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The brakes are off at UNC with Cole Anthony, who is already answering questions

Cole Anthony had a lot to say on Wednesday, about his friend J. Cole getting up shots behind him at the Smith Center, about how he understood his role in North Carolina’s lineage of point guards, about his famous father. There’s a lot of experience behind those 19 years, even for a freshman.

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North Carolina’s Cole Anthony meets recording artist J. Cole prior to the Tar Heels’ media day on Wednesday, October 2, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. According to a North Carolina spokesman, J. Cole was attending the Charlotte Hornets training camp held earlier in the day at the Smith Center on Wednesday. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

What was most impressive about it was that he was saying it at all.

For decades, going back to when freshmen first became eligible in 1972, North Carolina freshmen were prohibited from talking to the media until they had played their first game. Mitch Kupchak didn’t talk until after he played and neither did anyone else after him. That rule survived from Dean Smith to Bill Guthridge to Matt Doherty to Roy Williams to Wednesday.

Every year, North Carolina’s media-relations staff asks Williams about letting the freshmen talk at media day. On Tuesday, Williams said yes.

“Then I slept on it all night and wished I hadn’t,” Williams joked.

But in an era when the point-guard position — with such sterling-silver lineage at North Carolina — will be manned by a one-and-done freshman for the second season in a row, from Coby White to Anthony, the idea that so important a player couldn’t speak for himself had become a quaint anachronism.

That’s just the way things are going. Williams talked Wednesday about the improvement Raymond Felton made between his sophomore and junior seasons; the point guards he gets now are negotiating their second NBA contracts at that point.

White didn’t come in a one-and-done player, but he became one; Anthony was recruited as one, the top point-guard prospect in his class, groomed for this from a young age by his father, Greg, the basketball and TV star. He’s no stranger to celebrity, thanks to that and his friendship with Cole, the Fayetteville-born rapper who shares a trainer with Anthony.

Anthony has a tattoo of the No. 50 jersey his father wore at UNLV on his left forearm as one of Tark’s Runnin’ Rebels, but the son chose to become part of a different basketball tradition. It’s one of which he is acutely aware, especially with Kendall Marshall still floating around the program, now the director of recruiting, even though he isn’t allowed to actually recruit.

He can reel off the names, at least the ones from his lifetime, without hesitation: Felton and Ty Lawson and Marshall and so on.

“It’s awesome being able to come into this program that has such a great lineage of point guards,” Anthony said, going through his predecessors. “There’s a lot of expectations to live up to. I’m ready.”

There’s so much that goes into the point-guard position at North Carolina, from the history of excellence to the extreme importance Williams places upon the position on both offense and defense. There was a time when Williams would have cringed giving that responsibility to a freshman. Now he really has no choice.

With Anthony’s talent and athleticism and maturity, it isn’t really a difficult choice, although the freshman isn’t taking anything for granted.

“It’s a process,” Anthony said. “I’m not coming in here expecting him to give me the keys from Day 1. I’m going to try to work — I’m not going to try, I’m going to work as hard as I can in practice every single day and, hopefully, he gives me that right.”

Williams didn’t hesitate to give White the keys, and he won’t hesitate to give Anthony the keys, even if the difference in strengths and styles between the two freshmen are almost jarring. White was bigger, with a no-hesitation, shoot-first mentality. Anthony may be quicker and will have to be more of a facilitator, by necessity given some of the players around him.

“I would have loved to have both of them together,” Williams said. “I would have sat over and leaned back in my lawn chair if I had both of them together.”

That’s no longer a luxury he has. The basketball wheel turns too quickly now, especially for his best players. Anthony will be North Carolina’s fourth point guard in five seasons, and next year Caleb Love is expected to be the fifth in six. Whatever tinge of wistfulness there may be in abandoning one of Smith’s precepts, there’s no question its time had come, just as Anthony’s has in Chapel Hill.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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