It was Leaky Black’s first live look at Cole Anthony, a regular day of pickup basketball this summer. But there wasn’t anything typical about this display.
At one end, Anthony blocked a shot with both hands, jumping so high he could’ve hit his forehead on the backboard. At the other end, he brought the ball down court and sank a 3-pointer. Black was in awe of his new teammate.
“I thought to myself, ‘this kid’s a pro,’ ” the sophomore recalled.
He’s not the only one who thinks so highly of the North Carolina freshman from the Upper West Side and the son of former Knicks point guard Greg Anthony. The gifted 6-foot-3 guard is considered a likely top-three pick by most mock drafts. He was selected for the All-ACC preseason first team by the league’s coaches and named its preseason Freshman of the Year. He was also one of 20 players to be named to the preseason watch list for the 2020 Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award.
“There’s not one thing that stands out because everything stands out,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams told The Post. “He’s maybe the best rebounding point guard that I’ve ever seen.”
“Cole Anthony is going to be a great player. He’s legit,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “He’s got a chance to be not only the ACC Player of the Year, but he could wind up being a first-team All-American. He can do everything.”
An NBA scout, familiar with Anthony, added: “He’s as prepared as RJ [Barrett] was at this point last year to succeed.”
Anthony’s reaction to all this hype and high praise: a shrug.
“At the end of the day, from what the projections are saying, I feel I can do more than that,” he said. “I don’t want to just be first team All-ACC. I want to be Player of the Year.”
Anthony walks the talk. The former Archbishop Molloy High School star is frequently in the gym later than teammates getting extra shots up. Williams said when the coaching staff has pushed the players with tough practices, Anthony has risen to the challenge. He won the Carolina mile and 12-minute run, and it wasn’t even close.
“It looked almost effortless,” Black said.
The top-rated point guard in this freshman class, he has made a point of endearing himself to his new teammates, whether it’s by being unselfish or helping someone up when he falls. He’s listened more than spoken, deferring to veterans.
“I’m not just going to get their respect from Day 1,” he said. “I have to earn it.”
Added Williams: “The best thing he’s done is shown everyone how serious he is, how driven he is.”
Anthony didn’t need basketball as many kids do to help pay for their education. Instead he wanted it. He loved it. He was consumed by it. For a few years now, he has been working out with NBA trainer Chris Brickley, who has compared Anthony’s work ethic to millionaires he works out. Like them, Anthony is self-motivated.
It’s one reason those close to Anthony believe all this hype will not go to his head. He’s his own worst critic, his mother Crystal McCrary-McGuire said, often detecting the smallest things to find fault in. When they talk about the accolades, Anthony will tell her they mean nothing, which is music to her ears.
“That and a MetroCard will get you on the subway,” she joked.
His dad has stressed the importance of focusing on the present, maximizing his current opportunity. After a workout this summer with Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, the All-Star congratulated him on all his accomplishments, but also offered him a warning.
“The second you step on campus at North Carolina, that means nothing,” Mitchell told him.
Still, it’s hard not to look ahead, to imagine what happens if this season goes as planned and Anthony goes as high in the draft as forecast. His hometown team is in need of a point guard and seems headed to the top of the lottery again. On social media Knicks fans have already begun to discuss the possibility of pairing him with Barrett, the third-overall pick of last year’s draft from Duke.
“That is pretty cool — that would be pretty cool,” Anthony said, of the possibility of getting drafted by his father’s former team. “But as of right now, all my dedication, all my work, is focused on the North Carolina Tar Heels. I’m going to live in this moment and I’m going to enjoy it.”
There is a lot riding on Anthony’s shoulders. North Carolina lost its top five scorers. It did add five-star freshman Armando Bacot and quality grad transfers Justin Pierce (William & Mary) and Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern), but there are a lot of new pieces to juggle, and it’s Anthony’s job to keep them all happy and make them fit. The Tar Heels will begin the year ranked ninth and most experts believe their success is tied to Anthony. He doesn’t see it as a burden.
“I don’t feel any pressure. This is the path that I chose,” he said. “My dad always told me, ‘if you’re going to commit to something, why not fully commit?’ Basketball is my favorite thing to do in the world besides spending quality time with my family. I’m fully invested in this. This is what I wanted.”
Williams admitted he would usually be concerned about putting so much on a freshman and having a first-year player receive so many accolades before his first game, but he feels Anthony is different, describing him as “worldly.” He’s dealt with hype before, having the famous last name and the top ranking. So far, it has pushed him to the highest level of college basketball.
“Expectations are really high, but expectations have been high since he was a freshman in high school,” Williams said. “He’s been through all of this stuff before.”
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