Cole Anthony Is Still A Top-5 Draft Prospect Despite An Up-And-Down Year At North Carolina

Entering the 2019-20 college basketball season and 2020 NBA Draft cycle, there were few people more excited about Cole Anthony as a prospect than me. He was the top-ranked player on my Big Board, placed in a tier of his own. In a preseason poll conducted by The Athletic, I selected Anthony as my National Player of the Year. Seven or so months later, following Anthony’s underwhelming, tumultuous freshman season at North Carolina, those decisions look foolish.

I was enthralled by Anthony’s statistical domination at youth levels, from high school to AAU to FIBA, and considered his intersection of skills and athletic profile to be the silhouette of a star ball-handler in the modern NBA. But what it seems I overlooked is the fact some of Anthony’s production stemmed from advantages in physical development over his peers. He’s already 20 years old, whereas guys like LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards won’t turn 19 until August. Age has proven to be a crucial factor for prospects and I failed to accurately acknowledge that in my evaluation.

As a result of his brief stay in Chapel Hill, Anthony’s draft stock has fallen significantly. Once among the top-5 on ESPN’s preseason mock drafts, he’s tumbled to the late lottery, around 12 or 13. While the raw numbers were there for him — 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.3 steals per game — the efficiency was not, as evidenced by his 50.1 percent true shooting (.380/.348/.750 split) and 88 assists to 77 turnovers. Despite these issues, there were encouraging moments from Anthony’s lone collegiate campaign. He’s not the sure-fire top prospect like I once envisioned, but the 6’3 guard remains fifth on my board and someone I firmly believe in as a second-tier prospect, well above where mainstream consensus positions him.

Many prospects are hurt by team context in college, but Anthony’s situation for the 14-19 Tar Heels was damaging to a degree most others cannot emulate. He was UNC’s lone legitimate shot creator — regularly tasked with hoisting late-clock prayers — and Anthony nor his teammates ever harmonized within the offense, often mistiming cuts, drives, and screens. And yet, he displayed rare shot-making abilities for a 19-year-old, finishing in the 72nd percentile off the dribble and sustaining the pull-up shooting skills he touted before college.

All of the NBA’s top perimeter initiators — Stephen Curry, James Harden, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Trae Young, Chris Paul, etc. — excel as pull-up maestros. Anthony, while short on many of the other gifts those stars enjoy, looks the part of another lethal live-dribble shooter. Self-creation comes in many forms and he’s adept at turning stalled possessions into buckets (92nd percentile on 61 isolation possessions). Anthony has a patented step-back jumper going left, is undeterred by tight contests, and can rise quickly or use his strength to create space in the midrange. He’s an incredibly advanced pull-up shooter and among underclassmen-aged prospects in this class, and for now, nobody rivals him — the aforementioned Edwards might eventually, but his pull-up shooting is flash over substance right now.

Pull-up shooting will help simplify the rest of Anthony’s offensive workload. Defenders can’t sag off of him, which will ideally open up some driving lanes, even in spite of his limited burst (more on this later). Drop coverage in pick-and-roll won’t be tenable. Big men and other shooters will experience less stress with the opposition fixated on the elite off-the-dribble shooter directing the offense. Anthony boasts off-ball skills as well, ranking in the 86th percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers and having exhibited aptitude as a movement shooter, both at North Carolina and before college.

Because of his perceived baseline as a high-level shooter, I’m rather optimistic about Anthony’s potential as a scorer. His most glaring statistical pitfall, however, is finishing at the rim. He ranked in the 12th percentile around the basket this season and had a tendency to force up shots amid the trees, miss kick-out passes to shooters, settle for ill-advised floaters, or insert himself into precarious spots with nowhere to turn. Regardless, North Carolina’s spacing did not lend him any favors and dramatically altered his efficiency in the paint.

It’s a tough proposition to bank on guards becoming better finishers at the next level — defenders are bigger, longer, smarter, and more athletically gifted — but Anthony seemed uniquely situated to struggle mightily and flashed high-level finishes on a semi-regular basis. His blend of strength, balance, craft, body control, and ambidexterity give me optimism that he can yield adequate rim-scoring numbers relative to other NBA guards moving forward. There were too many encouraging plays to believe otherwise.

Anthony still struggled with decision-making as a driver before college to a notably lesser degree, though, and the long spells of barreling into a congested paint last season are discouraging. But NBA spacing and a modern offensive ecosystem should expand his margin for error. Kick-outs to actual shooters — UNC had one player aside from Anthony shoot better than 34 percent from three on 10-plus total attempts — will be available. Midair contortions around rim protectors won’t produce another rim protector waiting to block him or contest shots. The finishes shown above should become the norm, not serve as outliers. So many of his attempts were altered because of immensely poor spacing.

Anthony has the athletic tools to thrive at the bucket. Discretion is the swing skill and I’d rather bet on that improving under the proper guidance than another prospect experiencing vast functional strength and balance gains.

While I consider Anthony to materialize as a passable finisher, the degree to which he creates shots at the rim is a pressing issue. Only 18.7 percent of his attempts in the half-court occurred around the basket, an indictment of his underwhelming burst and agility. UNC’s poor spacing primarily hindered his efficiency, not his rim frequency, as Anthony often wandered in to a crowded key when he did beat defenders off the dribble.

Lacking the requisite burst to enact advantages against the defense quells some of his potential as a lead guard. The ability to blaze past defenders, force help rotations, and compromise the opposition is a highly valuable trait. Anthony’s versatile and high-level shooting upside will threaten defenses, but that’s only a portion of the advantage creation puzzle. Perhaps his burst as a driver was hindered by the partially torn meniscus in his right knee, but it was a problem all season, even before the injury sidelined him for 11 games.

Anthony simply doesn’t have the standstill quickness or stride length to zip by defenders on the ball and his rim pressure/gravity won’t ever reach that of Edwards, Kira Lewis, or Tyrese Maxey, three guards also inside my top-10. Too often, he was stonewalled against non-NBA-caliber athletes and resigned to tough shot-making. That’s certainly a headlining skill of his, but physical limitations are partially responsible for it needing to be. As someone who projects to carry and flourish with a heavy workload at his peak, capable perimeter defenders should be able to mute his dribble-drive game, a paramount factor in breaking down defenses.

Amplifying his issues as a downhill scorer is the unrefined handle he sports. His high handle allows for him to succinctly transition into his pull-up jumper, but it also makes for loose dribbling sequences that leave him susceptible to turnovers or having driving lanes stymied. Anthony fails to eat up space with each step and brandishes a handle short on dynamism, both of which are concerning for his on-ball equity in the NBA.

Poor ball-handling, burst, and stride length as a driver will considerably cap the degree to which Anthony frequents the paint as an individual creator. However, improved floor spacing should permit him to keep the defense on its toes in ball-screen actions and populate the rim because of his swift change-of-direction skills, which have been a hallmark of his slashing repertoire for years now. To spring free inside the arc, Anthony relies on a sharp between-the-legs dribble move or hesitation crossover.

It’s a novel and impactful asset, and one that should ensure he’s not entirely devoid of rim pressure as a potential lead guard, but it won’t overcome all of his deficiencies. This standout change-of-direction ability primarily manifests in pick-and-rolls, when the impending challenge of a screen flummoxes defenders and empowers Anthony to manipulate the way they disperse their weight and momentum. Or, big men have to respect his pull-up threat — helping to illuminate the ripple effects of his shooting — and can’t sit back in the paint to gift a proficient live-dribble gunner open jumpers. As such, Anthony, with a head of steam, can knife his way into the key and turn a profit.

One of the longstanding criticisms of Anthony’s game is his struggles in merging playmaking and scoring. To this point, it’s looked as though he’s programmed to embrace one or the other, predetermining his decisions on a given possession. If he wants to score, he’s going to shoot. If he wants to create for someone else, he’s going to pass. Establishing the proper balance still escaped him for stretches in college, but it’s an area he made concrete strides in by the end of the season. Early in the year, he didn’t let plays develop to the degree they needed; he was a scoring guard in a point guard’s body. By the end of the year, he was more in control of the offense, making proper reads and showcasing improved decision-making.

This is crucial for his development. With any prospect, we’re projecting growth and evolution. Nobody walks into the NBA primed to immediately reach their assumed ceiling. Anthony emerging as a more natural initiator bodes well for his continued maturation. And it’s not as though he was simply a play starter, kicking off possessions with standard, run-of-the-mill passes. Anthony is a talented facilitator and maximizing the scoring gravity he’s going to command is essential for actualizing his ceiling. There are many reasons to be discouraged by his freshman year, but I certainly believe he’s better prepared to direct an offense now than I did amid his early season woes in November and December.

He’s an adept interior facilitator, hits pocket passes, feeds the roll man over the top, and leaves drop-off dishes to bigs. North Carolina’s dearth of shooting muted much of this feature in his game, but Anthony is a capable kick-out shooter. He needs to refine it — tunnel vision plagues him — but a baseline exists and is evident, both from college and pre-collegiate film. There aren’t many complex reads in his bag; while guys like Ball and Killian Hayes substantially outpace him, Anthony is a good passer. His potential as a scorer will alter the way defenses approach him and if his decision-making maintains a positive trajectory, he should be a well-rounded playmaker, given the aptitude he already boasts.

Anthony’s defensive skill set is one that requires nuance to examine and explain. He’s advanced in some facets, conveying his IQ and awareness, while poor effort, understanding, and physical tools hinder him in others. At the point of attack, his underwhelming lateral quickness and burst enable blow-bys far too frequently. For a 6’3 guard with a 6’4.5 wingspan, Anthony’s inability to contain dribble penetration is concerning. Unlike some of his other defensive deficiencies, this doesn’t seem like one that’s correctable with the proper guidance and coaching staff. The athletic gains he’d have to experience laterally just seem too lofty for me to put much stock in. There are instances in which he slides well and relies on his strength to thwart drives, but generally, I thought he was a negative at the point of attack, an issue moving forward against NBA athletes/ball-handlers.

Versus teams with like-sized primary initiators, Anthony’s defense will often set the tone for a possession (to be fair, wing-sized ball-handlers are becoming increasingly common and maybe he’ll guard off the ball more than anticipated). His drawbacks will stress the defense, as teammates are thrust into important help situations, leaving room for breakdowns.

NBA spacing is going to benefit his finishing numbers, but it will have an inverse effect on his defense. In a few of the clips above, the defense caves on Anthony’s assignment and prevents a bucket. At the next level, it’ll be far more dangerous to abandon shooters on the perimeter. One man can help off, but he’s still likely to expose a hole elsewhere. Many college teams don’t roster more than a few players capable of capitalizing on defensive miscues. NBA teams employ a host of them. This is why Anthony’s point-of-attack defense and slow lateral movement is troubling. If small-ish guards can’t be hidden somewhere, they’re generally tasked with the point of attack and it seems as though he’ll struggle to offer enough resistance to be a plus in that role.

The potential impact of Anthony’s off-ball defense is murkier. He is a good interior off-ball defender, one who is cognizant of when to tag rollers, had a knack for rotating to draw charges, properly timed dig-downs in the post, and generated a healthy steal rate of 2.1 percent. As a perimeter off-ball defender, though, Anthony failed to grasp the nuanced responsibilities. He poorly positioned himself, inviting cutters and not preparing himself to efficiently navigate through screens, and wrestled with stunt-and-recover scenarios, failing to eliminating driving angles when closing out back to his man.

Those sequences are less than ideal, but I deem these sorts of off-ball issues to be relatively low-hanging fruit with regards to improvement. It’s not Anthony doesn’t want to play defense. Instead, he doesn’t effectively toggle between man and ball due to poor positioning, which can be refined under the right development staff. Some of the problem is awareness — an aspect harder to erase because it’s sometimes part of one’s internal wiring — but the primary hurdle for him is mastering off-ball positioning. Identifying low-hanging fruit for prospects is vital and I consider this to fall under that category, meaning Anthony could, in time, be a positive off-ball defender on the perimeter.

Anthony is not the caliber of prospect I once considered him back in October. His burst and on-ball defense are clear warts. But the 20-year-old has laid the foundation to be a dynamic pull-up shooter with enough playmaking juice to capitalize on the defensive attention he’ll induce. While his perimeter off-ball defense and offensive decision-making currently stand as flaws, they both can become pluses if he ends up on the right team.

Understanding the rectifiable weaknesses of prospects and those that necessitate outlier development is key in analyzing their ceiling. Cole Anthony has many of the former and in conjunction with his live-dribble shooting — a supremely valuable skill for NBA guards — projectable finishing improvements and growing comfort as a lead decision-maker, I firmly believe in him as a top-five player in this class.