franz Wagner is currently posting an absurd 1.10 points per-possession when asked to handle the ball in the pick-and-roll. It’s something he’s done only 26 times so far, but that rate places him in the 89th percentile league-wide. As David Steele might ask, is this anything?)

In terms of Anthony’s scoring there’s one other interesting observation to note at this early juncture. He’s currently producing 1.06 points per possession when attacking out of isolation, a strong figure that sits just outside the top 25 league-wide (when you isolate the numbers for those with a decent volume of attempts). It’s currently being buoyed by a sky-high free throw rate in such circumstances — 19.0%, ninth behind foul-drawing savants like James Harden and Joel Embiid among the 88 players who have generated at least 10 such play types this season. However, it’s worth noting that Cole’s field goal percentage in such instances isn’t as comparatively strong, with 41.7% shooting from the field combining with his three-point proclivities for a 50.0% effective field goal percentage in isolation sequences. Interestingly, that does still rank thirty-sixth among the qualified players, a decent result for what is a difficult shot type.

Now, these isolation figures are being drawn from an obviously volatile small sample size. But Anthony’s early success suggests that it’s an arrow in his quiver that he could be well-served by unknocking more frequently. As it stands, Cole is only averaging 1.2 isolation plays per night, a number that accounts for just 6.2% of all his shooting possessions. This is a rate that ranks 82nd among the 88 qualified players, behind others like Cade Cunningham, Dennis Schroder, Anthony Edwards, and Jrue Holiday, each of whom have been woefully inefficient by comparison. Maybe there’s something to be said for the Magic letting Cole cook a little more often.

Control of court

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If the obvious area of improvement to Anthony’s offensive game is his scoring punch, it’s his passing chops that are developing in a slightly more subtle manner. The sophomore’s reputation is definitely as a score-first point guard, but there has been some growth evident in his play that suggests this definition is a bit too narrow.

Across the season’s first 14 contests Anthony has raised his nightly assist numbers to 5.6 per game, up from 4.1 as a rookie. He has bumped his assist rate up to 26.7% this year (from 24.1%), while nudging his turnover rate down ever so slightly (from 14.8% to 14.6%). Some of this improvement is simply equal parts court time and increased responsibilities, as evidenced by the relatively static figures achieved per-36 minutes (5.5 assists this year compared to 5.4 as a rookie) and per-100 possessions stats (7.4 assists compared to 7.3). However, there’s a developing nuance to his quarterbacking skills evident when watching him play that simply wasn’t there as a rookie.

Anthony’s feel for the professional game is rightfully improving as he gains experience, and it’s resulting in more assured and incisive play as a point guard. In the same way that a growing ability to read the floor has aided his scoring, so too has it started to unlock him as a passer; nowhere is this more evident than in his drive-and-kick game. Cole has shown a knack in knowing when to accelerate towards the paint in a way that forces the help defender to commit, at which point he can simply swing the ball to a waiting and willing shooter on the wing — picture Franz Wagner lurking below the break and you’ve got it.

According to Basketball Reference, Anthony’s 67 assists on the season thus far have generated 176 points for the Magic, a clip of 2.63 points per successful helper that highlights his increasing ability to find this exact type of shot for his teammates. By way of comparison, the 192 assists he totaled last year generated 457 points for Orlando, a number which equates to just 2.38 points per dime. One might be able to argue that Cole is primarily tallying more assists because the ball is in his hands more frequently, sure, but a deeper dive into the numbers suggests that his assists are simply more valuable so far this season.

There are other elements to Anthony’s passing game that indicate he’s headed in the right direction. He’s averaging fewer seconds per possession (5.13 to 6.00), taking less dribbles per touch (4.58 to 5.67), and simply moving the ball more frequently than he did last season (60.5 passes each night compared to 42.8). None of these are necessarily indicators of an effective passing game, but they certainly speak to a player who is both a more willing facilitator and a more decisive decision maker with the ball in hand. It’s an approach to the game that stands to benefit any young point guard.

Washington Wizards v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

So what exactly have the Magic got in Cole Anthony?

Is he a scoring-oriented combo guard destined for a career of providing offensive punch off the bench? Or is he the type of dynamic playmaker that could be one of the key cogs on a serious playoff contender?

Are his numbers through fourteen games this year the result of his playing a massive role for a bad team? Or should they rightfully catapult him into the discussion for the Most Improved Player award?

Moving forward, is he a nice complementary piece to have around or an essential part of Orlando’s long-term foundation?

As is so often the case in the NBA, no one can know for certain and we won’t find out for a while anyway. Still, with the offensive ascension Anthony has been able to demonstrate already, it feels like there’s a real chance that his star shines brightly for this franchise long into the future.