By Max Feldman
Come the July Big Board, some will require a double take when they see Cole Anthony at the third overall slot. Anthony has hovered in the 6-10 range for nearly 5 months now, so what is the cause of this revelation considering the fact that a ball has not been dribbled since early March?
Unlike most other prospects in the field, the more I watch Cole Anthony tape, the less and less I feel the need to nitpick. The numbers are glaring and his struggles were well-documented, but I do want to clearly outline the points that have driven his stock so far up for FOG.
Cole’s Position within the Lead Guard Class
This lead guard class is extremely deep. FOG has established a clear top tier of Ball, Anthony, Hayes and Haliburton followed behind by a large margin with Flynn, Mannion, Lewis Jr, Dosunmu among others. All are able playmakers with documented success in the last season. What sets Cole Anthony apart from the rest and behind only LaMelo Ball atop the July Edition Big Board is his long term appeal as a franchise cornerstone using his creative ability with the ball, pull up shooting prowess, explosive athleticism and imposing competitiveness to eventually establish organizational direction for a franchise absent of hope.
It is extremely hard to change the public opinion on the ranking of prospects after such a long duration of studying the same prospects with no new film, but much of the reason why Anthony has jumped up the board is because of my dwindling concerns on him and the emerging questions around his counterparts. While Cole’s maturity, shot selection, IQ, efficiency and playmaking ability are all concerns around the draft evaluation universe, his handle, athleticism, speed and toughness are all non-debatable traits. Tyrese Haliburton is recognized as an extremely efficient and mature floor general while Hayes and Lewis Jr are recognized for their P&R proficiency, fluid finishing ability and overall appeal as extremely young playmakers. In no manner am I putting down their respective outlooks as prospects, but at the same time there is no question for me that Anthony has all the tools to develop into a superior lead guard with a more collective range of skills who is more fit to provide organizational guidance. The lack of a combine, the lack of workouts and the narrow field of work due to injuries at UNC essentially ensure that he will never be ranked as a top five prospect by the consensus, but I do believe that if all three of these categories were apparent, he’d be a projected top five pick. FOG is ahead of the game with this one and while COVID-19 and it’s affects on the draft world are evident, I can not hold back and belittle Cole Anthony as a prospect like others. Placing him outside the top 10, the lottery and even in the 20’s by some is not just a knock on Cole but a knock on the draft evaluation system. Taking Cole’s oozing talent and extensive ground work at UNC and even prior at Archbishop Molloy and Oak Hill, and then magnifying it too closely spotlights the overt obsession with nitpicking prospects in a prolonged draft process like this one.
Cole Anthony’s athletic ability and mature frame are on a next level in comparison to this lead guard class, where LaMelo, Hayes, Haliburton and Lewis Jr all have question marks regarding their strength level and ability to compete on both ends against bulkier players early on in their NBA careers. The wingspan is the only measurement concern of mine for Cole rumored at coming in around just 6’4″. These wingspan issues arise more for big men and wings when their wingspan is narrowly above their height but it may diminish Cole’s ability to guard the 1-3 in the future. However, his powerful base, incredibly strong lateral quickness and elite straight line speed not only bode well for his transition game in the NBA but also his potential to be an elite back court defender. Cole got to the line at an extremely high rate with 5.8 free throw attempts per game, while Ball (3.9 FTA per game), Hayes (2.7 FTA per game) and Haliburton (2 FTA per game) all showed limited willingness to draw contact around the rim. Anthony would challenge for a top score in the vertical jump at the combine, if existent, due to his explosive jumping ability off either foot or both. Eric Bledsoe, the 18th overall pick in 2010, came into the league just a few pounds heavier and two inches shorter than Cole, and while his offensive outputs have not been overwhelming, he has developed into a stalwart back court defender using his balance, footwork, high IQ and relentless motor to anchor down a long NBA career. Down the line, I would project Cole to be a similar player with a much more prolific offensive game and more of a organizational centerpiece.
The concerns on Cole are fair to some extent, but a few need their addressing. So, why did Cole rank so poorly in the Pick and Roll? We’ll get into next how poor UNC was this season specifically in offensive spacing, but first we have to dive into the mistakes and areas of improvement for Anthony individually. The film illustrates that Cole’s instincts and feel for denying, splitting and coming over screens is actually pretty strong. He can force the issue at times, but for a Freshman on a very poor collegiate team, that criticism is being over shot as it should be very much expected, especially for a player with a whopping 30% usage rate. Cole uses a powerful between the legs dribble to consistency split screens when defenders hedge too hard which should translate well when even more spacing is opened up in the NBA. However, he must to greatly improve his decision making and overall touch in the mid range. At times he uses athleticism and toughness too much, attacking the rim with reckless abandoned resulting too many charge calls and poor inside finishing efficiency. His floater game appeared weaker than many of the other guards in this class and should be an area of focus this Summer and far beyond. Establishing a solid middle game will allow Cole to open up his deadly drive game, open up his big men around the rim and improve his overall outlook as a reliable, go-to creator. While Cole’s decision making on drives requires further refinery, his ability to hang in the air is unrivaled in this class regardless of position. Reverse layups are his go-to when attacking bigs on the baseline shedding a positive light on his touch and potential floater game down the line. His powerful handle and ability to catch defenders on their heels makes him a hard cover for slower guards. Separating the analytical puzzles pieces and divulging which numbers heavily translate continue to strengthen the case for Cole.
Now, to dive into the situation Cole Anthony entered into in his lone collegiate season. UNC, one of the most esteemed programs in the nation, was rather awful in 2019-2020. They finished the season at 14-19 overall and 6-14 ending at 13th place in the ACC.
The Tar Heels had the 268th best FG%, the 298th FG% on 2pt attempts while simultaneously attempting the MOST 2 point shots in the nation. Defensively, they allowed a 42% opponent field goal percentage, were the 235th best rebounding team in the nation all while allowing 73 points per game to their opponent. The two other top performers were big men, Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot, and while they did improve throughout the season, they’re both somewhat limited athletically and are primarily paint finishers. The only other perimeter shooter above 34% besides Cole Anthony was Brandon Robinson, who was extremely predictable on the offensive end where over 71% of his field goal attempts were three point shots. In all, Roy Williams’ Tar Heels were extremely easy to game plan against with limited weapons and primarily one-dimensional role players surrounding Cole Anthony. When Cole was healthy on the court, there was no other option outside of hero ball. While it does skew his analytics and set fear into many draft evaluators, to neglect and discount the situation Cole Anthony was in at UNC will not only hurt draft media later but also likely multiple NBA General Managers come Draft night.
Two offensive analytics stand out above the rest when evaluating Cole besides his isolation numbers which is heavily explained in the next section. Spot ups and coming off of screens. Two areas that emphasize Cole’s ability to create even within a poorly spaced system. The roster situation makes these numbers all the more impressive, as Cole performed efficiently in these areas even while his teammates were non-threats. Cole still was able to put up 1 point per possession in spot ups (75th percentile) and off of screens (71st percentile) respectively. Anthony’s creative ability is evident by his isolation numbers, tight handle and attacking motor with the ball in his hands, but these two categories provide optimism for Cole to play beside another creator or rather, that his upside is even higher if he is surrounded by another attacking creator.
In the floor and ceiling NBA comparison series published by FOG nearly a month ago, Cole’s ceiling was compared to Damian Lillard. While Lillard has flourished with the ball in his hands, his attacking versatility is undoubtedly boosted by CJ McCollum’s scoring prowess right beside him. The NBA is a copy cat league and while other franchises like the Cavaliers for example have attempted to mimic a back court duo like the Blazers, it has not provided the same burst or outlook as of yet. Cole Anthony can be the centerpiece for a similar foundation on a rebuilding roster, as the formula does have credible success in elevating a organization from the ground up similar to Portland.
To touch on some defense, the Tar Heels as a team were horrible in just about every category. For Cole, he struggled at times defending the P&R next to less mobile big men and an overall confusion on go-to coverages. Cole did defend well in isolation situations and against hands offs, once again showing his lateral quickness, stout frame and ability to chase could be a catalyst in his defensive development early on. Anthony played 35 minutes per game when he was healthy producing 1.3 steals and 2.9 fouls per game. Not the strongest ratio, but it does show that his motor and aggressiveness is extremely high in comparison to other top back court prospects, like LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards and Killian Hayes who tend to show a lack of effort on that end. In addition, Cole is the best rebounder at either guard position – outside of LaMelo – in this draft. Anthony came down with 5.9 rebounds per game from the lead guard spot at just 6’3″, highlighting his potential as a one man fast break dynamo. Cole’s trajectory as an all-around creator and centerpiece on the offensive end make up the bulk of my excitement on him as a prospect, but his extreme competitiveness, physical maturity, high level instincts and elite athleticism make him an underrated vote to be one of the best defenders in this class at his peak.
He Leaves Non-Vital Traits to be Assumed
Spectators look up to scouts and take their word on evaluations as the cemented stand on a prospect, but the reality of scouting is that each and every prospect requires assumptions to a certain degree. Much of the talent evaluation process when dealing with 18 and 19 year olds is projecting how they can develop and what traits can be improved upon. Cole’s ability to create is unmatched within this class. While his playmaking ability is being picked apart by so many due to turnover issues and decision making question marks, I place so much stock in his ability to make plays for others simply due to the fact that he can make plays for himself. In comparison to other elite guards in this class like Tyrese Haliburton and Killian Hayes, both pegged as high level playmakers, I can not deny that I fear that they could have trouble creating separation for themselves within an offensive set at the NBA level.
So, I did some digging. Here are 4 lead guards who I found most commonly ranked above Cole Anthony on other Big Boards around NBA Draft media.
Killian Hayes placed in the 77th percentile in isolation situations.
Tyrese Haliburton placed in the 36th percentile in isolation situations with 18.7% overall volume.
Kira Lewis Jr placed in the 38th percentile in isolation situations with 24.3% overall volume.
Theo Maledon placed in the 34th percentile in isolation situations.
To be clear, I am not saying that the league is isolation centric in the slightest, as I feel the complete opposite, but I do think the skill level and overall field of work in isolation situations does shine a gleaming light on how well a lead guard or creator will be able to separate at the next level. Further, how is a lead guard supposed to make plays for others if they do not pose a threat themselves?
Cole Anthony placed in the 92nd percentile in isolation situations, making up for 12.7% of his offensive possessions. When on the court, he carried a volume of 30% on the offensive end. An astronomical number for a Freshman lead guard. So what does this mean to FOG? I do not have to assume that Anthony’s playmaking ability will be strong in the NBA because of how strong of a creator he naturally is. As his IQ and feel for the game develop as he enters his mid-20’s, his playmaking level will take off the more defensive coverage and P&R reads he is able to digest. As terrific as a passer and playmaker as Tyrese Haliburton has been at Iowa State, I would have no hesitation putting more stock in Anthony’s projected development as a heady playmaker than Haliburton’s projected development as a creator or as an athlete.
Pegging Cole above Killian Hayes was an extremely difficult decision, but this category was the deciding factor. I could not drop Killian lower than the 4 spot as I do remain incredibly high on him, yet there is some inevitable fear in place when putting so much stock in an 18 year old guard with no Euro-League experience and some questions concerning his shooting reliability and athletic upside. His P&R feel is well ahead of Cole’s, but at the same time I do feel like Cole’s ability to create on his own will eventually make his P&R output extremely efficient once his passing versatility is improved and he can slow the game down. Due to these conclusions, I do feel that Killian Hayes’ has a reasonably higher floor than Cole, but his ceiling is not relatively close.
I do not have any questions regarding Cole Anthony’s shooting ability whatsoever, which I could not say about most other guards in this class. 35% from deep and 75% from the line were strong numbers considering his volume. Anthony’s pull up shooting ability has been a highlight since his days at Archbishop Molloy and he continues to strengthen it going to either hand, in transition, off of screens and against bigger defenders using great elevation. Pull up shooting is usually a skill that is developed towards the peak of a lead guard’s career, if ever, and while Cole could be more efficient, his footwork and ability to get to his spots is certainly beyond his years.
Overall, FOG feels extremely confident that Cole Anthony is a top three prospect in the 2020 NBA Draft. Anthony has appeared like a professional lead guard since his days at Oak Hill, and while his tenure in Chapel Hill was fairly turbulent, it is undeniable that when Cole is at his best, he shows consistent signs of All-Star potential down the line. The struggles under Roy Williams were prevalent but after filtering through the situation he was thrown into in combination with evaluating the areas he thrived and the spots he struggled in and how they translate, I found many of the consensus concerns on Cole Anthony to be arbitrary. A few years down the line, FOG feels extremely confident that Cole will quiet the critics as he approaches All-NBA stature.