Dancing With Noah

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Part 1 of a 3-Part Series on Point Guards; Alternately: Half-cocked Ideas and Hairbrained Theories feat. Cole Anthony

This post was supposed to be about players I reviewed back during Thanksgiving Feast Week or whatever the hell that cavalcade of games was marketed as. I scouted/watched 60-some-odd players that week and ranked 47, but the more I marinated and ruminated and procrastinated, the more it became clear that the bundle of point guards at the top, players not named Anthony Edwards, deserved their own inquisitions.

Six of my top nine from that week project as some form of NBA point guard and I presently have them ranked as such: (This list only includes players I watched that week so you won’t see Tyrese Maxey, Theo Maledon, Killian Hayes, etc.)

But there’s something that feels oh-so-fragile to this exercise in subjectivity. We were recently alerted that Cole Anthony, son of Greg, would be out six-to-eight weeks for surgery on a meniscus injury. LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton of the NBL are both in the midst of their own injury-related hiatuses. The opportunities for scouting these young men are growing less by the day and thus the opportunity for inaccurate assessment grows. I will be wrong. I will change my mind. I will doubt myself. I am human, born to make mistakes.

COLE ANTHONY

So why Cole at the top? I came into the season with Cole Anthony as my number-one overall prospect based on a powerful athleticism that none of the other point guards on this short list can compare with and that goes for Kira Lewis too. Anthony’s strength and elevation exceed that of his fellows. To top it off, in 21 games of the 2018 EYBL season, he shot 89% on 195 free throw attempts alongside 38% on 142 threes. When the best athlete is arguably the second-best shooter (Nico Mannion the best), is passable as a creator, an elite guard rebounder, and flashes defensive potential, it’s easy to get giddy, and overlook gut feelings that I’ll explore further below.

Too, every one of these players has warts. If a massive aspect of scouting is projecting how these players develop and what they become as pros, then deeply understanding their flaws and how deeply ingrained they are in relation to the strengths, which we so rightly celebrate, is a requirement of the exploration.

WARTS & STUFF

Cole: average-to-above average passer/creator, possibly lacking in feel, questionable defensive IQ, questionable finishing and release angles, old for class

LaMelo: defense defense defense inclusive of strength, focus, and effort. Shooting, shot release, core strength, lower body strength

RJ: shot and touch, uncertain if he’s a full-time point guard, ability to defend smaller/quicker guards, developing defensive awareness

Nico: average athlete, average length, can be stymied by team length, lacking vertical explosiveness, ability to generate good looks for himself

Tyrese: creation for others beyond pick-and-roll, attack instincts, shot mechanics, strength

Kira: passing instincts, point guard feel, strength (I’m fully aware that Kira is young for his class), defensive consistency

It was a combination of Anthony’s EYBL and Oak Hill tape, bolstered by the stats above, that drove him to the top of my list. But what’s happened in his month of competitive play at Chapel Hill that tilted the narrative and exposed some of those vulnerabilities?

Anthony shot out like a rocket in his debut against Notre Dame with 34-points on 65 true shooting and 11 rebounds. For all its small sample size, it appeared his strengths would translate seamlessly. But if Anthony chooses to shut it down following his knee surgery, that game will be his collegiate high-water mark, the points, rebounds, threes made, and true shooting all career bests. Against Notre Dame, he performed in his templatized style: an array of pull-ups from two and three, an omnipresent threat attacking off the dribble, and a general physical imposing of will.

Even in high school, when Anthony dominated, there were hints and tics of potential inefficiencies that I should’ve better sniffed out and over his subsequent, post-Notre Dame games, they surfaced with greater frequency and clarity. Unlike Mannion or LaMelo, Anthony is not a pure point guard in the sense that he’s not a natural facilitator. I believe the notion of “pure point guards” is overblown gatekeeping nonsense, but in this case, it merely serves to articulate that Anthony neither defaults to the pass or can pass/read with the gusto of some of his peers. Of the six points in this scout, I’d say he’s on par with Lewis as the two least-talented passers of the bunch. In his nine games as a Tar Heel, Anthony picked up 34 turnovers to just 31 assists, easily the worst ratio of any guard in this set.

The UNC challenges don’t end there. Anthony, like many players before him, has succeeded, has thrived, in spite of himself. His combination of athleticism and highly developed skill has meant he can excel in high-degree-of-difficulty scenarios. Case-in-point are the pull-ups he loves so much. Further, looking back over my notes from his Oakhill days, I called out his challenges in both generating clean looks for himself and finishing around the rim. At UNC, I’ve seen a series of odd-angled shot releases on penetration, particularly upon making contact with help defenders. He has the strength and hangtime to make in-air adjustments and absorb contact, but how he adjusts and gets off his shots, often while pulling back in-air instead of driving all the way through, seems like it hurts his ability to finish.

Defensively, I don’t tend to get concerned with guards this age unless effort or physical ability are significant red flags. With Anthony, he’s averaged nearly two steals/game with a 3.2% steal rate, which are both fine. He’s shown an ability to focus in on-ball situations, has great feet and hips that allow him to easily and fluidly change direction, and a hyper burst allows him to recover on plays where he’s been otherwise beaten and positively impact the play. In terms of off-ball defense and drill fundamentals, he has a lot of work to do. He loses his man from ball watching, has off-ball lapses, and multiple times this season, I’ve seen teammates physically push him into right position or shout instructions to him as he’s failed to execute the right coverage. Again, he mostly gives full effort and with his physical tools has plenty of upside. The work comes in the less sexy realms like pick-and-roll coverage and help defense.

All of this leads to an attempt at answering what does a pro version of Cole Anthony look like? What translates? What doesn’t? Or, to what degree do his skills and abilities translate? I believe in the athleticism: the burst, elevation, strength, and balance. As a foundation, his physical/athletic profile is vastly superior to the other guards with the exception of maybe RJ Hampton, who Anthony is still more athletic than, just not by as great of a degree. The athleticism, build, and effort mean he should be able to hover around average defensive impact for a guard with the potential to be much better. Stubbornly, I trust in in Anthony’s ability to assimilate and adapt as a scorer at the NBA level. With better spacing and a commitment to developing as a finisher –in terms of touch, decisiveness, and release – his scoring profile would be well-rounded with room to grow in efficiency and decision making. The clip below exemplifies Anthony’s wide range: he uses his burst and handle to split the double, but his eyes are only on the rim. To be fair, he’s surrounded by non-shooters, but the commitment to the shot is a limiting habit at present. It’s also a good of both his inconsistent touch (it comes and goes) and what could be an inability to decelerate – a recurring trait I’ve seen on his drives.

To go deeper on his offense, there’s a subtlety of skill that will lend itself to his eventual NBA transition and acts as a good reminder that he’s the son of an NBA player and has spent much of his life around NBA gyms. Anthony is adept at getting the most out of his screens: he’s patient and when he does decide to go, he rubs shoulder-to-shoulder with the screener. He’s also a bully who knows how to impose himself, both vertically and horizontally, against smaller guards. While he won’t see many guys in the NBA as small as Michigan’s Zavier Simpson (6-0, 190 which seems generous) or Virginia’s Kihei Clark (5-9, 155), against both, Anthony leveraged his strength on drives to the rim, easily finishing through both of the smaller players. In EYBL, he’d even take taller players into the post where his strength and two-foot rise gave him an advantage. His off-dribble game is effective in part because of his excellent body mechanics and ability to dribble hard, stop, square, and rise in one (mostly) fluid motion. In high school, he showed a greater utilization of head fakes and feints, but in his limited UNC stint, I saw this less frequently. These skill-based attributes are advanced for a college freshman and are further evidence of how and why his scoring ability can translate.

And in a world where the above prognostications are spot on, my greatest concerns aren’t addressed or resolved. Against Virginia, in a game where Anthony was already dealing with the injury that will keep him out for the next one to two months, I had the stinking, sinking realization that he wasn’t elevating his teammates and despite what I’ve observed of him as an engaged and encouraging teammate, he wasn’t making guys better. As a shoot-first lead guard, he hasn’t figured out how to operate off the ball and is prone to existing as an all or nothing offensive piece. He can make the pass if he can get to the read, but my interpretation of his attack is that his mind and eyes are seeking avenues to score first, distribute second. It’s not that a modern point guard must be pass first either. Trae Young and Luka Doncic both score a shitload of points while using dynamic scoring and vision in a complimentary fashion: the scoring opens up the passing and vice versa. Anthony doesn’t have to be Young or Luka to be effective, but he hasn’t yet exhibited consistency for advanced reads or passes or an ability to reliably utilize one skill to set up the other.

Despite trending down, I still have Anthony as my second-ranked prospect in this draft behind Anthony Edwards. There are worlds where he can follow paths or styles that resemble Jamal Murray or Kemba Walker. I get the Russell Westbrook comps too, but don’t see Anthony reaching that level of passing. In a draft class severely lacking in high-degree-of-confidence stars, Anthony slides in as a flawed, but somewhat ready-made player, a physically mature player whose upside exists in nuance and mechanics. He exists for me as a high-floor prospect with a low likelihood of achieving his potential and, as currently constructed, unlikely to be a significant contributor on a winning team.

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