Cole Anthony’s NBA draft stock plummeted with a difficult season at UNC. However, a different role in the NBA could let him thrive.
When scouting prospects, one of the more difficult tasks to decipher is scalability. Most prospects receive more touches in college than in the NBA, and as a result, see a dip in efficiency from their dominant high school days. Maximizing their efficiency in the NBA requires them to fit into a smaller and more specific role. The ability to adjust to a different role as they move into the NBA changes the evaluation of a lot of this draft class and it certainly helps Cole Anthony’s stock.
Anthony came to North Carolina with outsized expectations, the third-ranked recruit in RSCI who was supposed to follow in the footsteps of Coby White, Ray Felton, Kendall Marshall as the next great Tar Heels point guard. Instead, he averaged 18.1 points on a 50.1 true shooting percentage and only 4.0 assists. Those are fine statistics, but disappointing considering his place on the preseason Wooden player of the year Watch List.
However, much of Anthony’s struggles could be attributed to the lack of talent around him. When Anthony was on the court, North Carolina outscored its opponents by about four points per 100 possessions. When he was not on the court, they got outscored by eight. Ranked ninth before the season, the Tar Heels ended up 14-19 overall and 6-14 in ACC play.
Rather than the frenetic pace he usually employs, Roy Williams slowed things down. In the frontcourt, he started Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot, two centers who combined to make two 3-pointers on seven attempts. North Carolina ranked 13th in 3-point percentage and 3-point makes. Rarely did Anthony have space to drive:
Anthony’s primary skill is his separation ability. He uses an advanced dribbling package featuring a hang-dribble, complemented by in-and-outs, crossovers, hesitations. He is smooth and quick transitioning from the dribble into jump-shots, such as step-backs and side-steps.
One swing skill is his first-step. He is quick laterally, fast in a straight line and quick at reacting. He shows flashes of speed from a standstill and going downhill, but they are inconsistent. He has a solid burst, but it’s nothing otherworldly. He should be able to beat a backpedaling Matthew Hurt in a footrace.
Another issue at this point is decision-making. He has a tendency to over-dribble and an inability to find the right pass until it’s too late. In the clips below, he fails to make snappy decisions against the hard-hedging schemes deployed by Duke and North Carolina. He regularly misplaces live-ball passes.
That, combined with the fact that he loses the ball when trying to assemble complicated combination moves against quicker and bigger defenders and when splitting the pick-and-roll, explains his porous 1.14 turnover-to-assist ratio (88 assists to 77 turnovers). Still, there are positives –he is capable of making swing, kick out, and dropoff passes. Note how Anthony ball-fakes two defenders out of their shoes to find a cutting Justin Pierce, only for Patrick Williams to swat the former William and Mary alum into oblivion.
Adding more change of pace could go a long way in maximizing his on-ball equity, both as a passer and scorer. Finding a middle ground of passing and scoring and reacting to the defense are also steps in the right direction. Refining his shot-selection is a long-term requirement. A whopping 77 percent of his shots in the half-court were jumpers, and he shot 33 percent on long 2-point shots. He only averaged 0.676 points per possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and 0.64 points per possession in transition, despite those being his two primary means of offense.
He also only shot 53.6 percent at the rim, which landed him in the second percentile. He makes Vernon Carey look like a legitimate rim-protector in the clip below.
Though his finishing was poor and a majority of his shots came early in the shot clock and were generally inefficient, that he was surrounded by a lack of shooters and creators, should inspire optimism for Anthony’s on-ball scoring equity even without the suggested improvements. He leverages his ball-handling skills to get to the rim, slows into gather-steps, euro-steps, and buries his shoulder into backpedaling defenders to draw a lot of fouls (36.8 percent free throw rate).
He boasts a solid shooting form; though he dips the ball to the lower left side of his body, he remains compact. He shot 34.1 percent from 3 and was efficient coming off-screens (1.12 points per possession). He can play off-ball, flashing spot-up shooting awareness, such as relocation and movement shooting.
Anthony’s lack of high-tier athleticism, combined with his lagging decision-making and poor shot selection, currently renders him an inefficient combo guard. There is a silver lining in Anthony’s stock dropping and it is his efficiency will likely rise with more off-ball than on-ball duties.
While Anthony’s stock plummeted due to his lack of expected offensive output, he did flash defensive prowess, both on and off the ball. He displayed impressive hip flexibility, enabling him to move his feet with speedy guards.
Due to his size, Anthony won’t be defending anyone bigger than a shooting guard. He can also sometimes get lazy with an upright defensive stance. He tracks the ball instead of following his man’s hips, and a simple crossover or even a jab step can sometimes be enough to throw him off-balance. Sliding through ball-screens can be an arduous task for Anthony. Rather than step-over screens, he often gets tangled in ball-screens. Anthony is prone to over-helping at times, leaving his man open on the perimeter with his whole body gyrated to the man with the ball.
He possesses not only fidgety lateral footspeed and quick hands but also polished awareness. He does the simple things like denying his man and drawing charges to more complicated things like tagging and recovering and stunting and deflecting.
His defense is generally good, and certainly much better than expected, even outperforming his offensive output in many way. Still, he should be a plus on the offensive end as well. Digging through each play, it was difficult to decide whether a bad shot was his fault or his team’s, though a closer look at the film and statistics provides more evidence to the latter.
In a generally poor draft, LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards are projected to go high thanks to their perceived ceilings as primary initiators. However, such ceilings seem overstated, and developing them means revamping other important facets of their game. Ball is an otherworldly passer, but if he doesn’t develop a pull-up jump shot — which seems probable — then defenses will sag off him, and those passing windows will stay shut. Edwards is a physical and athletic specimen, but if he never accelerates his motor and overhauls his questionable shot selection, then he will likely be a volume scorer and poor defender.
Though I have Ball and Edwards higher than Anthony on my big board, for now, this comparison is made for context. An executive whose team is slated to draft in the top-three should heavily consider trading down into the mid-lottery. While he’s plagued with shortcomings as a passer and finisher, outweighing those are Anthony’s upsides as a self-creator and off-ball shooter. Expecting him to come in and change a franchise alone is asking too much, but if placed in the correct role — as a secondary initiator or as a primary initiator role surrounded by big wing creators — Anthony is worth drafting. For this reason, Anthony is firmly entrenched in my top-eight, and one of the safest bets in this class.