Anthony Edwards is the NBA’s Most Fearless Rookie

Anthony Edwards is the NBA’s Most Fearless Rookie

The Timberwolves rookie is talented enough to light up the scoreboard on a hot night. But can he become a reliable leading man?

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Anthony Edwards understands why he’s received so much scrutiny in his first NBA season. But he doesn’t necessarily care about the attention thrown his way.

“I’ve always been a player that nobody gives excuses for,” Edwards says. “If I have a bad game, it’s because I suck, I’m a bust, whatever. … But it’s fun at this point. I like having so much expected of me.”

The spotlight on Edwards isn’t exactly puzzling when you consider his resume. Minnesota’s rookie emerged as the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the class of 2019 following his junior season at Holy Spirit Preparatory School, and he was largely regarded as the leading prospect for the 2020 NBA draft throughout his freshman season at Georgia. Disregard the past accomplishments, and even a cursory glance at a Timberwolves broadcast reveals Edwards’s impressive ceiling. He’s perhaps the league’s most athletic dunker, with a detonation over Toronto forward Yuta Watanabe standing as the slam of the season. Edwards is an impressive isolation scorer with a smooth handle, and despite some shaky shooting percentages, he still boasts a dangerous step-back jumper.

It’s clear why Edwards is the subject of such significant scrutiny. The real question is whether his critics will be proven correct.

Edwards has been vindicated thus far on the basis of counting stats. He leads all rookies in scoring and threes, and he sits in the top five in rebounds, assists, steals. Edwards is arguably the Rookie of the Year favorite at the moment after LaMelo Ball’s wrist injury, with Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton standing as another challenger. Yet Edwards’s statistical totals don’t paint the full picture. His talent is undeniable. His impact is a murkier question.

The sheer amount of offensive responsibility given to Edwards is jarring. He didn’t play high school basketball at a power program, and he subsequently skipped a year after reclassifying. Edwards logged just 32 games at Georgia, and upon arriving in Minnesota, he was quickly thrust into a lead playmaking role. It’s rare to see a player with such a limited resume thrown into the fire from his first NBA minutes.

Edwards’s 27.1% usage rate leads all rookies. Only three players in the entire league attempted more shots since the All-Star break. Sharpshooters Buddy Hield, Steph Curry and Duncan Robinson are the only players to attempt more threes. Edwards has run more isolation possessions than Chris Paul or Bradley Beal over the course of 2020-21, and he’s initiated more pick-and-roll possessions than Paul George and Jayson Tatum. The results haven’t always been pretty, with Minnesota entering Friday night tied with the Rockets in the Western Conference cellar. But for a team without any real playoff expectations, letting Edwards learn on the fly is a worthwhile decision.

“The NBA is a very tough place to learn without a lot of practice, without a lot of individual time,” Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch says. “There’s a lot of video and then really learning the game on the floor. It’s a tough proving ground, but when we exit this season, we’re going to have a lot of work that we’re going to be able to evaluate and improve from.”

“There’s going to be some inconsistencies, but it’s something that’s going to pay dividends.”

There have been plenty of growing pains for Edwards as a rookie, and some of his efficiency numbers are sure to make Finch shudder. Edwards’s 0.75 points per possession mark in the pick-and-roll ranks No. 54 of the 56 players with at least 250 attempts. His 30% clip on pull-up jumpers ranks No. 126 out of 130 players with at least 100 shots, and among the 52 players with at least 10 drives per game, Edwards sits at No. 51 in field goal percentage.

Edwards can make the simple read when swarmed in the pick-and-roll, but there’s little anticipation. He often drives headlong into a crowd before recognizing the coverage, and he settles for jumpers early in the shot-clock far too often. Edwards is talented enough to light up the scoreboard on a hot night. But he needs plenty of more reps to become a reliable leading man. That experience is coming in droves as Minnesota limps to the finish line.

Learning on the fly has been a common theme throughout Edwards’s career. Football was his first love, and he was touted as one of the best youth running backs in the country before his teenage years. Edwards then converted to basketball (noting his brothers “made it look way more fun,”) yet even upon changing sports, Edwards didn’t enter the traditional prep-to-pros pipeline. He eschewed opportunities to play at the likes of Montverde Academy and Oak Hill, instead opting to attend Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta. Yet even at a program far outside the national spotlight, Edwards’s talent quickly put him on the radar of scouts and coaches across the country.

It didn’t take long for Tysor Anderson to recognize Edwards’s unique gifts. The current Jacksonville State assistant and former Holy Spirit head coach was introduced to Edwards upon joining the program prior to the summer of 2018, when Edwards still sat outside the top-10 of the national recruiting rankings. His spot didn’t hold for long. Edwards dominated the competition at NBPA Top 100 Camp and the Pangos All-American Camp in quick succession, decimating opponents with an unmatched athleticism. After a reclassification in November 2018, Edwards entered his final season at Holy Spirit as the No. 1 recruit in the country.

“The first time I met Anthony was after I took the Holy Spirit job,” Anderson says. “It was at the NBPA top 100 camp and he just went on this meteoric rise. …He absolutely lit it up, you could see pretty quickly that his potential was off the charts.”

Holy Spirit sat atop the Class AAA ranks in Georgia throughout Edwards’s tenure, though the local matchups were just a slice of the program’s schedule. Holy Spirit played a national schedule in Edwards’s senior season, and its roster often failed to stack up against elite programs like IMG Academy and Montverde. The contests against national powerhouses provided an outline for the Edwards we see in Minnesota today.

Edwards’s willingness to attack multiple defenders in the lane caused more turnovers than Anderson preferred, and there was little hesitation before hoisting triples even in the closest of quarters. But Anderson raises a fair point in defense of his former star. Is there anyone else you’d rather have leading possessions considering the talent at hand? The answer was obvious at Holy Spirit, and a similar pattern continued at Georgia. Perhaps operating as a one-man band made Edwards an unpolished product, though the nightly degree of difficulty likely raised his ceiling.

“This isn’t a slight to our roster, but a lot of times the other team would have the best four or five players on the court outside of Anthony,” Anderson says. “And facing a mismatch a lot of nights, he knew a bullseye was on his back. He knew he was going to see two or three defenders flying at him.”

“Having to carry the weight every night while also getting his teammates involved isn’t easy. But he kept growing as a player and a teammate. The challenge helped him.”

Anderson notes Edwards’s character as his lasting impact at Holy Spirit. Teammates were empowered rather than chided amid the struggles against better opponents. As a flood of college coaches arrived at Holy Spirit practices and games, Edwards made sure to introduce the entire roster to the likes of Bill Self, Roy Williams and Penny Hardaway. There’s a clear confidence with Edwards, but his earnestness is evident as well. Edwards said he could have played in Major League Baseball, then noted he didn’t know who Alex Rodriguez is. He declares he thinks he’s the league’s best rookie, then adds how much he still has to grow. Edwards’s performance has been uneven as a professional. His demeanor has been anything but.

“He’s just so effortlessly himself,” Anderson said. “His authenticity, it’s easy to pick up on. Whether it’s after a game, whether it’s meeting him for the first time, he’s a joy to be around. He’s a guy that likes to laugh, likes to be there for his teammates. He’s always the same Ant.”

We’ve seen a more balanced picture of Edwards’s likely NBA future in recent weeks. Dynamic center and fellow No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns returned to the floor after an extended absence on Feb. 10, and point guard D’Angelo Russell entered the lineup on April 5 after missing 26 games. The Timberwolves have shown a spark with their presumed Big 3 on the floor, notching wins over the Heat and Bulls as they sit at No. 11 in offensive rating since the calendar turned to April. This is still an ugly defensive outfit by all accounts. Though there remains an impressive offensive ceiling if this trio (and a potential high lottery pick) stays healthy through 2021-22.

The Edwards-Towns pairing is the greatest reason for optimism in Minnesota at the moment. The duo sports a 116.6 offensive rating in 626 minutes together since the All-Star break, a mark that would sit No. 4 among all teams in the league. And the impressive scoring output isn’t simply the byproduct of a hot shooting month.

Much of Minnesota’s most productive offense stems from interplay between Towns and Edwards, with both players able to initiate offense from any spot on the floor. Edwards can burst downhill to the tin off of Towns handoffs, and if a wing defender creeps too far toward Towns, a lane is quickly created for Edwards to attack with a fury. Towns may be the league’s truest unicorn, with his smooth shooting stroke drawing double teams with a heavy frequency. Edwards would be well served by an improvement as a cutter. If he can create easy baskets via Towns’s gravity, perhaps the self-appointed Dwyane Wade comparison would begin to make more sense.

Invert the two-man game, and Towns serves as a valuable pick-and-pop partner. Defenses are loath to leave the sharpshooting Towns (40.6% from three since 2017) on the perimeter, allowing Edwards to attack a solo switching defender with ease. His 0.97 points per possession mark on isolations is impressive for a rookie and better than both Kawhi Leonard and Bradley Beal in 2020-21. Given their complementary skill sets, It’s not hard to envision Towns and Edwards as a lethal combo throughout the 2020s.

“With [Towns’s] shooting, it’s easy to get going downhill,” Edwards says. “When I’m a threat getting to the rim, he’s getting plenty of shots. …You have to respect both of us, honestly. It’s a good situation to be in.”

Edwards is still a raw prospect with limited experience, and his inconsistencies on both ends–including a dismal 116.4 defensive rating–suggest we’re still a couple of years away from any potential All-Star consideration. But that doesn’t mean we can’t see marked growth from Edwards in 2021-22. A full season with Towns and Russell should help matters. The right lottery pick could make a marked difference. Edwards is a flash-in-the-pan player at the moment. Catch him on a good night, and you see the outline of an All-Star. Tune in nights later, and you could see what amounts to an NBA trainwreck. Smoothing out Edwards’s floor is the next task for Finch and Co. in the coming months.

Edwards chuckles at the idea of a checklist before next season. He still has just three weeks left as a rookie, a new coach to adjust to, and a burgeoning chemistry with Towns and Russell to build upon. Setting expectations for the next season is difficult, and moreover, it’s effectively meaningless. Edwards isn’t interested in timelines or a slow build. He’s an eager learner and a natural athlete, with his physical gifts previously leading teams past their assumed potential. The Western Conference isn’t thinning out anytime soon. Minnesota’s roster isn’t a finished product. Edwards doesn’t care. He’s confident the scrutiny will turn to respect sooner than later.

“Everywhere I’ve been I’ve had to prove myself,” Edwards says. “This is no different.”

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