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Timberwolves Film Room: Anthony Edwards And Attacking The Rim

Breaking down a vital part of the rookie’s opening three NBA outings.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Through three regular season games, the Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t failed to live up to their usual roller coaster ride of expectations. So far, they’ve provided a banquet of emotions; blending the tender meats of an opening night comeback win over the Detroit Pistons with the sweet dessert of a rollicking underdog triumph over the Utah Jazz. However, in true Wolves fashion, they had to mix in some Brussels sprouts, those coming in the form of the 36-point shellacking at the hands of the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Perhaps the most peculiar delicacy at the entire feast has been tracking the first footsteps of Anthony Edwards. Even after securing his place at the top of the tree on draft night, Ant-Man was scarcely hyped like the usual first overall pick. Whether it was his hot-and-cold season in a losing program at the University of Georgia, his overblown and, usually, out of context pre-draft comments, or the fact he was drafted by the ever-underwhelming Timberwolves, Edwards ceded the bulk of the national media coverage and primetime highlight packages to his draftmates LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman.

However, in the minuscule three-game sampling that we’ve got to nibble on, the 19-year-old has been far from an unwanted side dish. He hasn’t just been palatable, for long stretches his game has been delicious. Through just 76 minutes of professional basketball, he has demonstrated the entire thrills and spills nature of the Anthony Edwards Experience. As will likely be the case for the entirety of his career, the conversation engulfing Edwards begins with his scoring punch and, in particular, how often he gets to the rim and how well he finishes when he gets there.

The biggest condemnation that stemmed from the 6-foot-6 combo wing’s freshman season with the Bulldogs is that he settled far too much. Despite being an overwhelming physical presence, Edwards attempted just 30.8 percent of his field goal attempts at the rim, connecting on a very nice 69 percent of said attempts. With elite touch, size and movement capabilities, scouts, coaches and pundits alike urged Edwards to cut down on the contested mid-range and 3-point shots.

Through his first two NBA outings, the wins over Detroit and Utah, he had upped his at-rim frequency to 33.3 percent, according to NBA.com. For reference, Luka Doncic (30.1%), Bradley Beal (27.9%) and Donavan Mitchell (21.1%) were among the plethora of dominant scoring wings that failed to cross that one-third volume threshold last season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Regression to some sort of mean is likely coming, it’s still way too early to be using these kinds of stats as ironclad evidence, but there is no taking away how impressive his mindset has been thus far. Playing against physical presences like Blake Griffin, Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant of the Pistons or the Jazz’s staunch defense anchored by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and stout post defender Derrick Favors, Edwards had all the excuses in the world to lean on his jumper and shy away from inside contact. He didn’t — he ran headlong into it and embraced every bump and bruise along the way.

The best part? The unflinching mindset didn’t come at the expense of efficiency. Small sample size be damned, the fact that Edwards shot 87.5 percent at the rim in his first two NBA games is nothing short of spectacular. Ant has a rare blend of talent, physicality, athleticism and ingrained scoring mentality, a secret herbs and spices that, when measured out and blended correctly, serve a devastating cuisine for an opposition defense.

The first sequence we’re going to focus on seems tame on the surface, but at a deeper look it’s is a little dollop of that special sauce Edwards possesses. It begins with the hesitation crossover, the fact it’s not a snap-your-ankles move might mean it lulls you into thinking it’s meaningless when really it’s the most crucial building block of a defender’s nightmare. By faking left and crossing over back to his right, Edwards gets Jazz forward Royce O’Neale leaning the wrong way with his upper body and transferring his weight backward instead of forward (or sideward) with his feet and lower body.

This move needs to be singled out individually, because this is the foundation of the entire drive. With that fairly unassuming crossover, Edwards has put in motion a chain of events that leaves O’Neale very little chance to finish the play with a win.

The Jazz forward is a very handy defender and, to his credit, he doesn’t let the side-to-side move and burst out of it best him immediately. He regains some semblance of balance and slides his feet well to get back in Edwards’ vicinity. This is where the rookie’s complete outlier strength comes into play. He uses O’Neale’s eagerness to get back into his airspace against him, putting a subtle but demolishing shoulder into his defender’s midriff, sending the 27-year-old careening backward for six straight steps. O’Neale makes one last-ditch attempt to jimmy the ball out of the rookie’s hands, but Edwards has that thing gripped in his immovable mitts like Charlie with the Golden Ticket.

Once he’s seen off the defender’s best efforts, it’s time for the top-tier body control and touch to kick in. There isn’t an unfathomable amount of body contortion here, just like the touch needed isn’t at the level that Edwards can produce when he is really strutting his stuff, but he needs to get the ball up from well below his waist while still adjusting his balance and kiss it off the glass with a feathery touch. He does that, and he makes it look a lot simpler than it is.

That wasn’t his only mouth-watering finish in the Utah win. In fact, it wasn’t even the most impressive one. More than the technical ability it takes to put Rudy Gobert on his heels, bamboozle him with the tornado spin, and stop on a dime for the bucket, it’s the gall to commit to that move without a moment of hesitation. The nous to recognize that he has the big man backing up and in the basketball version of the fetal position. The confidence to finish it like he was still playing against a freshman from Austin Peay State University.

That’s what Edwards can do to competent and seasoned defenders. What he’s able to produce against lesser competition seems unfair for someone his age. He may be a 19-year-old rookie with less than a month’s worth of game time under his belt, but Ant-Man is already far too big, strong and technically sound for a lot of wings to check.

The pirouette — which is quickly becoming a staple of his scoring package — and finish you see below made the rounds on social media, and we should expect to see plenty more of it as Edwards’ career unfolds. Again, the finish is a cocktail mix of everything the former Bulldog has in his cupboard — made to look easier than the previous clips by the slower mental and physical recognition of Detroit’s Svi Mykhailiuk.

Just like the aforementioned crossover on O’Neale, the initial jab steps get Mykhailiuk leaning off-kilter, essentially sealing his fate before Edwards even puts the ball on the hardwood. From there, he plants and springs off his outside (left) foot in a matter of microseconds, spinning out of it with unstoppable velocity and shaking Mykhailiuk off completely. Like we’re becoming accustomed to seeing, the finish is made to look easy by the work he puts in to get into that position, but it’s still very impressive body control and rim-touch for a linebacker-sized human being.

Alas, Edwards hasn’t been perfect and, in the same vein as his entire roster of teammates, his delectable start crumbled on the forks of the Los Angeles Lakers. On the second half of his first NBA back-to-back, Edwards looked a little lethargic and heavy-legged, which isn’t a rare sign at all for a rookie. Out of that, some complacency was born, and the settling and wavering mental make up that haunted him at Georgia reared its ugly head.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

By my count, 13 of his 21 field goal attempts came in the form of jump shots. Another three were open-court runouts that don’t particularly suggest an attacking mindset. You can wipe off two of the nine 3-point shots he fired up since they were end-of-quarter half-court heaves, but that still leaves you with seven 3-point attempts — most of which were contested without an iota of ball-movement. Essentially, his at-rim frequency ended at 23.8 percent, almost a full 10 percent lower than his first two outings,

Make no mistake, there is a time and place for contested triples and pull-up mid-range jumpers. These are weapons that still have a place in a multi-leveled scorer’s arsenal, but the time to wield them must be chosen carefully. If used correctly, they open a multiverse of lanes and passes in forthcoming plays. But, if used ill-advisedly, they become anchors that weigh down a team and player’s offensive efficiency.

Here, with the help of a Naz Reid screen, he uses that devastating short-burst off the catch to dust Kyle Kuzma, picking his spot precisely with Marc Gasol stationed in the ‘drop’ pick-and-roll coverage. Even if this one clanks of the cylinder, the thought process is solid. There is no reason Head Coach Ryan Saunders will be singling this play out as a bad one. Edwards is a brute, but Gasol is a former Defensive Player of the Year who also happens to be a human tank. The Lakers want you to attack him so he can chew you up and spit you back out under the rim. Using the space he has left in the in-between area is the smartest option if Edwards insists on calling his own number.

On the other hand, this attempt would be the kind of stuff Saunders is looking to exterminate from his rookie’s game as soon as possible. The between-the-legs pull-back is a nifty move, and investing in a step back is crucial for a scorer, but this was the time to put pressure on the rim.

The difference here compared to the first jumper is that defense isn’t set. Gasol is stuck in No Man’s Land, in that danger zone between dropping back and hedging out, leaving him effectively cooked. Edwards puts on his usual jets to get Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on his hip and, as you can see below, now has the defense at his mercy. He is too quick to be stopped from getting all the way to the cup by either KCP or Gasol, so another dose of that straight-line rocket fuel and either of those two are in the rearview mirror. If it was a rotating LeBron James on his mind, the option should to drive the seam, let the 36-year-old collapse, and then find Malik Beasley camped out in the corner for an open triple.

Again, this isn’t necessarily about the result of the shot, it’s about the process. Even if that shot drops in, the points per shot attempt (which the coaching staff and front office take very seriously) is dramatically lower than the options that present themselves from a hard take to the rim.

The same mindset needs to be applied to this next play. Edwards has done a very commendable job of attacking so far this season, make no mistake about that, but at times he needs to put pedal to the metal a lot quicker. With the immobile Montrezl Harrell picking him up as he crosses the timeline, there is a short window of opportunity for Edwards to get an easy bucket. Blowing by Harrell is the easy part, but while a very devil-may-care James is still trotting back, Edwards can punish the Lakers without the worry of rotation defenders stopping him.

Instead, that slight moment of indecision flatlines him. By taking an extra dribble or two, LeBron slides into a backside help position. Now, he probably still should have just recycled the ball and got into an actual offensive set (a problem for the Wolves all game) but he chooses the worst option: the bailout pull-up 3-pointer. You could hear Harrell’s sigh of relief from the Midwest.

It wasn’t always pretty, but it wasn’t a complete disaster of a night for the ever-learning rookie. This off-ball movement was certainly worth mentioning, and it’s something we haven’t seen nearly enough of so far. According to Synergy Sports, this was just the second time this season that Edwards has made a cut that finished in a field goal attempt (he made both such shots).

At the risk of sounding like a broken record here, it’s the functional and quick-twitch athleticism that creates the bucket. As he starts to move up toward Ricky Rubio for what looks like a hand-off action, he plants that left foot and springs back baseline, leaving Dennis Schroder looking like he is literally cemented in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This isn’t a revolutionary play or something that less athletic players don’t pull off regularly, but for someone possessing Edwards’ physical gifts, it’s extremely hard to defend if it’s implemented on a regular basis.

Edwards is still so very young and so very inexperienced at this level. It may have been an extra-long offseason layoff, but the kid still went from playing Ole Miss to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers within the space of four organized games. He went from sitting at the kid’s table to being one of the banquet’s biggest eaters in the blink of an eye, and he is still learning to walk the tightrope between eating and gorging.

As long as Edwards doesn’t fall back into bad habits and continues buying into the system and the mentality of attacking the rim at all costs, it’s going to be a fun — and productive — rookie campaign.