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Cole Anthony is college basketball’s new freshman king

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The possible No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick is unstoppable at North Carolina.

Cole Anthony celebrates for North Carolina.
Cole Anthony is must-see TV at UNC.

Cole Anthony hardly needed an introduction as he made his debut for North Carolina on Wednesday night. Anthony sat near the top of the rankings for his high school class since those rankings first formed. As the son of former NBA player Greg Anthony, he felt especially prepared for the gravity of the moment. In just one game, he confirmed his prodigious reputation and took his place as one of college basketball’s most dangerous scorers.

Anthony popped off for 34 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists on 12-of-24 shooting from the field and 6-of-11 shooting from three-point range against Notre Dame in a bizarrely-timed conference game to start the new college hoops season. With the necessary caveat that this was only night one, it already feels right to draw certain conclusions.

No freshman will have a bigger impact on his team’s overall performance. No player in the country will find himself in the spotlight of the national media more often. No NBA prospect (outside of perhaps Georgia’s Anthony Edwards) will generate more discussion about his future.

Anthony is not a physical marvel like Zion Williamson, but he’s the closest thing to a freshman sensation college basketball will have this season. Anthony is a point guard who will remind you of Damian Lillard or Kyrie Irving: a master shot-maker with deep range, an explosive vertical athlete, and a go-to scorer who was programmed all his life to get buckets.

Freshmen do not exhibit this level of ownership over a game often, particularly in their college debut. Freshmen aren’t supposed to be this self-assured in their own ability this soon, either.

The full extent of Anthony’s talent was on display in his debut. It was only the start.

Anthony has a deep bag of tricks

Anthony can beat you in so many different ways. Try to take away his driving lane and he’ll shoot over the top of you. Try to take away his jump shot and he’ll burn you to the hole. With advanced ball handing ability and a rare understanding of how to manipulate the rhythms of the game, Anthony is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball.

Anthony proved in his debut that he doesn’t need to rely on his superior athleticism to score. Like so many of the game’s greatest players in the NBA, he is just as dangerous when he’s moving backwards. Defenders are lulled into thinking they have the initial stop only to see him retreat and then bury a three-pointer in their face.

Anthony’s high school reputation was first built on the strength of his elite hops. At just 6’3, 190 pounds, he loves attacking the basket and finishing above the rim. He’s ready and willing to uncork a windmill whenever he gets the chance. You can bet he’ll have a few highlight reel slams at UNC, but his game is also so much more than that.

Anthony has grown into a knockdown pull-up shooter, one of the most difficult but desirable skills for an NBA lead guard. His explosiveness allows him to flow into his pull-ups with ease, and his touch allows him to drain them. His six made three-pointers in his college debut are no fluke: Anthony shot 52 percent on 6.5 three-point attempts per game on Nike’s EYBL circuit during his rising senior year. He’s only getting more comfortable as a perimeter threat.

Show him a zone defense and Anthony will torch it from the three-point line. In man-to-man defense, few players are going to be quick or disciplined enough to cover him, especially at the college level. Scoring outbursts like the one vs. Notre Dame aren’t going to be an exception — they’ll be the norm.

North Carolina needs his scoring

Anthony didn’t make his college decision until late April and also considered Oregon, Notre Dame, and Georgetown. It’s a wonder what North Carolina would have done without him after losing roughly 80 percent of their scoring from last year, including point guard Coby White, who went on to become the No. 7 overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Carolina had a huge scoring vacuum to fill this season, and Anthony is particularly suited for that responsibility.

Anthony took more than 40 percent of North Carolina’s shots on the night. He scored more than the rest of the starting lineup combined. He scored as many points as Syracuse did all night against Virginia. It isn’t totally unprecedented for a freshman to have 24 field goal attempts in his college debut — R.J. Barrett took 26 shots in his Duke debut against Kentucky just last year — but it is rare. It’s also more evidence that Anthony has a one-track mind to score.

It’s temping to say Anthony is a point guard in name only, but that isn’t exactly true. Rather, his game has been influenced by the point guards he’s watched dominate the NBA throughout his youth who scored first and acted as facilitators second.

This might be an issue for some teams where other players need shots, but that isn’t necessarily the case this season for UNC. With so much turnover, they need Anthony to put up points. He’s ready and willing.

Anthony has always been built for this

Anthony has advantages many of his peers just starting their college careers do not. He grew up wealthy as the son of a former NBA player, earning access to the type of specialized training that only comes with privilege. He is also a year older than the typical freshman, older than even Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett who were drafted as one-and-dones a year before him.

The reality is Anthony was already good enough to be a dynamite college scorer and a one-and-done lottery pick a year ago when he was still playing for Oak Hill Academy at the high school level. He’s going to tear apart college basketball this season and will have a very real chance of going No. 1 overall in June’s NBA Draft.

There are great returning players throughout college hoops this year, especially in the backcourt. Michigan State’s Cassius Winston is the consummate floor general, Marquette’s Markus Howard already has multiple 50-point games to his name, Seton Hall’s Myles Powell is a dead-eye shooter and scorer. All of them will have big seasons, but it feels like none of them will earn the acclaim Anthony is about to see.

At least until March, college basketball typically belongs to the freshmen. This season belongs to Cole Anthony.