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Anthony Edwards’ Early Season Returns

Let’s look back at Ant-Man’s first handful of games to truly see if he’s been A1 from Day 1.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

To say I was cautiously optimistic on draft night would be a generous interpretation of how I felt after the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Anthony Edwards first overall. It was relatively clear to me that Edwards had the highest ceiling in this draft. The raw talent was never a concern for me. What tormented me, however, were the ghosts of Timberwolves’ past.

At 6’5 and 225 pounds, Edwards’s combination of size, skill, and athleticism we’re extraordinarily compelling. The concern was the work rate and whether Edwards would be the reincarnation of fan-favorite Andrew Wiggins.

At Georgia, Edwards routinely disappeared from games. He would have incredible scoring outbursts one game, and then the next five games, you wouldn’t even notice him on the court. His off-ball movement was reminiscent of James Harden’s, and his defense was, well, also reminiscent of James Harden’s.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

To my delight, Edwards has stifled the flames that fueled my fears and played like the guy we hoped he would be.

Let’s be clear, Edwards hasn’t been perfect, but what 19-year-old rookie ever is? It’s far too early to claim whether Edwards will be an All-NBA level player as few players ever are. What I do feel comfortable proclaiming, though, is that Edwards is not the player he showed at Georgia.

Through his first seven games, Edwards is averaging 13.9 points, 2.1 rebounds, and two assists per game. The shooting results have been inconsistent, but the stretches of an excellent player have been there.

A common comparison Edwards got coming into the draft was the He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named as mentioned earlier (*whisper* Andrew Wiggins) (*whispers even quieter* I’m still on Wiggins Island). Hand up; I was one of those ingrates who made the, what now seems ridiculous, comparison.

Please put that match down and do not light that trail of gasoline I just poured. I value honesty and will gladly (begrudgingly in some cases) admit when I’m wrong, so please hear me out. At the time, Edwards was an athletic score first wing who disappeared in games and was erratic on defense. He did little playmaking and even less off-ball movement. Remind you of someone?

Washington Wizards v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Thankfully, Edwards’s play at Georgia seems to be a symptom of his situation as he looks like a completely different player in the NBA. He is still a freak athlete and a score-first wing. However, he has shown an unexpected knack for passing and at least a desire to play defense.

The scoring was the one aspect of Edwards’s game everyone expected to translate. His shooting numbers (40/28/75), efficiency, and points per play type numbers aren’t great, but the process has been good. For a young player, I’m more concerned with the process of how they are getting their shots rather than the result, as that can be fluky.

Per NBA Stats, 75 percent of Edwards’s shots outside of ten feet have been considered open (defender is four or more feet away). He has shown excellent shot creation and is rarely forcing lousy shots. Now he just needs to work on the accuracy.

The most significant difference between Wiggins and Edwards is Edwards’s eagerness to attack the rim and use his freakish leaping ability. Edwards is not only unafraid of contact, but he also embraces it.

Once Edwards dribbles over the screen, he doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of a slower defender switching on him in space. Edwards uses a subtle in-and-out dribble to create a driving lane and attacks the rim. He does an excellent job of getting into the defender’s body to negate his shot-blocking ability and finishes through contact.

When Edwards gets a mismatch in space, his confidence in exploiting it is incredibly refreshing. He knows that slower defenders can’t keep up with him, and he gladly puts them on a highlight tape.

In no world does Paul Millsap have a chance of containing Edwards. While Edwards’s crossover hesitation isn’t an overly complicated move, he still has perfect timing when to use his lightning-quick first step to exploit the momentarily frozen defender.

With much better spacing in the NBA than college basketball provides, Edwards’s ability to attack the rim more frequently shouldn’t be a surprise. In an offense that is often five-out, he will have opportunities galore to create one hell of a highlight reel.

Recently, the Timberwolves have started running more dribble handoffs (DHO) and pick-and-rolls to create space for Edwards. At Georgia, Edwards was mediocre running the pick-and-roll as he usually looked for his shot, passing out of it less than a third of the time, per Synergy. This season, however, Edwards has been brilliant creating out of the pick-and-roll.

The Timberwolves have run the below play rather frequently in recent games to get Edwards the ball in space and on the move. After taking the DHO from Ricky Rubio, Edwards immediately dribbles into a pick-and-roll with Naz Reid. Edwards’s defender does well to get over the screen quickly, but Edwards still eliminates the defender by slowing down and keeping the defender on his back. Now that Edwards can attack downhill in a two-on-one situation, he is patient and picks his spot. He calmly attacks the paint until he gets Millsap to commit. Once Millsap obliges, Edwards delivers the pass to Reid for an uncontested dunk.

Edwards has done an excellent job of setting up the screener when they roll to the rim, but he has also proven that he has the floor vision to find open shooters.

As the screen comes, Edwards’s defender attempts to stay high but instead gives Edwards a free lane. Edwards accepts the invitation, attacks the dropping defender, and keeps his initial defender on his hip and out of the play. Off-ball, Malik Beasley relocates to the opposite corner, and his defender stays on the strongside to help with any drive attempt. Once Edwards begins his drive, Layman recognizes that the Timberwolves have a two-on-one advantage on the weakside. Layman cuts to the lane knowing that the weakside defender will either go with him, leaving Beasley open in the corner, or stay on the corner shooter, leaving Layman open in the lane. Edwards reads the weakside defender go with Layman and kicks it to the open shooter.

With the ball in his hands, Edwards looks as comfortable as ever. He is making good reads, creating space for shots, and exploiting mismatches to attack the rim. He showed a lot of this in college, but he rarely showed much off-ball movement, despite being an excellent cutter.

The returns on Edwards’s off-ball movement have been mixed. His activity running off screens and cutting has been much better, even if still slightly inconsistent. It is a new mentality for him to adopt, but reads (and finishes over an MVP candidate) like this are an encouraging sign that he is listening to the coaching.

However, for every cut like the above, there is a missed relocation like the below.

Once Jordan McLaughlin drives, Rubio and Layman recognize what the weakside movement should be. Rubio cuts to the top of the arc, vacating the corner, and Layman sets a backscreen on the weakside defender. Both players signal to Edwards as they make their move, but Edwards fails to recognize where he should relocate. In case Edwards wasn’t sure about what he missed, the entire coaching staff was eager to point it out.

As a player who wasn’t asked to move off-ball in college, it isn’t surprising to see Edwards occasionally miss these relocations. It is an area that should improve with experience and will help him get easier shots. Since college, Edwards has improved his off-ball movement, and a missed relocation isn’t concerning unless it persists.

Besides disappearing in the offense through lack of activity, the other concern that accompanied Edwards was what type of defender he would be. The physical tools were prominent, but at best, he only showed flashes of competence with minimal effort.

So far, the defense hasn’t been good, but there have been signs of improvement and, more importantly, prolonged stretches of effort.

Edwards has struggled with his on-ball defense. He isn’t comfortable navigating the pick-and-roll yet and needs to be better at staying low in his stance and moving his feet.

As the screen arrived, Edwards attempted to go over it preemptively. This positioning is a failure to recognize the situation and recognize who he is guarding. Facundo Campazzo isn’t a significant threat to shoot off the dribble, especially that deep, so going over the screen shouldn’t be a priority for Edwards. Campazzo is, however, very quick. By Edwards stepping farther out in a high stance, he allowed Campazzo to use his quickness to fly past Edwards and draw the lazy foul.

Again, Edwards gets too easily beat in the pick-and-roll. Louis Williams is one of the league’s best pick-and-roll navigators so getting beat isn’t an indictment, but Edwards puts himself in a losing position from the go. As the screen comes, Edwards shades towards it, despite Vanderbilt being in place to hedge or contain on the other side. Edwards is also very upright in his stance, which doesn’t allow him to react to Williams’s movement quickly. Williams easily recognizes Edwards’s poor stance and positioning, flies past Edwards, and draws the foul on the weak steal attempt.

I never thought Edwards would be a lockdown defender from day one, and this analysis isn’t an indictment, but instead areas that Edwards can quickly improve on. He must make it a priority to stay low in his defensive stance. This move alone will help him quickly react to his opponent’s moves. The pick-and-roll navigation will be a tougher growth area, but I expect to see at least incremental improvement over the season as he gets more experience.

While Edwards’s on-ball defense has been a struggle, his off-ball defense has been more of a mixed bag. There are still a lot of lousy college habits that spring up. He helps off the strongside corner too frequently and sags off shooters who are only one pass away to dig at drives.

The effort with his off-ball defense, though, has been much more impressive, as we can see below.

Edwards initially runs headfirst into a down screen. He would have died on this screen in college and expected his teammate to switch on the shooter. Instead, Edwards fights through the first screen, avoids the second screen, and blocks the shot. Through pure effort, Edwards recovered and denied what could have easily been an open jumper.

Besides succeeding through effort alone, Edwards has also improved his play recognition. As the ball swings towards his side, Edwards’s man moves to receive the DHO. Edwards positions himself to defend the DHO, but he doesn’t over pursue. Instead, Edwards keeps his eyes on the ball and his man, allowing him to react once his man cuts to the rim. Being in a proper position and aware of the ball, Edwards turns with his man, deflects the pass, and forces the turnover.

Anthony Edwards’s early-season production has exceeded all of my expectations as he looks like a legitimate first-overall pick. He is an elite athlete who can create his shot with ease. He can score in a myriad of ways but also set up open teammates. While the defense hasn’t been great, there have been flashes of brilliance and areas that can be improved through experience and commitment to fundamentals.

So, as we advance, I implore you to stay excited and hopeful about Anthony Edwards. Don’t over-analyze the efficiency and advanced stat numbers because they probably won’t be good. The reality is that this team will struggle this season, which won’t produce encouraging results in those categories. Instead, focus on how Edwards is playing. Look at what types of shots he is taking, the playmaking ability regardless of the shot result, and the defensive improvements. Anthony Edwards has the skill and foundation to be an excellent wing in the NBA. Make sure you take notice and appreciate his growth as it happens right in front of us.