ORLANDO - Cole Anthony as an NBA Most Improved Player Award candidate is stating the obvious. But at the quarter-way point of the 2021-22 season, where does he rank on that list?
The first part of the analysis is determining who the other candidates are. Probably the only other players in the conversation at this time are Miami’s Tyler Herro, who’s also the current frontrunner for the Sixth Man of the Year honor, Cleveland’s Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, Charlotte’s Miles Bridges, Golden State’s Jordan Poole and Memphis’ Ja Morant, although him being out for the foreseeable future with a knee injury might remove him from the discussion.
A few outside-the-box contenders include San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray, Philadelphia's Tyrese Maxey, Milwaukee’s Grayson Allen, Sacramento’s Richaun Holmes and Anthony’s Orlando Magic teammate Wendell Carter Jr. Toronto's OG Anunoby got off to a great start but has missed the last several games with a hip injury and could be out for a while.
Getting back to Anthony, he’s been sensational, especially in fourth quarters. In the final frame, he’s averaging 6.7 of his 20.2 points per game on 50.6 percent shooting from the field. On Friday in Houston, 12 of his 26 points came in the fourth. He made four shots in the final four minutes to help the Magic tie the game after trailing by 13 before that wild Orlando run started. The Magic, however, fell short, as Eric Gordon connected on a go-ahead floater with 1.6 seconds remaining.
Although Anthony missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer off a great inbounds read by Franz Wagner, the number of big shots he’s made down the stretch of tight games is quite unusual for someone so young and still developing. Last season, he made two game winners, one at Minnesota and another at home against Memphis.
Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley has complete confidence in the 6-foot-3, 191-pound combo guard, as he does with everyone else on the floor in those clutch moments.
“I think it is a reflection of his work ethic. It’s a reflection of his confidence, and it’s also the confidence that his teammates have in him to be willing to take those shots,” Mosley said. “But again, you also have a group of guys on the floor that are willing to take shots, That’s what we’ve created and it’s the equalness of each guy willing to want to step in to be able to make the big play, so whoever it is they’re willing to have their number called and step in and make a play.”
One of the big questions about the University of North Carolina alum coming out of college was whether he’d be efficient at the next level or not. After shooting just 39.7 percent from the field overall and 33.7 percent from beyond the arc during his rookie campaign, this season so far he’s at 42.6 percent overall and 35.8 percent from 3-point distance. That improvement is a big reason why he’s averaging nearly eight more points than last season.
If Anthony were to win the Most Improved Player Award – and obviously there’s still a long way to go in the season and new candidates can and probably will emerge – he’d be one of only a few first round draft picks in NBA history to claim this honor as a second-year player. The last player to accomplish that was Don MacLean in 1994 while playing for the Washington Bullets. The only others to do it were Alvin Robertson (1986), Kevin Johnson (1989) and Rony Seikaly (1990).
The Magic and Indiana Pacers are the only two teams with five Most Improved Player Award winners. Orlando’s winners were Scott Skiles (1991), Darrell Armstrong (1999), Tracy McGrady (2001), Hedo Turkoglu (2008) and Ryan Anderson (2012).
Remarkable too about Anthony is that he hasn’t missed a beat after missing six straight games with a sprained right ankle. In his first game back on Wednesday against the Denver Nuggets, he scored 24 points and filled up the rest of the box score with eight rebounds and seven assists. With how good of a rebounder he is, it seems inevitable he will record at least a few triple-doubles in his career.
“It’s one thing to watch the game. It’s one thing to play the game,” he said following the victory over the Nuggets. “I’ve been watching a bunch of film and watching obviously the team play a lot and just kind of dissecting the game. But once you go out there and play, it’s a little bit (of a) different story. It took me a second to kind of get that going. But once I got that going, it felt good man. Back to normal Cole, normal Cole stuff.”
Helping Anthony as well is having a secondary playmaker on the court alongside him. Turkoglu-like, Wagner is quickly adapting to his point forward role. His basketball IQ, instincts and timing is off the charts, and it’s making it easier for Anthony and others to get good looks at the basket.
“It’s always nice to have another guy who can really hoop. Not just really hoop, (but) just is a great decision maker,” Anthony said of Wagner. “Main thing is, I can go create an angle, give it up to him and then he can create another angle and get someone else an easy shot. Having that confidence in someone like that who I know wants to make the right play every time he has the ball. It’s awesome. It’s awesome to have someone like that.”