Lessons from the Utah Jazz On Developing Anthony Edwards
The Utah Jazz have two superstar players in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. While they attained superstar status in different ways, the Wolves can learn a lesson from the Jazz in the development of each star that can be applied to their rookie stud, Anthony Edwards.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have a conundrum on their hands. They selected an incredibly young player who is bursting with talent in Anthony Edwards with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, and they need to help him fulfill his star potential. The team also needs to show improvement in their overall record this season, and make a push towards the playoffs to keep its’ start players and fans appeased. Oftentimes, those two paths do not happen simultaneously, as developing young players occurs at the expense of the overall record, and pushing for every win possible can mean shelving development for young players. Some NBA teams, like the Jazz, have learned how to walk the line to continue down both paths, allowing them to develop into a competitive team that is continuously developing young talent. With the emergence of superstars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the Wolves can take a major lesson from the way each player was brought up and apply that to Anthony Edwards.
A common player comparison for Anthony Edwards coming out of college was shooting guard Donovan Mitchell. Player comparisons are often fraught with inaccuracies, but this one seems to hold some weight. Edwards and Mitchell each have outstanding physical traits. Mitchell has a freakishly long wingspan at 6’10” even though he only stands at a height of 6’1″. He also has great vertical athleticism and quickness allowing him to dominate against larger players at the rim and create his own shot from anywhere. Anthony Edwards has similar physically outlying attributes, but he is built in a different way at 6’5″ and 230lbs. He also has similar quickness and explosion attributes to Mitchell, which can combine with his shear size to create a devastating player.
Donovan Mitchell came into the NBA after two seasons of college basketball at Louisville. While he clearly displayed NBA ready athleticism, there were concerns about his ability to efficiently score in the NBA after posting a 40% field goal percentage in his sophomore season. He was also more adept as a scorer than a distributor averaging 15 points per game but less than 3 assists per game. If drafted to the wrong team, he certainly could have ended up in a high volume scoring situation where he was tasked with carrying the entire offense immediately. His per game numbers may have been impressive, but his teams likely would have lost more than they won.
Luckily for everyone involved, the Utah Jazz selected Mitchell to add him to a core that already featured Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, and Rodney Hood. They also acquired Ricky Rubio that offseason. The Jazz have always tried to avoid bottoming out in the standings, so Mitchell went to a team that was trying to regroup after losing their best player, Gordon Hayward. Instead of trading away their best players to get younger around Mitchell, the Jazz front office built a competitive team around him filled with veteran players to help him adjust to the league. They also employed one of the NBA’s best coaches, Quin Snyder, to add structure to Mitchell’s game. With the perfect environment surrounding him, the Jazz were able to turn Donovan Mitchell loose during his rookie season. His scoring volume and efficiency both increased from college during his rookie season. That is a rare feat for a young player. The Jazz were able to heavily feature a rookie guard on their way to a playoff berth in Mitchell’s first season. They created an environment around Mitchell to emphasize his strengths while covering up his weaknesses and allowing him to play the way he is most comfortable.
The Timberwolves can use that 2017–2018 Jazz season as a guide for deploying and developing Anthony Edwards during his rookie season. The team has signaled that they are pushing to be as competitive as possible with their two current young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. Similarly to Mitchell, Edwards was the go-to scorer in his lone season in college, and has looked most comfortable with the ball in his hands. That style can clash with the Wolves best players, so the team needs to figure out how to use him without compromising the play of their stars. They have have already started to show how they will execute this strategy. The plan seems to be to bring Edwards off the bench with Ricky Rubio (who played next to Donovan Mitchell during his rookie year) to give Edwards the freedom to create his own shot or distribute to his teammates on the second unit. While this does not allow for nearly the same amount of volume of ball handling that Donovan Mitchell had during his rookie campaign, these will still be valuable developmental reps for a young player to help him eventually take the reigns as a lead ball handler with the starters.
In all likelihood, Anthony Edwards raw counting stats will not be as impressive as Mitchell’s rookie season as he ended with 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. Edwards simply will not have the opportunities in the Wolves offense to rack up those numbers, but if he can show the ability to create his own shot at the 3pt. line, from the midrange, and at the rim, that will be very encouraging for fans who want to see Edwards develop into a Donovan Mitchell type of player.
The Timberwolves front office has preached that it will take time and patience with a player as young as Edwards. While we compare him to Donovan Mitchell in his playing style, their timelines are nowhere near comparable. Donovan Mitchell played his 19 and 20 yr old seasons in college, and was 21 during his NBA rookie year. Anthony Edwards will play his entire NBA rookie year at 19 years old. His NBA skills, while impressive for his age, are very raw, and his ability to process different team concepts on offense and defense will take some time to develop. Because of the patience necessary in the development of Anthony Edwards, the other Jazz superstar, Rudy Gobert can also be used as an apt comparison.
Gobert came over to the Utah Jazz from France when he was 21 years old as a physical specimen standing at 7’1″ with a 7’9″ wingspan. He was incredibly raw in his skills, and seemingly too long and gangly to hang with NBA athletes. After two years in the league, the potential was clear, but so far he was more known for getting dunked on than being an impactful NBA player. Still the Jazz preached patience, and in his third season made Gobert the full-time starting center, and his breakout began averaging over 9 points, 11 rebounds, and over 2 blocks per game. His ascent has continued from that point winning back to back defensive player of the year awards in 2018 and 2019. The payoff from the Jazz’s patience with Gobert has been astronomical. They could have started Gobert immediately and ruined his confidence or risked injury against more physical players. Instead, he played minutes in the D-League (since renamed to the G-League) and built up his confidence and physicality level to allow him to burst on to the scene when he received an opportunity.
The Timberwolves front office knows that patience will be needed with a young and raw talent such as Anthony Edwards. The temptation is there to start him and ask him to guard the opposing team’s best player every night just to see what he can do. The Wolves will need to observe Gobert’s path to superstardom, and take that as a lesson. The larger payoff with Edwards will not be this season. If he is making All-NBA teams three years from now, fans will not care or remember how many minutes he played during his rookie year and if he was heavily featured in the offense. Getting Edwards to realize his full potential is the only factor that matters in his development, and it will be what makes him worth the 1st overall pick.
Unlike Gobert, Anthony Edwards will likely not see any G-League time this season, as he should be physically ready for NBA minutes. The Wolves should resist the temptation to start him before he is clearly ready, and let him expand his game in a supporting role. In this way, they can allow him to shine by using his strengths, and working on his weaknesses behind closed doors as Mitchell has done. The Utah Jazz have put on a clinic in drafting and developing young players while remaining a competitive team in the Western Conference, and the Timberwolves should strive to emulate their success with their own rookie phenom.
There is hope for the Wolves to replicate the success of the 2017–2018 Jazz from Mitchell’s rookie year. The teams themselves are built similarly. Ricky Rubio being on both teams to shepherd along a young scorer is an obvious parallel but the Jazz also featured a crafty playmaker in Joe Ingles (D’Angelo Russell), a heat check scoring wing in Rodney Hood (Malik Beasley), and a burgeoning young star center in Rudy Gobert (Karl-Anthony Towns). They also deployed a couple of young defensive wings in Royce O’Neale and Jae Crowder (Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver). While ending with the same record as that season’s Jazz team may not happen, the Wolves will have a successful season if they are able to stay relevant in the playoff conversation while helping their young players develop and improve throughout the season. Minnesota can set themselves up for success if they are able to copy the Jazz blueprint and walk the line between competitive and developmental basketball.