By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Cole Anthony’s numbers already are setting him apart from great North Carolina point guards of the past.
Some of the numbers are related to the lack of other steady offensive Tar Heel options. But much of it is all about the freshman’s versatile ability as a defender, a passer, a shooter, rebounder and as a creator on offense.
“I do think he has the ability to be the best point guard that I’ve ever coached because there’s no big deficiency in his game,” Coach Roy Williams said. “It’s way too early to say something like that. … We’ll wait to see what happens. I’m not ready to say that yet. I hope I can get to say that.”
Of all of Anthony’s skills, the one that separates him from past UNC point guards — including Phil Ford, Kenny Smith, Ty Lawson, Ed Cota, Raymond Felton, Kendall Marshall, Derrick Phelps, Marcus Paige, Joel Berry and Coby White — is his aggressiveness on the boards.
“I love to rebound,” Anthony said. “The more I rebound defensively, the more I can ignite the break. So I’m going to do that as much as possible.”
Some players need Williams yelling at them when they don’t perform up to a certain standard. That no doubt also happens with Anthony; but he has high standards and was frustrated that he only had one rebound against Gardner-Webb after collecting 11 and 10 in the first two games.
“I don’t think it was more them; I think it was just me,” Anthony said after scoring 28 points in the 3-0 Tar Heels’ choppy, ugly-at-times 77-61 victory over GW Friday. “I just didn’t have energy, so I didn’t attack the defensive glass like I usually do.”
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Anthony leads the team in scoring (27.3 points per game), steals (7) and 3-point shooting (13 of 29 for 44.8%).
Anthony clearly isn’t the magical passer that Marshall was, and has as many turnovers as assists (10) this season. But he has tools that are uncommon for a college point guard, much less a freshman.
It’s something that his teammates have marveled over since summer workouts started.
“I wish you guys could see it,” Andrew Platek said of the daily show Anthony puts on in practice. “Just little stuff like a dunk or he’ll just make an unbelievable play, like an over-the-shoulder pass. It’s just like little things that I see every day that nobody gets to see. We’re going to need him every game throughout the rest of the year. So it’s gonna to be fun.”
The need is greater than it was last season from White.
Without the shooters on last season’s team such as Cam Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, his terrific passes aren’t always going to produce as many points.
That is one of the reasons why Anthony’s unprecedented field-goal attempt numbers and usage rates aren’t as alarming. Through three games, he has 65 field goal attempts (it took White seven games to reach that number), 29 3-point attempts (it took White six games to take 34) and 82 points (White got that number in his sixth game, a 33-point day against Texas.)
Except for the UNCW win in which there were three double-figure scorers, the scoring distribution has been very unCarolina-like.
Anthony is the first freshman to score at least 20 points in his first three UNC games. But he’s also averaging a team-leading 34.7 minutes per game (White averaged 28.5) and taking a heavy scoring burden while the team waits for others to be consistent. In the wins over Gardner-Webb and Notre Dame, freshman center Armando Bacot was the only other Tar Heel to score in double figures (12 against Gardner Webb).
Junior big man Garrison Brooks (11.3) and graduate transfer wing Justin Pierce (10.3) are Anthony’s only teammates averaging double-figure points. Graduate transfer Christian Keeling, playing the 3 spot, has struggled with his confidence after making some poor decisions on drives against Notre Dame but showed positive signs with nine points against Gardner-Webb.
“We’ve had a bunch of guys show flashes,” Anthony said. “We’ve had JP show flashes, Armando, Garrison. CK can obviously score, as can Leaky [Black], Platek. Honestly, everyone who plays can have that wild card potential effect. You’re not going to know who’s gonna come get you 15, 20 points a game. Honestly, I think I like it like that.”
A proven wild card is on the way. Senior Brandon Robinson, if he doesn’t return for Wednesday night’s game with Elon, should be back for UNC’s games in the Bahamas. He sprained his right ankle in the exhibition victory over Winston-Salem State after collecting eight points and a block in five minutes.
Anthony has clearly shown the ability to take over a game against Notre Dame, which he’s also done in stretches for other games.
“I think it’s surreal,” Anthony said of being in the zone. “I think it’s a good word for it. It’s like you’re not thinking about anything else. It feels like that stadium was empty to me. I was in there just playing basketball.”
Wherever UNC goes this season, it’s clear that Anthony will be the one driving them there with his aggressiveness on offense and defense.
“We’d love to get into bonuses early as possible and he’s in each half, so I’m always looking to attack but it’s just a matter of attacking a little more little slow, smarter,” said Anthony, bemoaning some of his struggles against Gardner-Webb. “So I had some wild drives. We’ll go watch some film to clean that up.”
He’s willing to do whatever helps Carolina win.
“It’s just a matter of doing whatever my team needs,” he said. “I mean, if we go stagnant offensively, I have to try to spark it in some way. But I mean, if the offense is flowing, I’m looking to distribute the ball and get a shot.”
Anthony has shown he’s a special player, and it will be fun to watch what transpires.