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NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Louisiana State

The Timberwolves Case For and Against Drafting Anthony Edwards

Buried in what appears to be an underwhelming 2020 Draft class lies what could become a franchise-altering question: Should the Timberwolves draft Anthony Edwards?

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Edwards is not the consensus top prospect in this 2020 Draft Class. In what will certainly be the most confusing pre-draft process in NBA history, the freshman guard from Georgia epitomizes that confusion.

The 18 year-old’s 6’5”, 225-pound frame would have shined at the NBA Combine, but the combine was canceled. His athletic profile would have popped as he flew around the country doing individual workouts, but those workouts have been replaced by Zoom interviews. For now, Edwards only exists in the numbers he has tallied and the tape he laid down.

The inability for teams to get their hands on Edwards will only naturally lead to a greater focus on his underwhelming efficiency numbers at Georgia and the, let’s call it, uneven levels of effort on defense that become glaringly apparent when re-watching his film.

In a class that lacks two-way talents, it’s easy to imagine Edwards could have gained real momentum in the pre-Draft process. Now, there’s just confusion. And in that confusion lies the need for teams to consider risk in the value proposition that is Anthony Edwards.

For the teams with a top pick in this draft, the coming months — that will span until whenever the draft happens — are about assessing that risk.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, who currently hold the league’s third-best lottery odds, should be as prepared as anyone in their assessment of Edwards. With a 40.1 percent chance of selecting in the top 3 (1st: 14.0%; 2nd: 13.4%; 3rd: 12.7 %), the Wolves front office has been tasked with putting together a comprehensive list of the pros and cons that come with the proposition of selecting Edwards.

This is not a comprehensive list, but below I’ll go through some of the bullet points sure to find their way onto the whiteboard in Gersson Rosas’ office. What Rosas finds beneath each of those subplots will ultimately make the case for or against selecting Edwards should the Wolves have the opportunity.

The Case For Drafting Anthony Edwards

  • Potentially the Best Player Available — Every team in the NBA craves acquiring a player who can create offense for themselves while also being able to defend those types of independent creators on the other side of the floor. A high-level two-way the player, as they say. Having a wing who can dice in the pick and roll with the ball-in-hand and snuff out ball-screen actions defensively has never been more valuable in the NBA than it is today. As an 18 year-old at Georgia, Edwards flashed those types of skills on both sides of the ball, suggesting he could become a legitimate two-way force in the league. That Edwards also packs 225 pounds into that skillset with a legitimate NBA frame — 6’5” with a 6’9” wingspan — makes a strong case that he is the best player available in a draft class that is not exactly flush with high-end talent.

When I begin looking at draft prospects, I like to picture what they will physically look like after making the jump to the pros. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to find players from previous draft classes that measured similarly back when they declared for the draft.

Given Edwards’ uniquely stout frame for a teenager (he turns 19 on August 5th), I found this exercise to be particularly helpful when projecting how he may function on the wing at the next level. Edwards does not have “official” measurements — again, because the combine was canceled, but here is a list of players from the past ten drafts who measured close to 6’5” / 6’9” / 225 at their respective combines.

A wing with that type of physical profile is inherently going to be physically imposing. That Edwards combines his frame with one of the most dynamic athletic profiles only furthers his case for topping any team’s big board.

On the offensive end, that athleticism pops most when he is attacking the rim. That said, according to Synergy’s tracking data, Edwards definitely prioritized his jumper at the college level; he took 48.5 percent of his shots from 3 and only 21.6 percent of his looks around the basket. That is a legitimate concern, but those trepidations do not take away from the fact that his rim attacks were, well, legit.

On defense, Edwards also showcased his physicality in not only being a wall to penetrate through but also in his lateral agility. Similar to on the offensive end, these athletic bursts skewed toward being situational more than they were consistent. Still, like his rim attacks, when Edwards popped defensively, he truly stood out.

Drafting Edwards would likely be the Timberwolves’ safest bet for increasing the roster’s overall talent level. It’s hard to argue that if we are averaging “floor” heights that any player in this class has a higher one — on both sides of the ball — than Edwards possesses.

  • Fits Roster Holes — In Towns and Russell, the Wolves have their point guard and center positions taken care of. If Malik Beasley is retained in restricted free agency, then one of the three available wing/forward spots is also spoken for. This leads to the suggestion that Edwards, if selected, should be able to fit into one of the remaining holes in the starting lineup.

If the Wolves were to select Edwards, their guard/wing triumvirate would be short — Russell, Beasley and Edwards all only stand 6’5” in shoes. But Edwards has the strength profile to be able to be able to defend bigger players than both Russell and Beasley can. He should be able to defend 1-through-3 immediately, and may eventually be able to get away with defending slighter frontcourt players as he matures.

Rosas recently shared that he is “probably a little bit more aggressive about playing smaller because, at the end of the day, we feel like that complements our best players, whether that’s Karl or D’Angelo.”

The current roster’s wing alternatives for the Wolves aren’t exactly large. In shoes, Josh Okogie measured 6’4.5” at the 2018 Draft’s combine while Jarrett Culver measured 6’6.75” at last year’s combine — but Culver only weighed in at 194. Edwards could be a combination of what the Wolves hope to have in Okogie and Culver; the thickness that comes with Okogie and the profile of a secondary offensive creator a la Culver.

In ways, this would make Edwards duplicitous to those two players. But is that the end of the world? Neither Okogie nor Culver have signaled that they are safe bets to become two-way weapons. Both shot under 30% from 3 on over 100 catch-and-shoot jumpers this season. It would be justifiable to keep the two young wings in a bench role. After all, Okogie only started 28 games for the 19-45 Wolves this season, and Culver was only in the starting lineup for 35 of the 63 games he played in.

  • Theoretical Fit Next to D’Angelo Russell — Given the ball dominance of Russell and Towns, this Wolves roster craves a secondary ball-handler more than it does a true offensive initiator. And if Beasley is in the fold, there will be even less demand for creation. More than anything, Minnesota’s offensive system craves decisive decision-makers when the ball is re-routed their direction.

Edwards was the ball-dominant option at Georgia, but that was partly by default. The Bulldogs were a young team that lacked talent, specifically in the ability to create off the dribble. This led Edwards to play an outsized role, forcing him into being a primary ball-handler the majority of the time. In that role, Edwards felt compelled to take far too many difficult shots, contributing to his dismal 3-point effectiveness — 7.7 3-point shots per game, converting those looks at a 29.4 percent clip.

But before labeling Edwards as another Okogie or Culver (read as: non-shooter), it’s important to acknowledge that he has more of a natural release than Okogie and more consistent mechanics than Culver.

Personally, I’m not as concerned as others seem to be about Edwards shooting under 30 percent from deep in college. To focus on the conversion rate and ignore the volume of 3s Edwards attempted is to judge a book by its cover. Of all the “shooters” in this draft who played in the NCAA this year and could be selected in the lottery, Edwards had the highest 3-point volume of the group.

In more of an off-ball role at the next level, theoretically, the quality of looks Edwards would receive will become cleaner. The additional space in the Wolves offense could also present a greater opportunity for attacking seams in the defense. It was rare while at Georgia, but when Edwards only had one man to beat against a tilted defense, his ability to create space for himself was dynamic.

Stepping out of a ball-dominant role would certainly be an adjustment. But playing with a point guard like Russell would likely fast track Edwards’ path to offensive efficiency in lieu of his currently underwhelming playmaking instincts.

  • Skillset to Thrive in an Up-Tempo System — The Wolves’ 3-point volume skyrocketed this season, and that became a defining characteristic of Rosas and Ryan Saunders’s new-look offense. Perhaps because it doesn’t show up in the box score, it feels brushed over that the Wolves were just as committed to playing with pace as they were to get getting up 3s this season. After the trade deadline, the Wolves played with far-and-away the fastest pace in the league, and that wasn’t just a product of the new additions and injury absence of Towns. Before re-shaping the roster at the deadline, they were playing at the seventh-fastest pace in the NBA. Playing up-tempo is as much a part of this new regime’s ethos as anything is.

Much of Edwards’ statistical profile at Georgia was underwhelming. But isolate for transition opportunities and he performed at an elite level. According to Synergy, Edwards generated 173 points in 144 transition possessions this season. That 1.201 per possession rate nearly doubled his per possession production in the 129 possessions that he functioned as a pick and roll ball-handler (0.752).

Edwards is the type of player you only need to watch for five minutes to know that he’ll benefit from playing in pace-focused system at the next level. Edwards’ athleticism when let loose not only inspires his physicality but it also triggers his artistry. Get Edwards moving in space and he’ll paint opponents into corners.

If the Wolves drafted Edwards he could both flank Russell and Beasley on the break and initiate the pace himself. Immediately, Edwards’ presence would make Minnesota one of the most dynamic transition teams in the NBA.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Case Against Drafting Anthony Edwards

  • Doesn’t Fit Roster’s Age Curve — With two selections in the first round — their own pick in the lottery and Brooklyn’s lottery-protected pick — the Wolves will get significantly younger should they keep both of those draftees. The current Wolves roster was intentionally structured to be youthful. But in that pursuit, Rosas has targeted a specific age range. Selecting two teenagers could be viewed as contradictory to that strategy, as it would begin to bifurcate the age curve of the roster.

The oldest player under contract for the Wolves next season is the 33 year-old James Johnson. Behind Johnson, Jake Layman — who turned 26 in March — is the team’s elder statesman. Again, this inherently means the roster is young when compared to the rest of the league. But look beyond Layman on the age curve and it becomes clear that the inner circle of Rosas’ dartboard has a type: players on the precipice of their theoretical prime.

“That’s what excites us about our core,” said Rosas. “We’ve got a young group of guys that are around the ages of 22 to 26, and the sky is the limit with the potential.”

Many franchises around the league try to apply a multiple age wave tactic to roster construction. In theory, the strategy prioritizes multiple windows in the name of sustainability. As one group ages out, another moves into their prime.

Along those lines, drafting Edwards would give Culver a theoretical partner in window two. Additionally, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid could become the foot soldiers of that second wave. And if another teenager were to be drafted with the Brooklyn pick, the roster would functionally become split down the middle into two groups: seven 18-to-21 year-olds; seven 22-to-26 year-olds; one 33 year-old.

That would be a very different type of youthful than what Rosas described in the above quote.

If Rosas sticks with the singular age curve strategy, he would be leaning on the logic of needing to give Towns and Russell maximum support sooner rather than later. For a team that just “finished” the season with a 19-45 record, the idea of getting younger should cause some concern when acknowledging that Towns and Russell are on the precipice of their primes.

  • More Value In Trading The Pick — Rather than investing in a teenager with their first pick, the draft capital spent on Edwards could theoretically be repurposed into other players or picks through working the trade market. If the focus is truly on maximizing Towns and Russell, the universe of players who could be selected at the top of the draft are not the only “fits” that should be considered. Players potentially attainable later in the draft merit consideration, as do players already in the league who could be attained via trade in exchange for the value of the pick.

In the 2019 Draft, with the 4th overall pick, the New Orleans Pelicans traded back. They gave up the fourth slot to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for the 8th, 17th and 35th picks in that same draft. In that process, New Orleans was also able to dump the bloated contract of Solomon Hill while picking up what would become second-round picks in 2021 and 2022 (additional draft capital of value considering that those seconds are coming from the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers).

Because Atlanta was flush with picks and starved for defense, the idea of giving up that package for the fourth pick — that became De’Andre Hunter (arguably the top defensive prospect in the class) — was justified in their eyes. In a 2020 Draft class that is comparatively weaker, the Wolves would likely not be able to bring back that same haul if they were to wind up in the fourth slot this year. But all it takes to instigate trade back conversation is for one team to fall in love with a prospect outside of their draft range.

If Rosas were to trade back in this draft, that could be done with the goal of sliding into the range where a more mature prospect is likely to be available. Some may argue that a player like the 22 year-old Obi Toppin out of Dayton would be a better positional fit in Minnesota than Edwards — and that Toppin is more likely to be available in the second half of the lottery. Any additional picks acquired in that process could then be used as assets for other draft-day moves, or could altogether be moved to get into the 2021 Draft, where the Wolves currently do not have any picks.

(Acknowledging that hindsight is 20-20, the revisionist history parallel to draw here is the Wolves passing on the 22 year-old Brandon Clarke in last summer’s draft. Rather than standing pat with the 11th overall pick, the Wolves traded Dario Saric to move up to the sixth slot in an effort to select Culver.)

Trade market restrictions withstanding, the concept of trading the top pick — sacrificing the opportunity to draft Edwards — for an already established NBA player also holds some intrigue. By league rule, the contracts of Johnson and Culver (a combined $22.2 million in 2020-21 salary) could be packaged together to bring back a player earning between $16.2 and $27.7 million. There are numerous players around the age of Towns and Russell who will be paid a salary within that range next season. If the Wolves were willing to attach Edwards to a Johnson and Culver package, that would likely be viewed as quite the sweetener.

(In a previous column, I have toyed with that type of trade package for players like Caris LeVert, Aaron Gordon or Clint Capela.)

Market factors always impact the logic of pursuing a trade. It takes two to tango, as they say. But the reality that the Wolves already have another first-round pick in the middle of a draft that may be more robust in the teens than it is at the top makes considering all options with the top pick necessary due diligence.

  • The Risk of Adding Another Potentially Poor Shooter — With Okogie and Culver already in Minnesota’s rotation mix, the cost of adding another ineffective shooter could be steep. Ryan Saunders often likes to say that his offensive system is one that is built to thrive with “elite spacing”. Towns and Russell are a lock to provide those spacing benefits, but if their teammates can not reciprocate that type of assistance, the foundation of the offensive system becomes a house of cards.

Grading the shooting aptitude of Edwards lies in the eyes of the beholder. The more forgiving talent accessors point to Edwards’ comparatively weak supporting cast at Georgia as a worthy excuse for his dismal 3-point shooting, acknowledging that only 13.1 percent of Edwards’ attempts were spot-up, no dribble jumpers. Those more skeptical of his shooting prowess are quick to point out that the 29.4 percent Edwards shot from deep in college may be due to faulty decision-making in the shot selection process.

Like most spectrums, reality likely exists somewhere near the middle. If that becomes Edwards’ truth, and he proves to be a relatively high volume 3-point shooter with mediocre accuracy, even that could become a bit of a predicament should the Wolves draft him. With Towns, Russell and Beasley all high-volume and high-efficiency shooting options, defenses will naturally shade away from a willing shooter who converts shots at a lower clip.

A critical breakdown in the Wolves offense this past season came when opponents loaded up on Towns. As instructed, Towns often did the “right” thing and trusted the pass in those situations. Being as he was frequently surrounded by multiple non-shooters, this led to lots of clanking.

This result was forgiven during the 2019-20 season in the name of development and creating habits, but next season the Wolves will need to be more results-oriented. They got their man in Russell, and that raises the stakes.

If it takes Edwards time to develop into becoming a quality shooter, that problem will be exacerbated by the presence of his backups: Culver and Okogie.

Take Jaylen Brown’s rookie season in Boston as a counter-example. Brown was a similar prospect to Edwards — drafted third overall in 2016 with the idea that he could become a two-way player. What the Celtics had going for them in 2016-17 was that when Brown was not executing that they could go discount versions of the two-way archetype in Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. Crowder and Bradley were competent defenders who both made over 39 percent of their 3s that season.

It’s very unlikely that the Wolves will have that luxury in Okogie and Culver next season. If the Wolves offense were to begin breaking down because an opponent was effectively daring Edwards to be a shooter, it’s highly unlikely that Okogie and Culver could be relied on as reinforcements. In their careers, Okogie and Culver have combined to attempt 590 3-pointers and only convert those looks at a 28.3 percent clip.

The reality of the situation is that Wolves run one of the most 3-hungry systems in the league yet only have competent shooters at the top-end of the roster. That truth means the concept of adding another questionable shooter would question the entire infrastructure of the offensive system.

  • Edwards is Currently a Poor Decision-Maker — In his freshman season at Georgia, Edwards’ physicality and diverse skillset popped. His decision-making, however, did not. With Towns, Russell and Beasley in place to be the Wolves high-volume, high-efficiency pillars of the offense, it’s important that the surrounding pieces do not subtract from that production. With Edwards having been the best player on every team he’s ever played for, the adjustment to becoming the fourth or fifth option — and the type of decisions that need to be made in that role — could be cumbersome.

The film Edwards laid down at Georgia suggests the first step of his NBA evolution likely looks something like a discount version of Beasley’s current game. Given that it will already be a process to mesh Beasley, Towns and Russell’s high-usage profiles, the idea of adding a fourth piece that is similar carries the concern of being adversely duplicitous.

In any scouting profile on Edwards the line “he settles for jumpers” will show up. That alone is an indictment of his decision-making abilities. We don’t even need to look at Edwards’ production on drives compared to spot-up situations to know that jump shot-settlers have a disconnect between how good they think they are at shot-making and how much they are actually contributing to winning.

An encouraging wrinkle in this dysfunctional process is that Edwards does appear to know how to read the floor. He’s an apt off the bounce passer that can distribute with both hands.

The problem in Edwards’ reading process at Georgia came when opponents dared him to shoot. He would almost always oblige.

Take this ball-screen action for example. Edwards makes the correct read in recognizing that the defender goes under the screen, leaving him open for the pull-up. To consider the shot here isn’t the wrong read, per se.

But therein lies the issue: Edwards’ consideration process. To be blunt, he considers himself an elite shooter when he just isn’t yet. For Edwards to become a cog in a successful NBA offense, he’ll need to combine his ability to read with some comprehension skills. Rather than asking himself, Can I shoot it here?, the thought process has to be, Is this the best shot we can get?

If Edwards ends up sharing the floor with Towns, Russell and Beasley, an on-the-move pull-up is rarely going to be the best option. To thrive around Towns post-ups, Russell pick and rolls or Beasley penetrations, Edwards will need to be a decisive decision-maker when he receives the kick-out — and sometimes that decision is going to need to be pass it again. A system predicated on elite spacing is not about finding shots; it’s about finding the best shot.

***

In the coming months, the 2020 Draft class will be labeled as “weak” and “filled with role players”. But those labels are incomplete. There may not be a consensus number one pick and there may be added confusion given the disruption being added to the process, but that does not mean that there is not high-end talent in this group. Anthony Edwards is a high-end talent, he’s just also a question mark.

To put this bluntly, that’s a question the Wolves can not afford to answer incorrectly. With Towns and Russell finally paired, the Wolves are no longer a “bad” team. Even moderate growth in the coming years should steer the franchise away from again finding themselves at the top-end of the lottery anytime soon. That means this draft could be the last shot at adding a true needle-moving rookie to the mix.

If Gersson Rosas and the Wolves front office decide to keep the pick, they can’t afford to miss with this bite at the apple. To mitigate that risk, the best option may be to not select Edwards, or it may be to trade the pick altogether. Even in a weak class filled with role players, a top pick in the lottery holds premium value. That value needs to be maximized, and to do that it is critical that the risk proposition that is Anthony Edwards is appropriately defined.