Cole Anthony enters his freshman season as one of the nation’s most exciting prospects. The secret to his success runs deeper than his highlight packages.
Athleticism. It’s a vital component of the NBA game, of sports as a whole and is an omnipresent talking point among fans of the game. A lot has been made of athleticism for NBA players and, germane to this piece, evaluating NBA draft prospects. Athleticism seems simple. Player X runs fast. Player X jumps high.
Athleticism is not as cut and dry as it appears. There’s been some debate over the athletic traits of two electric initiators: 2019 second overall pick Ja Morant and 2020 top prospect and North Carolina commit Cole Anthony. Both of these guards sit in the upper echelon of young facilitators. Peeling back all of their impertinent goodness, which of the two is more athletic?
To many, the answer is obvious — Ja Morant, made famous partly for his aerial ability, is the superior athlete. Plays like this became commonplace for the Murray State sophomore:
Morant has the blistering speed to fly up the court and springs in his legs to explode over multiple Alabama defenders. Moments like this littered Morant’s highlight packages. Cole Anthony is far from a bad athlete, but he loses to Morant in the traditional run-jump sense: with a full head of steam, he won’t sprint as fast or leap as high.
The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines an athlete as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” The piece in bold, physical strength, is part of the key here and part of why Cole Anthony is a better athlete than Ja Morant. For the sake of this piece, the Morant-Anthony athleticism comparison doesn’t matter. It is, however, a digestible manner of juxtaposing run-jump athleticism with functional athleticism, a realm in which Cole Anthony excels.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound point guard from Portland wins in the same ways many of the NBA’s greatest slashers and brightest stars do: with functional athleticism. As I decry cliche athleticism-related buzzwords, I’m going to throw out my own in the form of functional strength, balance and body control. These three terms form the holy trinity of functional athleticism and Cole Anthony is a master here. Few guards as explosive as Anthony can win with pure power as well as speed. Converting speed to power like a defensive end charging off of the edge, Anthony accelerates, blowing through his defender and dropping in the short floater:
Here’s the speed to power conversion again; when Cole builds a head of steam, he plows through defenders, unbothered by any mass of bodies around him. Anthony welcomes contact, bludgeoning defenders for breathing room to drop in floaters.
This drive encapsulates how Anthony’s slashing prowess is driven by his athletic traits. He has enough burst to blow into the lane with a hang dribble into a between the legs crossover. The special sauce comes in here — Anthony has the leg stability, core strength and body control to balance in the air, take the contact and finish softly with his off-hand:
The capacity to generate as much power as Anthony does with his euro steps makes him the nimblest bulldozer on the planet. Anthony’s forward momentum knocks his defender backward and allows him to change directions through the crowd, giving him a great look at the rim:
Leaping off of two feet, Cole Anthony is at his most domineering as an athlete, exploding his way into highlight dunks and finishes. This two-foot leaping is as functional as it is flashy. When leaping off two, he maximizes his force generated and stability in the air. Blazing downhill, Anthony elevates off of both legs — notice how well-balanced he remains in midair under duress — and finishes through contact:
Once Anthony has accelerated, he is truly unbothered by contact from almost all guard defenders, despite his lack of elite burst. Though this play doesn’t count, it is a nice example of how easily Anthony can brush off weaker defenders on his forays to the hoop — he dips his shoulder and decimates Joel Brown without losing much speed:
Anthony’s finishing goodness and functional athletic tools are even more apparent when compared to other recent guard prospects. His FIBA u18 teammate, Coby White, has his struggles as a finisher and is far behind Anthony in the functional athleticism department. When Anthony slices into the paint, he becomes compact and hits holes with force and purpose like a running back on the goal line. White dances around here, burping up a wild miss without leg strength to generate lift or balance to hang in the air and finish at a tough angle through traffic:
Functional strength is an area where Ja Morant is notably lacking, his thin frame and weak core hurting his balance, body control and overall finishing ability. Unlike Anthony, Morant is less comfortable leaping off of one foot in the paint and doesn’t have the strength to take blows and finish (or deliver blows to defenders himself). Morant attempts to unleash his raw speed to blow past Christ Koumadje, but without any strength, creative footwork or deceptive angles, the Chadian giant has no problem swatting his shot:
While Anthony has a solid enough first-step burst to burn many defenders, he will have trouble beating those defenders who are particularly light-footed with pure speed. Squaring off against basketball’s reincarnation of Usain Bolt with puffy blonde hair, Mike Saunders, Anthony tries to get a step but is no match for the Wasatch speed demon:
For a primary initiator, getting to the rim is an invaluable skill. Rim attempts are some of the highest expected value shots in basketball; shots close to the rim are easiest to convert, they lead to free throws and they force the defense to rotate, opening up easy shots for teammates. Players with elite-level rim gravity and some passing ability to exploit said gravity (think LeBron James, James Harden) become the best offensive players in the NBA.
As the NBA is growing in size across the board, small initiators are fazing out and need to be supremely skilled to survive in the NBA. Point guard-sized initiators need outlier shooting range, difficult shot-making/pull-up gravity and rim volume to add enough offensive value at their size to lead an NBA offense. Anthony projects to live at the rim with his slashing goodness. In his 2018 EYBL season, he posted a ridiculous 9.29 free-throw attempts per game, indicative of his ability to attack the paint.
Along with his finishing, Anthony might fit into the pull-up deity category of small primaries. Shooting 89.2 percent from the line and jacking 6.76 3 per game in his final EYBL season, Anthony has plenty of visual and statistical indicators suggesting he could develop into a high-level off-dribble shooter:
While he’s not the pogo stick on the break Ja Morant is, he is well above average as a leaper and can do his fair share of damage above the rim off one foot:
While Anthony has his decision making gaffes (3.9 turnovers per game) and can become a bit too confident in his own shot, he has hawk-like vision spotting cutters and shooters on the weak side. With the requisite scoring gravity to warp defenses to his will, Anthony sprays creative passes to diving teammates, drawing help and dishing:
Anthony’s defense is inconsistent at this point. For so much of his time on the court, Anthony loafs around disengaged, both on and off of the ball. His defensive engagement needs improvement. However, with his athletic tools, Anthony surprises with a stellar help side rejection or point of attack smothering. His strength shows up at the point of attack, walling off drivers and challenging shots. At times, he’ll flash savant-level defensive feel, swooping in from the weak side for a spectacular challenge:
In a few short months, Cole Anthony will take command of Roy Williams’ fleet in Chapel Hill, looking to lead them to Atlanta in the Spring of 2020. Aside from the Heels’ hopes, Anthony will have a prime opportunity to put his skills on display. After a uber productive run on the Nike EYBL circuit, Anthony is in position to rack up accolades next season, cementing him as a top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
While Anthony has his flaws — decision making, defense and his age (Anthony turns 20 before the 2020 NBA draft and his over a month older than Zion Williamson) — few initiator prospects boast his intersection of pull-up shooting potential, slashing ability, athletic tools, passing acumen and statistical production. Zooming out, Anthony’s skill set teaches us to look closer at athletic tools and determine which are genuinely valuable in a basketball setting, mining through the glut of Twitter mixtapes to find the functional gold — positive on-court value.