When he assesses the horror show that became his team’s 2019-20 season, North Carolina coach Roy Williams is at a loss to pinpoint one specific thing that led to the first losing record (14-19) in his Hall of Fame career.
“Needless to say, there’s been a lot of retrospect thinking, but I don’t know of one thing to put my finger on,” Williams told the media over the summer. “I’ve got a thousand [things]. And I’m going to try to change those thousand before we start this coming year.”
If Williams were to rank those thousand reasons, there’s no doubt what No. 1 would be: When Cole Anthony, the top-rated point guard in the class of 2019, went down with a knee injury 11 games into the season, the Tar Heels were in trouble. Anthony, announcing his presence by blasting Notre Dame with 34 points and six 3-point goals in his college debut, led North Carolina to a 6-1 record in its five seven games, including wins over the Fighting Irish, Alabama, and Oregon.
Those latter two victories came in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, where Anthony began to experience pain in his right knee. “I told our trainer my knee felt weird,” Anthony says. “She asked me to walk to the training room; it was probably a 20-minute walk to get there. And I told her I didn’t think I could make it.”
Despite the pain, Anthony played against the Ducks, managed to endure 28 minutes and scored 19 points. What happened next was a shocker. The Heels lost at home to Ohio State, 74-49, then could muster only 47 points in a loss at Virginia. Anthony played in both, but it was obvious something was seriously wrong.
“At the shootaround at Virginia, I couldn’t jog,” Anthony says. “I was limping around, just struggling to move.”
With that, Anthony was drydocked. No one, least of all Anthony, is exactly sure when he suffered a small meniscus tear, but after undergoing surgery, he had every reason, given his future NBA career, to bid farewell to college basketball. There was even recent precedent — the season before, when Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland suffered the same injury after just five games, he opted for a different surgical procedure with a longer recovery timeline, ultimately deciding to call it quits. His college career lasted all of 139 minutes.
Anthony could have chosen that route, but the son of former UNLV star and NBA player Greg Anthony had come to North Carolina to play ball. He wasn’t about to let a knee injury derail him. The Tar Heels were 4-7 without Anthony in the lineup, and by the time he returned, they were destined to establish a low watermark in Williams’ long career.
Anthony has no regrets.
“A few things went into my decision to keep playing,” Anthony says. But first and foremost, I love the sport of basketball. A lot of people say that, but they don’t really mean it. I truly love the game. And I wasn’t going to sit out when I was healthy, and I could go.”
NBA Draft decision makers throughout the league can gather a great deal from that comment. As elementary as it sounds, loving basketball is the most import prerequisite for success. In order to be great, the amount of time required to hone the necessary skills is considerable. Not everyone is wired to work that hard. Anthony also showed toughness — mental and physical, by getting back on the floor. And finally, he showed loyalty.
“I had made a commitment to North Carolina,” Anthony says. “I’m big on whenever I make a commitment, sticking to that commitment, following it through. I felt like I owed that to all my coaches and teammates. I didn’t go to college to play just nine games. Especially seeing how the team was struggling. We still struggled [after Anthony returned], but I wanted to be a part of it.”
Despite the time he spent on the sidelines, Anthony still led UNC in scoring — with the second-highest average for a freshman (18.5 ppg) in program history — and in assists (4.0 apg). He earned a spot on the ACC All-Freshman team and was also chosen third-team All-ACC.
“Cole had the numbers and wound up having a pretty impressive year,” UNC assistant coach Brad Frederick says. “But what was really impressive to us about Cole was that he came back. A million kids in his situation would have shut it down and concentrated on the Draft. But Cole was 100 percent focused on coming back, despite us obviously having a down year.”
Cole had the numbers and wound up having a pretty impressive year. But what was really impressive to us about Cole was that he came back.
UNC assistant coach Brad Frederick
The North Carolina coaches didn’t get to see nearly as much of Anthony as they had hoped when they signed him, but Frederick can quickly point to some next-level skills that were on display.
“I don’t think he’d say he played the perfect year, but at the same time, all the obstacles he was up against have to be taken into account,” Frederick says. “His shooting numbers would have been a little bit better had he not been forced into so many bad shots. A lot of times it was ‘give the ball to Cole and see if he can bail us out.’ He’s a better shooter than his numbers indicate.
“He’s also a really good passer. He can get in the lane and finish. He’s so athletic. Driving in and finishing through contact and dunking on guys is not something that’s a problem for him. Defensively, he is probably the best defensive rebounding guard I’ve ever been around. He’s got an unbelievable ability to rebound for a point guard. Where he needs to get better is on the ball and off the ball in terms of being more locked in. He has the tools for being a good defender.”
Anthony has spent the pandemic working out, “getting up in the morning, and doing what has to be done,” he says. “It was tough [with no timetable for the Draft], but it was rewarding, and I feel like I’ve gotten better every day.”
Anthony looks back with a mix of fondness and regret on his time at North Carolina, but now he’s locked on the future. He thinks his skillset will blend in perfectly with the modern NBA.
“I see myself as the definition of a true one, which has been changing [over the years],” Anthony says. “The best point guards can all score the basketball. You look at Chris Paul, the truest point guard in the league. Give him 20 points a game. He can score that basketball. I see myself as being able to score, but at the same time get my teammates the ball, hit the open man, and make the right basketball play.”
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