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Orlando Magic Season Review, Part IV: Cole Anthony’s ups and downs emblematic of the team’s sophomore class

In the fourth and final installment we examine the team’s crop of second year players and the rebuild at large

San Antonio Spurs v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Welcome back to our season in review series. On tap today is the fourth and final installment in this reflective process, wherein we’ll unpack Cole Anthony’s dazzling start, the second year leaps that didn’t stick around, as well as the general state of the rebuild. Let’s lift our retrospective magnifying glasses one last time!

Winner: Cole Anthony, November legend

Orlando Magic v New York Knicks Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Cole Anthony opened the season on fire, appearing to find another level as a varied scorer, an effective playmaker and a tenacious rebounder. In the 16 games he played before being stung by an ankle sprain he was a dynamic offensive force, drilling threes both with his feet set and off the dribble, using a more nuanced driving game to finish in the painted area, and coordinating an effective pick and roll game with Wendell Carter Jr. His passing game also appeared matured during this early stretch, with quicker decisions and more impactful helpers finding their way to teammates.

Some of the individual performances were mesmeric. Anthony had a season-high 33 as he led the Magic to an upset victory over Utah. He posted three near triple-doubles in the span: 29 and 8 with a whopping 16 rebounds in a win at Madison Square Garden; 31, 9 and 8 when Orlando thumped the Timberwolves; and 15, 10 and 7 in another toppling of the Knicks. It’s no surprise that those four games were the Magic’s only wins during the span.

Anthony’s early offensive ascension was an exhilarating and intriguing circumstance for a side starved of dynamic scoring options. For this rebuild to take flight the Magic will need a number of their younger prospects to emerge as above-average contributors, and Cole’s dynamism across this opening stretch was him nudging up against his best-case ceiling. It would take less time than a heartbeat for the team to accept more of that in the years to come.

Loser: Sustainable second-year leaps

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Orlando Magic Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, Anthony’s blistering start was not a portent of what would be his new normal. After returning from a short stint on the sidelines his shooting numbers cooled considerably, so much so that he finished the season with numbers that looked eerily similar to those of his rookie campaign – 39.1% from the field (compared to 39.4% as a rookie), 33.8% from three (compared to 33.7%), 43.2% inside the arc (compared to 42.4%), and 59.0% at the rim (compared to 58.8%). He closed the year averaging 24.9 points per-100 possessions, up slightly from the 23.1 he scored as a freshman. By the same measure his rebounding dipped incrementally from 8.4 to 8.2, combined ‘stocks’ sat similarly at 1.1 after picking up 1.3 as a rookie, while his turnovers remained almost identical with 4.0, instead of 4.1, in year number two.

What did shift was his shooting profile. Last season, Anthony bombed away from deep much more regularly, lifting his three-point attempt rate from 31.2% all the way to 42.9%. He also nudged his free-throw rate up 4 whole percentage points, getting to the charity stripe more frequently and then converting at a slightly improved rate when he was there (85.4%). Those two factors combined to ensure that the various offensive efficiency metrics thought more of his contributions in year two than they did as a rookie – both his effective field goal and true shooting percentages were up as a sophomore, as were his offensive win shares, offensive box plus/minus contributions, and the team’s offensive rating with the livewire guard on the court. However, it must be noted that despite the individual improvement, Cole’s offensive efficiency figures mirrored those of his rookie campaign in that they still sat below league average.

The end result was a portfolio of performances that was, outside of an impressive stretch in October and November, largely indistinguishable from Anthony’s play as a rookie. That the early burst was ultimately not sustained was, although understandable, a disappointing outcome. If the Magic’s rebuild is to be a success the team will need a handful of its most youthful contributors to both take a leap and stick the landing, something that Cole wasn’t quite able to achieve as a sophomore.

Orlando Magic v Washington Wizards Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Elsewhere on the roster there were other second year leaps that were hoped for but that similarly never materialized. Chuma Okeke started the season late because of injury, requiring much of November and December just to find his legs. Nowhere was this more evident than in his shooting numbers, with the second-year forward clocking in as a 36.8% shooter across his first two months. In fact, he connected on just 2 of his first 18 attempts from deep, a calamitous decline in accuracy that his percentages never really recovered from. By mid-January he had played in 34 games, only making at least half of his shots in just seven of those contests. Even after a relative uptick across late-January and February – relative in that they were the two months when he nudged his long range accuracy above league average (38.2 and 39.7%, respectively) – his overall accuracy from the field remained mired in the 30s. To be precise, 37.6%, a mark more than four percentage points worse than that posted in his rookie campaign.

A shifting shot profile accounts for much of this offensive stagnation. Okeke largely excised the mid-range from his game, instead spending much more time living behind the arc (64.5% of all shot attempts). The immutable fact that three is greater than two should theoretically have made this a net positive, but the forward’s decline in long-range accuracy actually resulted in less effective offensive contributions. Add to this that he was also both a little less clean at the rim as a freshman (a drop of 2.2% when within 3 feet) and a little less likely to draw a foul, and one can see why the offensive metrics went backwards in season number two.

There’s still much to like about Okeke as a prospect, even after a down season. He’s already a defensive menace, with fantastic steal and deflection rates and a solid shot-blocking profile for a guy who spends a lot of time on the wings. He’s also possessed of the skills to act as an effective connector on offense – quick decision-making as a passer, some juice off the dribble, and a clean looking shot combined with a willingness to fire away when the feet are set. The ‘3 and D’ dream is still well and truly alive for Big Chum heading into his third campaign … assuming he can rebuild the radar that abandoned him in his second.

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Another sophomore season that sunk more than it soared in Central Florida was the one belonging to RJ Hampton. He was a little worse almost across the board when comparing his pinstriped production this year to last, with the second year guard ultimately less likely to record a point, an assist, a rebound or a block on any given possession, while also being more likely to prematurely end a possession by virtue of either a missed shot or a turnover. Although he nudged his three-point stroke up to a palatable 35.0%, his frigid free throw accuracy – just 64.1% on almost a pair of attempts each night – suggests we’ll need to wait and see whether the improvement was real or simply a blip of variance. He also experienced a wretched season in terms of finishing at the hoop, converting on just 52.5% of shots within three feet of the bucket.

Although Hampton might yet get there in terms of carving out a meaningful place in this league, by the end of season two he hasn’t yet proven that outcome a sure thing. He’s neither a classic distributor nor a lightning-fast improviser in broken sequences. He’s not a natural scorer. He’s not yet a dependable defender. Outside of his lightning fast speed, it’s not entirely clear what top tier talents he possesses. His sophomore season was ultimately emblematic of the Magic’s collection of second year players – moments of promise without evidence of the desired sustainability.

Winner: The rebuild

Los Angeles Lakers v Orlando Magic Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s probably fair to say that as far as opening seasons of rebuilds go, this was a pretty successful one for the Magic. After smashing the reset button at the 2021 trade deadline, the first complete campaign with an intentionally non-competitive roster went about as well as expected.

The recently completed season seemed to offer enough evidence to suggest that the Magic have at least a handful of long-term pieces already on the roster. Wendell Carter Jr. immediately demonstrated the value that his fresh and about-to-kick-in extension represents, with the big man basically metronomic in his churning out of above-average production for a below-average cost. Markelle Fultz was also similarly impressive, albeit in an understandably more limited and protected role. Still, the dynamic young guard flashed more than enough in his eighteen appearances to prove he needs to stick around.

Elsewhere, there was an abundance of evidence that the Magic also managed to strike gold at last year’s draft – even if it ultimately arrived in a slightly unexpected form. Franz Wagner, the electric German freshman taken with the eighth overall selection, genuinely pushed his way into the Rookie of the Year debate despite being significantly less heralded than many of his draft class peers. That his presence in pinstripes was the direct result of one of the previous season’s teardown trades is just another win for the rebuild.

The sideline also provided a win for the Magic. Jamahl Mosley stepped into the head coach role with plenty of promise but little in way of experience as the boss, putting a reasonable campaign together by the close. Although a number of calls from behind the clipboard were a little wobbly, the fact that he seemingly was able to keep an overmatched and outclassed team giving effort and in good spirits counts as a victory. As a team the Magic only seemed to completely let go of the rope in a handful of contests; even though they were frequently on the wrong side of the ledger, the vibes remained pretty positive.

Perhaps most significantly, Orlando spent a great deal of this ground zero season doing plenty of the single most important thing – losing. The team’s 26.8% winning rate was the franchise’s worst since 2012/13, and the Magic’s fifth most futile mark since the NBA welcomed Central Florida. If at times it felt like you were tuning into nigh-on unwatchable basketball, well, you were. The team has rarely been this bad.

At the very least, some solace should be found in the fact that this was an outcome arrived at by design. In losing and losing big, the Magic were able to secure the second-best lottery odds for the upcoming draft. They now have as good a chance as any side at securing a juicy top-three pick, while also having done what they could to raise the floor should a worst-case scenario play out with the ping pong balls.

If Orlando is ever going to return to relevance, it will start with a home run rookie selection; get that foundational piece right and then they’ll have the opportunity to build something bigger. Sixty defeats, as unpleasant as they may have been as a collection, at least ensures that the team is positioned as favorably as they can be in this regard as they head into the offseason.

When all is said and done, if that’s what ultimately comes of the 2021/22 season then all the losing will have been worth it.

On that hopeful note it’s time to wrap this review series up! The 2021/22 season is forever locked in the record books and our dissection complete, which means we can now turn our collective attention energies to the looming lottery, draft and offseason. Let the rebuild roll ever on.