How Cole Anthony slid from No. 1 pick discussion to become the steal of the 2020 NBA Draft

By | November 18, 2020

Cole Anthony was supposed to be a top-three NBA Draft pick. That’s what all the mock drafts and rankings before Anthony’s freshman season in college said. But about a year after Anthony made his North Carolina debut, he’s unlikely to go anywhere near the top-three picks.

To embrace Anthony’s NBA Draft selection as a draft-day slide requires a belief in the traits that made Anthony a candidate for the top pick in the first place: scoring, athleticism, pedigree. But NBA teams won’t be ignoring Anthony’s inefficiencies with the Tar Heels or his midseason knee injury. Together, those have knocked Anthony down draft boards to where he may not get picked until the 20s. 

Drafts are often about balancing risk with upside, and Anthony isn’t without risk. But in an NBA Draft that’s devoid of the top-end talent of years gone by, that equation might deserve to be balanced differently. Anthony brings upside, too, and if he indeed gets picked in the latter half of the first round, he just might turn out to be a steal.

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Why did Cole Anthony fall from preseason No. 1 overall pick discussion?

Anthony entered his lone season at North Carolina as a consensus projected top-three overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. But then his lone season at North Carolina happened.

In his first game, Anthony captured everyone’s attention with 34 points and 11 rebounds to beat Notre Dame. Then the problems started. UNC began to show itself as a subpar basketball team, which meant Anthony had to put more weight on his own shoulders. And then Anthony partially tore his right meniscus and underwent midseason surgery before coming back to play the season’s final 11 games. 

So instead of evaluating a player that dominated in high school and on the AAU circuit, NBA teams are now looking at a point guard who just had a surgical procedure on his knee and couldn’t shine to his fullest extent because he wasn’t on a great team. It’s the NBA teams who have access to Anthony’s medical records to some extent, so the knee concern will likely be kept relatively in proportion.

What runs the risk of being overblown is Anthony’s play at UNC in a tricky situation. Forced to create his shot frequently in an offense lacking other scorers, Anthony’s efficiency suffered. He shot 38 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from 3-point range. At times, it looked like Anthony was forcing questionable shots, but his teammates had also proven if he gave them the ball they weren’t going to find anything better.

Without stellar players around him, Anthony also struggled to distribute in a way that would be expected of an NBA-caliber point guard. He averaged 4.0 assists per game compared to 3.5 turnovers, a ratio that wouldn’t be good in the NBA let alone in college by a top prospect.

Anthony’s assist-to-turnover ratio might be most concerning for NBA teams when coupled with his size. At 6-3, if Anthony is more of a scorer and not much of a point guard, he becomes much tougher to fit into traditional NBA lineup constructions. That size (and just slightly better 6-4 wingspan) also doesn’t help how Anthony projects as a defender in the pros. 

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How Cole Anthony’s current status makes him an NBA Draft steal

Every reason outlined above is a good one for why Anthony should no longer be in consideration as a top-three overall pick. But some mock drafts list him outside of the top-20 selections, and there gets to be a point where a draft-day slide goes on too long.

Numbers can be spun the other way, too. Despite playing on the worst UNC team in a long time, Anthony averaged 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game as a true freshman. That was after being the No. 1 point guard recruit in the country, according to Rivals. Aside from inefficiencies that could be expected from playing for a bad team, Anthony basically was as advertised (and it’s not fair to read too far into numbers of a freshman coming off a knee surgery and choosing to play rather than sit out for his draft stock, too).

Anthony averaged just 0.6 fewer points per game than consensus top-three pick Anthony Edwards while averaging more rebounds (than the taller player) and more assists. Edwards shot just two percentage points better than Anthony, too. That’s not to say Anthony deserves to go ahead of the uber-athletic Edwards, but it’s just to say that those numbers are just as much a product of the shaky teams both those teams played on than anything else.

The NBA has become a scoring guard’s league in recent years. The top point guards all put the ball in the basket. Anthony puts the ball in the basket. And while he’ll have to cut down on his turnovers, what younger player doesn’t have to do that? He’s still shown flashes of being a gifted passer against top-level competition.

Somehow, Anthony’s production is working against him despite it more often than not coming at a high level in the ACC. He’d set the bar so high as a dominant player on Nike’s EYBL circuit in high school that maybe his freshman season at North Carolina was bound to be a disappointment. But Anthony still fits the mold of a player that will cause opposing defenses fits, whether as an immediate starter or off a good team’s bench.

If he can clean up his turnovers and indeed show better shot selection when surrounded by higher-caliber players, Anthony can start in the NBA for a long time. If that’s a player that comes anywhere outside the lottery, starting at pick 15 onward, it’s safe to call that a steal.

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Don’t forget that Cole Anthony is Greg Anthony’s son

It never hurts to come from an NBA pedigree, either, as Anthony does. His father, Greg, played in the NBA for 11 seasons and averaged 7.3 points and 4.0 assists per game in his career after starring at UNLV.

Anthony doesn’t remember his father’s playing, he told media recently, because Greg had retired by the time Anthony was 2 years old. But they played one-on-one as Anthony grew up, and Greg surely passed along whatever lessons Anthony wanted to know about the next level. 

And while Greg Anthony is certainly biased in speaking about his son, he’s also seen a lot of basketball in his life. If what he told the New York Daily News comes true, it’ll only cement Cole Anthony as a draft-day steal.

“A lot of stuff that happened (at UNC), it shook the system a little bit,” Greg Anthony told the NYDN. “But he handled it really well, he dealt with his adversity and he got better. And so, he’s going to be fine. He’s going to be a much better pro than the impact he had in college.”