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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Cole Anthony

The top point guard in the country will lead UNC’s offense. This will be fun.

High School Basketball: McDonald’s All American Games Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Labor Day has come and gone and you hopefully had a day off from work while still celebrating UNC’s memorable football victory from the weekend. For us, the day after the long weekend means another preview of a men’s basketball player. Freshman phenom Cole Anthony is today’s focus. Before we get to him, as always, here are the previous installments.

June 23rd: Brandon Robinson preview
June 30th: Brandon Huffman preview
July 8th: Sterling Manley preview
July 15th: Andrew Platek preview
July 21st: Garrison “Mr. Pickle” Brooks preview
July 29th: Rechon “Leaky” Black Preview
August 12th: Anthony Harris Preview
August 19th: Jeremiah Francis Preview
August 26th: Armando Bacot

Anthony arrives to UNC as the highest ranked point guard recruit since Ty Lawson came to Chapel Hill in 2006. Like Lawson, the consensus 5-star recruit is also considered the country’s top point guard. Rivals and the 247 Sports Composite rankings slot as the #4 best overall prospect, while ESPN lists as him as the #2 recruit in the nation. Those ratings more than justify his selection to a slew of spring all-star games. His efforts earned him the MVP at the McDonald’s All-America game and co-MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic. Needless to say, fans are excited about Anthony sliding into the vacant driver’s seat of UNC’s offense.

One of the last top recruits to commit, Cole announced his decision on ESPN’s “Get-Up”. After almost a decade of frustration of consistently missing on surefire NBA-talent, his decision brought a huge sigh of relief to the fanbase. Tony Bradley was vital to the 2017 team. Coby White and Nassir Little were top talents but their paths to and through Chapel Hill were different than what fans have seen at other schools. Anthony’s choice, however, seemed to validate that UNC finally has regained some credibility among elite recruits.

After almost averaging a triple double at Oak Hill Academy last year, Anthony has only continued to impress fans this offseason. No stranger to social media, he’s shown off an array of athletic dunks and workouts. The most recent can be seen in the tweet below.

And enjoy these quick videos.

What does any of this mean for UNC?

For the third straight season, North Carolina will have a new point guard. For the second straight season that point guard will be a freshman. There is no doubt that Anthony will start immediately and take over the reins. Part of that is because there is no viable incumbent and part of that is that Anthony is simply that good. For a team with so many questions, Anthony is one of the few known quantities and he’ll be given the freedom to maneuver on the court.

The biggest unknown with Anthony is how does he adjust to the college game with the understanding he’s off to the NBA after one season? Will he be a high-volume shooter just looking to get buckets? An above average facilitator utilizing the high-ball screens (a strength of his) and UNC’s pace of play? Does UNC have enough playmakers on this roster to complement his talents or will this be a case of Cole being too good for this team, thus leading to frustration or over-reliance? Will he truly grasp and fit into UNC’s offensive system? Can he minimize turnovers and improve on White’s 1.5 A:TO ratio?

He isn’t the natural scorer that Coby was, but he may be a more complete player. Roy Williams has even said that Anthony is the most complete point guard he has ever recruited. As a senior, he averaged 18 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 9.8 assists leading Oak Hill to the GEICO National semi-finals and a 31-5 record. I usually urge caution when the hype machine works overtime for a freshman. Nassir Little’s up-and-down year is a prime example. Anthony, though, may be the exception to that rule.

Ultimately, Cole is too well-rounded to be type-cast. Coby was a smooth, streaky scorer who relied on speed to attack the rim. Joel Berry was a tenacious bulldog and the heart and soul of his teams. Marcus Paige, a silky surgeon with a feathery scalpel. Anthony is all three rolled into one, only with more athleticism, explosiveness, and better ball-handling. Not just reliant on either shooting, finishing at the rim, or setting his teammates up for easy looks, Anthony can adjust his production according to the situation. A ball-dominant, three-level scorer, it’s fair to ask if Anthony can get his points while also making his teammates better. I was on that bandwagon a few months ago but now think some of that concern is overblown or misplaced.

It should be noted that his success didn’t come against low single-A high schools or local private schools with minuscule enrollments. Nor was he a late athletic bloomer still adjusting to his body. Anthony produced those numbers against some of the toughest teams in the country on a nightly basis. There will be a learning curve, but it shouldn’t be as steep as previous Tar Heel recruits.

Regardless of his skillset, expectations will be sky-high, in part because there isn’t a secondary “go-to” scorer (yet) to shoulder some of the offensive burden. Even acknowledging that unknown, don’t expect Cole to average 20 points a game or break any assist records. An average of about 30 mpg, 15 ppg, 4 apg, and 4 rpg are reasonable projections and will likely increase in ACC play. For UNC to be successful, those numbers (or something similar) should be the hope of every Heel fan. Too much reliance on a point guard often spells doom for teams in March.

North Carolina has never made it to a Final Four when starting a freshman point guard. On three separate occasions a point guard led the team in scoring, leading to early March defeats. Marcus Paige led the team in 2014 and 2015. A #6 seed and second round exit to Iowa State was followed by a #4 seed and Sweet 16 loss to Wisconsin. We need no reminders on Joel Berry’s last game against Texas A&M in Charlotte. Despite the evolution of the game and emergence of score-first point guards, Carolina’s history indicates a starting freshman point guard who also leads the team in scoring will only lead to a crash and burn scenario in March.

For all those reasons (and some that are worth debating later), I’d prefer a less scoring-centric 13-6-4 stat line for Anthony, but don’t fully expect that. Incredible highs will be met with freshman mistakes. A head scratching loss will be replaced with a head shaking win. He’ll take over games when necessary and sometimes when it’s not. Ultimately, though, he’s UNC’s best bet to stay atop the college basketball world.

This season is going to be a roller coaster. Scary. Full of anticipation. Heart pounding. Exhilarating. Up. Down. Sadness when it’s over. So just enjoy the ride.