Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony, as of writing on January 8th 2022, should be leading the race for the Most Improved Player category for the 2021-22 season. I said it and below, I am going to back it up. If you are hoping for an impartial take on the second-year guard, this is probably not the article for your data usage. However, if you have a little time spare and wish to glance into the looking-glass of the world of the Orlando Magic, pull up a chair (not too close, we are in a pandemic) and take a few sips of the Kool-Aid I am drinking…not from the same cup though, pandemic reasons again!
Anthony was drafted by the Magic with the 15th pick of the 2020 NBA draft. This is significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you rewind to the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season, Cole was entering into what would be his only season at the famed University of North Carolina with huge plaudits.
ESPN would rank him as the second-best player in his class, highest rated point guard and a consensus five-star recruit. Joining the fresh out of Oak Hill Academy, Cole, would be Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, Tyrese Maxey, Isiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, amongst others. Early mock-drafts had Cole as a sure-fire top 5 pick. So, what happened?
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Cole’s draft stock dropped. This was not a powerhouse team coming out of Chapel Hill like we have seen in previous years. A freshman season which saw a partially-torn meniscus ended in what would be a gift to the then first-round playoff team based at the Amway.
Tears were shed by a delighted Anthony and family. For a Brit sitting half-way across the world and without the access or time to track the NCAA like some, eyebrows were raised that Anthony tumbled this far. However, with the benefit of hindsight, what we are seeing right now is perhaps not that surprising at all.
MIP in Year 2?
The second reason is why I am writing this article and why hopefully, you’re still with me and enjoying those precious sips. Technically, second-year players do not win Most Improved awards. However, we are now not discussing a high-end lottery pick at all. Hell, we aren’t even discussing a lottery pick at all. We are discussing a prodigy who was overlooked by 14 other NBA teams before John Hammond (he has history picking at 15, look it up!) and Jeff Weltman stepped in. Cole Anthony was making the journey from Chapel Hill to Downtown Orlando to join Markelle Fultz, another young point guard, with the Magic.
Anthony would start the season as a back-up for the Magic. Fultz would start the season strong but disaster would strike on January 6th 2021 with Fultz suffering a torn-ACL. As the Magic faithful took a sharp-intake of breath, rookie Cole Anthony would step-in to become the starter on an injury-plagued Magic team. A tall-order for anyone.
Playing 47 games (34 as a starter) in an already shortened season and suffering injury himself (everyone in Orlando did, even popcorn vendors could not get health coverage at the Amway!), Cole posted respectable statistics of 12.9 points per game, 4.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists. Highlights included two superb game winners…a particularly sweet dagger in Minnesota and interviews displaying leadership and confidence that the fanbase needed.
Questions lingered regarding efficiency, a hang-over from his sole-season in North Carolina. A surprising snub from the NBA’s All-Rookie teams followed and the lead into the 2021-22 season brought further questions after the Magic drafted Jalen Suggs with the fifth pick. Some even dug up summer league statistics to suggest the end was nigh in Orlando. It wasn’t. Far from it.
At the time of writing, Anthony is posting 20.2 points, 5.9 assists and 6 rebounds per game. Huge for any guard in the NBA but for a one of Cole’s diminutive stature (by NBA standards), a testament to his bulldog tenacity and belief that rebounding is about desire. Crucially, there are no question marks regarding efficiency.
Personally, the straw was in the Kool-Aid after Minnesota and sipping gleefully but not even the most ardent Magic fan could have foreseen this. But again, perhaps we should have. The writing was on the wall with the high-school career, injuries healed, a pre-season occurred (something the 2020 rookie class missed due to Covid) and Anthony found himself as a veteran on a re-building Magic squad which included two-rookies also starting alongside him in Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs.
The needle has moved in Orlando. Magic fans have long wanted a saviour. For many years, we got glimpses in what became known on social media as the cycle of Aaron Gordon. In Orlando, Gordon never took that step. In the Amway, away from many of the national media’s eyes, the former Tar Heel did not just take the step, he’s taken a leap.
But what of the NBA’s Most-Improved category? A cursory glance at odds in the UK has Anthony sat in seventh place at odds of 25/1 to scoop the prize. The names ahead of him:
- Miles Bridges (Charlotte Hornets)
- Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
- Dejounte Murray (San Antonio Spurs)
- Lamelo Ball (Charlotte Hornets)
- Darius Garland (Cleveland Cavaliers)
- Jordan Poole (Golden State Warriors)
Double Buzz in Charlotte
Similarly, a case could be made for each of the above and rightly so. Bridges has taken a huge leap with the rise from the ashes story happening in Charlotte. The former 12th pick posting numbers of 19.5 points-per game, alongside 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, an expanded shooting range and highlight reel dunks, usually assisted by Lamelo Ball.
The Hornets point-guard also finds himself sitting favourably in fourth. 19.3 points-per game, 7.3 rebounds, 7.8 assists go alongside a huge change in Hornets fortunes and eyes on the franchise for the first time in what feels like forever. However, as a second-year player who was picked at number 3, was this not supposed to happen?
A Grizzly Foe
A similar case could be made for Grizzlies star, Morant. 25 points-per game to go with 5.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists is a Herculean effort from the player who seems to have taken the mantle from Zion Williamson of the top prospect drafted in 2019. However, the critical eye could say Morant took this leap last year and again, as a second pick, was this not part of the expected narrative? After all, any top 6 pick who does not seem to pan-out these days tends to find themselves being labelled a bust within 5 games in some circles.
Splash in the Poole
The same logic cannot be applied to Golden State’s Jordan Poole. Coming it at just under 18 points per game, 3.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists, the former 28th pick is now an integral part on the resurgent Oakland squad. The Warriors are probably the best team in the league and a joy to watch. However, if one was to make the case for Anthony, what happens if you take Cole from the Magic compared to Poole from the Warriors? The veteran Warriors still have possible MVP Steph Curry, defensive savant, Draymond Green and a revitalised Andrew Wiggins. Furthermore, who loses playing time when All-Star marksman, Klay Thompson, makes his long-awaited return in January?
The Land of Hope
The player jumping off the page alongside Anthony is Cleveland guard, Darius Garland. The Cavs have been a surprise package thus far in the NBA season. Sitting in fifth at the time of writing, the Cavs have been a sensation this year. Plaudits have rightly gone to possible rookie of the year, Evan Mobley. However, minus Collin Sexton, the other-half of ‘SexLand’ has posted averages of 19.9 points-per game, 3 rebounds and 7.3 assists. A lovely jump from his rookie season, which Magic commentator Jeff Turner skilfully linked with rookie, Jalen Suggs. However, we are discussing ‘Most-Improved’ here. Garland has taken a step, as have the Cavs. But the leap from 17.4 point, 6.1 assists and 2.4 rebounds pales in-comparison to that of Anthony.
Awesome in the Alamo
Last but certainly not least is Spurs guard, Dejounte Murray. Picked 29th by San Antonio in the 2016 draft, Murray appears to be the latest name on what is a huge list of end of first-round and second-round steals. Murray excels as a thief, picking pockets to the tune of 2 steals per game. This goes alongside his 18.2 points per game averages, 8.9 assists and 8.3 rebounds. Rightly winning plaudits in the Alamo, the steals, rebounds and assists are huge for this all-rounder on a similarly re-building San Antonio team. A true contender but has the leap been as significant and sharp as what we are getting from Cole? Time will tell.
In closing, I am now several gallons in and still gulping. A Cole Anthony city-jersey stares back as I type but for the first time in what feels like forever, we have hope in Orlando. The standings tell a story of a team likely to feature prominently in 2022 mock-drafts. Losses to the East leading Bulls and Philadelphia fresh in my mind with an injury-list longer than Santa’s ‘good’ list cannot dampen what Cole Anthony has brought with him to Orlando:
Hope, leadership, humour, enthusiasm, work-ethic, dynamism and a man who the fanbase can hang its hat on once again – a talisman. This probably reads like a feel-good story because it is. Cole has emphasised how happy he is to be in Orlando, the Anthony family are all-in on Orlando, according to father, Greg (himself, a former NBA player and respected analyst) and whilst Orlando may be flying under the national and international radar due to the rebuild, do yourself a favour the next time you have a chance to watch a Magic game. Tune in, see a vibrant squad and a dynamic leader, one of the leading fourth quarter scorers in the NBA (aka ‘CLUTCH’), a man who you famously don’t want to be on an island with, a fearless rebounder, ferocious dunker (with either hand – this is not easy) and exciting shooter.
Hold up that cup and enjoy the Kool-Aid. I am! Cheers!
Statistics with credit to NBA.com
Image credit Orlando Sentinel
To send Cole Anthony or any other member of your Magic to the All Star game, please visit NBA.com