Who Will Make More Of An Impact During Rookie Season: Chuma Okeke or Cole Anthony?

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - Exciting for the Orlando Magic this season is that they have two rookie mid first-round draft selections on the roster, available, and ready to contribute. Even better is that neither are anywhere close to their ceilings, ideal when a team is in the process of developing promising young talent for the future.

Chuma Okeke, Orlando’s 16th overall pick in 2019, and Cole Anthony, the club’s 15th overall choice last month, are both healthy and expected to each get meaningful minutes this season.

As a fun exercise, which of the two is more likely to play a bigger role and make more of an impact this season for the Magic?

Let’s first briefly analyze each of their strengths.

Okeke, who spent all of last season with the Lakeland Magic rehabbing his knee and sharpening his skills, does two things very well: shoot the three and defend in space.

In his two seasons with the Auburn Tigers, he shot 38.9 percent (89-of-229) from 3-point range. His shooting mechanics draw comparisons to one of the NBA’s all-time most clutch players, Robert Horry, who ironically played his college ball at Okeke’s rival school, Alabama.

Impressive for a player his size – 6-foot-8, 230 pounds – Okeke is a multi-positional defender, critical in the NBA today with players so versatile offensively. He slides his feet well, often able to stay between a speedy opponent and the basket, and he uses his length (7-foot wingspan) to deflect away passes and interfere with driving lanes. In 2018-19, his final year with the Tigers, he recorded the SEC’s fourth best defensive rating (95.2), was second in the conference in steals (69) and 13th in blocks (46).

Also a strength is his relentlessness on the glass. Okeke, now 22 years old, led the SEC in total offensive rebounds during his sophomore year with 106 of them and ranked sixth in total rebounds (260).

Anthony, meanwhile, is a natural scorer. His offensive creativity and ability to score from all three levels is very intriguing. Although he was inefficient during his one and only season at UNC, making just 38 percent of his shot attempts overall and 34.8 percent of his threes, the 20-year-old’s craftiness and shiftiness allows him to carve out space for step-back jumpers and floaters.

He’s also not afraid to initiate contact on his drives, something he did a fair amount of with the Tar Heels, averaging 5.8 free throw attempts per game.

A commonality between the two is they both overcame injuries while playing in college. Okeke tore his left ACL in his final college game during the NCAA Tournament against UNC, obviously the season before Anthony arrived at the school. Anthony, on the other hand, missed 11 games last season after undergoing knee surgery. Anthony, who is 100 percent now, has said in recent weeks that he wasn’t totally right physically after he returned from the injury, which hindered his performance to close out the year.

Being quick learners, which Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford recently stated they are based on what he has seen from them so far, will be crucial, especially because of all the abnormalities this offseason.

“We have to help them progress at a rate so that we are putting them in situations where they can have success,” Clifford said. “I have watched a lot of both of their college games. They both are players with good IQ. I think they can both be good at both ends of the floor. Our goal was to improve our skill level, our basketball IQ, shooting and our ability to create shots for teammates, and I think with Dwayne (Bacon), with Cole and with Chuma – those guys are younger players – but I think they can all as the season goes, and I’m not saying they are going to do it in the first month – but as the season goes on I think all three of them will allow us to develop more depth, a lot more depth, as the season goes on and I’m excited about all three of those guys.”

So, now to the question at hand: Who will have a better rookie campaign, or more specifically, who will make more of an impact this year?

It’s a tough question to answer, and a case could be made for either. Okeke having been in a professional environment for over a year now should give him an edge. Also key is that because of Jonathan Isaac’s absence, and possibly Al-Farouq Aminu’s as well if he’s not ready for the start of the season, Okeke should get plenty of minutes right out of the gate.

With his ability to space the floor and guard multiple positions, Clifford will likely rely on the Atlanta native to juggle multiple roles early on. When the team’s guards, notably Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier and Anthony, drive into the paint, Okeke could be Orlando’s second best kickout option on the perimeter after Terrence Ross.

The departure of D.J. Augustin, who signed a free agent deal with the Bucks this offseason, could make Anthony the backup to Fultz at point guard. Michael Carter-Williams could perhaps fill that role early on, but certainly Anthony will get opportunity in that spot at times this season.

How well Fultz and Anthony mesh when they are on the floor together will be interesting. When Fultz and Augustin played together last season, they had some success. Getting Fultz and Anthony to coexist and jell will be a priority for Clifford and his coaching staff, especially because they are two of the main building blocks in Orlando.

After the Magic selected Anthony in the draft, Clifford referenced Toronto’s dynamic backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet as an example of what Fultz and Anthony can accomplish over time together. Fultz, excited to play alongside Anthony, agrees.

“He’s a great kid. He comes in, he works hard. Very athletic, knows how to play the game and I think he’s very coachable,” said Fultz, who averaged 12.1 points and 5.1 assists in his first season with the Magic. “I think it’s going to be very fun to be able to play with someone like that who is young, athletic and really loves the game. I think he’s going to be a great fit for us. I definitely feel like I wouldn’t be doing the best by me if I didn’t help him out through the way. I’m here for him. I let him know that, that I’m going to be here for him if he needs anything. I’m excited.”

The hope for the Magic by season’s end is that the outcome is a draw, and both Okeke and Anthony play extremely well and help the team reach the playoffs for a third straight year.

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