What Do the Timberwolves Have in Anthony Edwards
Anthony Edwards is a mystery. The Timberwolves chose him to be the 1st overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft and hang their hopes for a decade of competitive basketball squarely on his broad shoulders. Unlike so many other past top picks in the NBA draft, fans do not seem to have an idea of what to expect from Edwards this season, or what his game will look like when he gets to his second contract. Through all the mystery, we do know a few things. Edwards is a chiseled 230lbs and stands 6’6″ tall. He was gifted with the athleticism, quickness, and coordination to excel at nearly any sport he chooses. His physical traits are intoxicating to any optimistic Wolves fan who salivates over his future. We also know that he spent one season at the University of Georgia who ended with a 16–16 record overall including 5–13 in the SEC. That is certainly an unsuccessful season for a team with the future #1 overall pick in the NBA draft. While Edwards was certainly not Georgia’s major problem, he did not help their cause by shooting 29% from the 3pt. and 40% from the field overall. The main culprit for his disappointing shooting percentages was his poor shot selection. For someone with his abilities and physical tools, dribbling into long midrange shots and taking contested three-pointers was not ideal. The counter-argument here is that Edwards played the whole season at age 18, and spent a lot of time on the court with other freshmen players who frankly would not have been good enough without Edwards to compete in the SEC. Georgia needed him to be the best player on the court in every game. The tantalizing thing about Edwards as a prospect is that there seems to be so much more to his game that was unable to shine through at Georgia. With the current talent on the Timberwolves roster in mind, we will analyze how Edwards could be used and developed on offense and defense, both on-ball and off-ball.
Anthony Edwards had just turned 18 years old at the start of the 19–20 college basketball season when he was handed the keys to Georgia’s offense. He logged a usage rate of over 30%, meaning he had a heavy hand in the offensive decision making throughout the season. This is an enormous responsibility for any incoming Freshman in a Power 5 conference, let alone a kid who would have been a senior in high school if he had not reclassified. Rest assured, Edwards will not be asked to carry the load offensively for the 20–21 Timberwolves season. He will almost always be playing with offensive hubs such as Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, along with playmaking genius Ricky Rubio. But what will he look like when he does get the opportunity to create with the ball in his hands? At Georgia he was asked to create shots for himself and teammates through isolation plays in a mostly stagnant and poorly spaced offense. He is able to handle the ball well enough and is clearly quick enough to create his own shot, but the Wolves should avoid putting Edwards in isolation situations unless he has a mismatch. That is where he can be most effective with the ball in his hands. In college he showed an ability to blow past bigs guarding him on the perimeter or finish through smaller players at the rim. He will need to avoid the temptation to take pull-up midrange jump shots when he creates space, and continue to attack the rim where he can try to finish, draw a foul, or pass out to a teammate when the help defense arrives. If the coaching staff can instill that attacking mindset in Anthony as the season begins, he should immediately find himself in advantageous positions against mismatches.
To find mismatches for Edwards, the Timberwolves will continue their pick and roll/pop-heavy offense to free up their guards. At this point, Edwards will come into the league needing to prove that he can pull up for shots from the three point line successfully before opposing guards will start going over screens to contest. Because of this, we may see him take more 3pt. shots off the dribble than expected early in the season as defenders go under screens and give him space to shoot. If he can hit these shots at a respectable clip, a clear lane should open up to the basket when a pick is set for him. Imagine a pick and pop play between Edwards and Towns with shooters spacing the floor. If the defender has to come over the screen to contest a potential Edwards 3pt. attempt, that leaves a driving Edwards moving downhill at a back-pedaling big man. With his size and athleticism, Edwards should be able to finish around or through that defender. If he is corralled by the big man, he should have one of the best 3pt. shooters in the league, Towns, open behind him. It could be a devastating play to execute in half court sets.
Although a near 1:1 assist to turnover ratio in his lone college season makes it look like Edwards is only a scorer, he actually showed flashes of advanced passing reads in the half court with on-target passes to corner shooters, as well as some fun hit-ahead passing in transition. His assist total also would have been much higher, but Georgia had one of the worst 3pt. shooting percentages in the league. They simply missed a lot of open shots that Edwards created for them. We likely will not see Edwards with a high usage rate during his rookie season, but the key to identifying his on-ball potential for the future will be to watch for those flashes of playmaking for others while shooting a high enough percentage from three to keep defenders honest. Those factors will indicate whether his usage on-ball will climb throughout his first few seasons as he becomes an offensive fulcrum, or if the team will need to keep a playmaking guard paired next to him.
In December 2019, Anthony Edwards sat down with Mike Schmitz of ESPN for one of his film scouting sessions. This was the first introduction for many fans to see what Anthony Edwards can do on a basketball court. Among all of the highlights covered during the session the one that sticks out for me is an exchange about two clips of Edwards cutting to the rim hard while off the ball. He completely detonates the rim with a dunk in one clip, and in the second he is fouled attempting to finish. Nearly as impressive as the on-court plays is his explanation to Mike Schmitz. He knew exactly what he was supposed to do in each situation and was able to detail what he was seeing on the court and why he made those plays. Some players are great at cutting to the rim because of their quickness and athleticism whereas others have a high basketball IQ and know where to find the lanes for the passer to get them the ball. A true off-ball star mixes both of those traits to become a devastating player with gravity all over the court. Edwards could be that player. Expectations should be tempered initially, as he has been on the team for less than a month as of the start of training camp. It will take time for him to build chemistry with the team’s playmakers before they will find him consistently for easy baskets, but as long as he is an active off-ball player he should have value as a cutter based solely off his size, quickness, and finishing ability.
Another aspect to becoming a valuable offensive player without the ball in his hands will be spot-up shooting. He needs to prove that he has to be guarded when he is standing at the three point line to make sure the rest of the offense has space to breathe. While the 29% 3pt. shooting at Georgia looks discouraging, these were mostly pull-up and contested attempts. The statistics that may tell a more accurate story of his future shooting potential are his free throw percentage as well as 3pt. attempts per game. These are two of the most telling factors in determining whether a player’s jump shot will develop as it shows their shooting mechanic repeatability as well as their confidence in letting it fly. Looking at those two statistics paints a much rosier picture for Edwards floor spacing prospects. He shot a rock solid 77% from the free throw line and averaged 7.7 3pt. attempts per game. It may not come to fruition immediately, but I believe Edwards ability to space the floor will be adequate by the end of the season, and he has the potential to be a very good 3pt. shooter later in his career.
Especially early in his rookie season, the coaching staff will likely try to get Edwards acclimated to playing off the ball on offense. To maximize his potential here, they should always have him paired with either Rubio or Russell and include Towns in that lineup as much as possible. The more floor spacing around Edwards, the better. Last season the offensive philosophy early in the season had Towns receiving the ball at the top of the key with the option to shoot or hand off while setting a screen. They relied on him to be a decision maker, but the personnel did not space the floor enough for him to find cutters for easy attempts at the rim as often as his center counterpart in Denver, Nikola Jokic. Obviously Towns is not the passer that Jokic is, but he is a better shooter and his prodigious offensive skillset should keep enough eyes on him to open lanes to the rim for others. If Edwards can start finding those lanes early in the season, defenses better watch their heads because Towns will find him for rim-rattling dunks.
Who are the players that are generally considered the best perimeter defenders in the NBA? Marcus Smart surely comes to mind, as do Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, and Kawhi Leonard. They are all premier defenders, and use incredible defensive IQ, length, and instincts to stymie ball handlers every night. But what else do these guys have in common that helps them stand out as the best defenders at their positions? They are all thick, strong, and very quick laterally which sets them apart from other on-ball defenders in the league. Of course, players such as Marcus Smart are outliers because of the intense activity and unwillingness to let an opponent score, but these players can be informative in terms of what defensive assignments we could see Anthony Edwards take on throughout his Timberwolves career. Beginning with the physical traits, Edwards is as physically gifted as any of the top defenders in the NBA. If the reports are true that he has grown since he was last measured (now 6’6″ with a 6’9″ wingspan and weighing 230lbs), he will truly be an outlier in the NBA when his physical dimensions are mixed with supreme vertical and lateral explosion. There does not seem to be a position on the court in which Edwards would be completely overmatched physically when defending. At 230lbs, he is certainly built solidly enough to hold ground against larger players, and his quickness and foot speed likely provide the ability to slide with smaller guards. Of course, he will not be a defender that the coaching staff asks to switch 1–5, as that privilege is reserved for only the best defenders in the league, but the size and versatility to defend guards and wings early in his career could help Edwards establish a reputation as a defender the coaching staff can count on in clutch situations.
While the physical traits to become a great on-ball defender are surely present, he can become a special defender with an improved defensive motor and IQ. Edwards is still only 19 years old, and often-times defensive excellence takes maturity and film study. He has likely never been asked to be a defensive specialist on a team before this point, so it would be unreasonable to expect consistent defensive intensity early in his rookie season. Fans need to look for the steady improvement in these areas before we will truly know if he will reach his potential on this side of the ball. We need to see him recognize crucial possessions and lock in when he finds himself guarding Paul George or Damian Lillard. He will need to prove that he has studied his matchup enough to not leap for a James Harden pump fake and gift him three free throws. Most importantly, fans want to see Edwards make it his mission to lock down the opposing team’s best perimeter player, and take it personally when he is scored on. There will be flashes of progress during Anthony’s rookie season, and they will make Wolves fans and coaches dream of a future where we list his name among the top perimeter defenders in the league. It will be up to Edwards to show he belongs there.
One of the most glaring questions and the reason that Wolves fans shudder at every comparison of Anthony Edwards to Andrew Wiggins… Will he commit to staying engaged when defending off the ball, or will he float around on defense and decide when he wants to defend? First off, Edwards is not Wiggins, and vice versa. They are completely different people and players. However there are similarities in the off-ball defensive film. Sometimes Edwards misses a help rotation, and other times a smaller guard scores on him at the rim. There are plenty of examples of lackluster off-ball defense during his season at Georgia, but he absolutely stands out when he engages and turns it on.
Edwards was a star running back at a young age, but I believe he also would have been an incredible cornerback if he continued to play football. When he was truly paying attention on defense in college, it was dangerous to throw a telegraphed pass to his man because his length and closing speed made him look like Deion Sanders picking off a pass out of nowhere to fly down the court for a dunk. If his man was dodging around screens to try to get open for a 3pt. shot, Edwards would be right behind him and ready in a stance as soon as the ball was caught. Even when players are engaged off the ball on defense, it still takes a certain level of defensive IQ to correctly fill help rotations on the perimeter and at the rim. In lineups pairing Edwards with Rubio, Okogie, or Culver they could wreak havoc on the perimeter by flying around and providing help defense while having the length and athleticism to recover back to their man and contest three point shots. Then they can stretch the defense by releasing up the floor in transition at warp speed on missed shots and put enormous pressure on the rim. This area of the game will take time to develop in Edwards, but in the meantime he can likely use his size and quickness to make up for being a step slow in processing offensive actions. If he figures it out more quickly than expected, Wolves fans could be in for some highlight reel steals and dunks from Ant Man.
Anthony Edwards was certainly a gamble for the Timberwolves to select with the 1st overall pick in the 2020 draft, but it was a bet that Gersson Rosas and his front office were willing to take. Not only are they betting on the player who scored 33 points in the second half of a game against Michigan State in one of his first college basketball games, but they are also betting on the type of person who could lose his mother and grandmother within months of one another yet have the emotional maturity and fortitude to become the 1st overall pick in the NBA draft. The front office sees Edwards as an enormous ball of clay that they get to mold into whatever they need him to be. The team is entrusting Ryan Saunders, David Vanterpool, Pablo Prigioni, and the rest of the Wolves coaching and development staff to be the artists in shaping Edwards’ future. There are plenty of hurdles for the 19 year old to jump on his way to stardom. On offense he will need to improve his ball-handling and decision making to become an effective on-ball player, and start shooting a respectable percentage from three to attract defenders off the ball. On defense he will need to show that he will commit to studying his matchups and staying locked in to keep offenses from attacking him. All of these areas for improvement will take time and maturity before Edwards will fully realize his potential, but incremental growth in some or all of these facets of the game will only make future All-NBA and All-Defense teams that much more realistic. The front office made a big bet on Anthony Edwards, and they might just hit the jackpot.