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Rookie Review: Anthony Edwards’ Defense

While there were countless good things to take away from ANT’s first year in the league, his defense wasn’t necessarily A1 from Day 1.

Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves have clearly hit on Anthony Edwards. After a discouraging start to his rookie campaign, Edwards quickly turned the corner and started producing numbers that rivaled All-Stars. His combination of charisma, athleticism, and scoring produced not only incredible moments but also a rare sense of hope among a downtrodden fan base. While Edwards’s rookie season ended up better than expected, there is still a significant hole in his game: defense.

After the second half of the season that Edwards had, it feels unwarranted to dive into an area of his game where he struggled mightily. This analysis is not intended as a hit piece or smear campaign but instead a guide of areas in which Edwards must (and can) improve upon. While the NBA continues to trend towards a reality where offense reigns supreme, quality defense is still the great differentiator between playoff contenders and perpetual lottery dwellers.

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Coming into the league, Edwards was never projected to be a stellar defender. He has all of the physical tools to be one; however, his consistency, awareness, and effort never rose to the levels of a competent defender. Throughout his rookie season, these perceived shortcomings were proven to be accurate.

Earlier this season, Edwards had one of many grin-producing quotes in which he said:

“Coach can’t come on the floor. He can’t do shit but tell us what to do... Shit, he just saying words. We gotta go out there and do the shit. Defense is effort.”

To Edwards’ credit, he pretty much nailed it. The coaches can put the most ingenious philosophies in place, but it doesn’t matter if the players don’t execute them. The quote is accurate, but Edwards failed to practice what he preached as his effort waned and his execution faltered.

Edwards certainly showed flashes of quality defense his rookie season (don’t worry, we’ll end on a high note with it), but his lack of consistency and effort killed the Timberwolves’ chances of having a decent defense when he was on the floor. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Timberwolves had a defensive rating of 117.3 when Edwards was on the floor (14th percentile among wings), their defensive rating was 3.3 points higher when he was on the floor than when he was off (22nd percentile), and opponents had an eFG% of 56.9 when he was on the court (7th percentile) which was 3.2 percent higher than when he was off (7th percentile).

To make matters worse, Edwards’ tendencies of gambling on passes, not running back in transition, and coming out of his defensive stance led to opponents constantly getting easy shots. When Edwards was on the court, opponents ran in transition 16.2 percent of their possessions (15th percentile) and scored 1.342 points per possession (17th percentile). Not only did opponents run in transition 1.6 percent more frequently when Edwards was on the court, but they scored an additional 0.062 PPP (28th percentile). Opponents also took 35.9 percent of their shots at the rim (20th percentile) when Edwards was on the court and shot an absurd 65.9 percent (31st percentile). To be clear, these percentile rankings represent where Edwards’ defense ranks among other wings, not where the opposing offenses rank. In other words, Edwards’ defense was far from positive.

By all accounts, those numbers are hideous, but they’re also just numbers. Take these numbers at face value, but when it comes to defense, I prefer to lean on the eye test and use the numbers as a tool to see if what I’m seeing aligns with what the numbers are saying. Unfortunately, they harmonize better than The Barden Bellas.

The most infuriating part of Edwards’ defense is his lack of effort. Defensive miscues and off nights can be forgiven, but exerting zero effort is inexcusable. This blemish was most notable in transition defense. As we can see below, Edwards simply gets beat down the floor by Moe Harkless. There isn’t any dynamic ball movement or otherworldly outlet pass. It is as simple as Edwards casually jogging back while a career journeyman outruns him to expand the lead to 11 going into halftime.

Even the rare possessions when Edwards was back in time to guard someone, he was frequently lost. His intentions in transition defense appeared to be to simply get to a spot. This concept isn’t an anomaly among NBA teams. However, there is an emphasis on players having a sense of urgency getting to that spot and then reacting based on what the offense is doing.

Here, Edwards is casually retreating to the elbow while the Kings push the ball in transition. Edwards is technically in a spot where he can pick up an opponent and try to kill their pace. However, Edwards never takes his eyes off the ball or bothers to locate an off-ball shooter. Tyrese Haliburton looks off Edwards before passing to a wide-open shooter, and Edwards gets bailed out due to a missed shot.

Again, Edwards gets to the elbow and is in position to kill the transition advantage. Unfortunately, Edwards seems to think that his job is done once he gets to the elbow. Edwards’ lack of effort results in him setting up a lovely campsite at the free-throw line while Juancho Hernangomez does what he can after being stranded on an island.

Rookies struggling with defense, especially in space, is nothing new. Edwards was likely instructed that in transition, he was to retreat to the elbow. That is all fine and dandy, but Edwards showing zero urgency or awareness to rotate or cover once he got to his spot is highly discouraging. These issues are exacerbated in the half-court defense as Edwards consistently ball watches and misses rotations.

Here, Edwards has no clue that his man cut and is wide open under the rim. Edwards again gets bailed out by a missed shot, but the Suns got a wide-open corner three because he lost his man on a simple cut.

Edwards’ defensive habits still look like a high schooler who could make up for every mistake because he is a freak athlete. His proclivity to watching the ball is easily exposed in the NBA, where the ball movement, player movement, and decision-making are elite.

By constantly watching the ball, Edwards exposes himself to getting burned. Simple cuts can fool him completely, while subtle relocations force his teammates into scramble mode. Here, Edwards lazily digs at Haliburton’s drive. I think his intentions were positive, but Edwards is caught between different defensive coverages. If he was supposed to be playing gap defense, then he should have been closer to the nail, which would’ve wholly deterred the drive from the start. If he was supposed to be playing ball denial, then he should have been closer to Buddy Hield and not pathetically swiping at the drive.

Instead, Edwards is in no man’s land. As Haliburton drives, Hield wisely slides behind Edwards to the wing while Harrison Barnes drops to the corner. Since Edwards has been taken out of the play, Ricky Rubio is forced to leave Barnes to contest Hield. Hield shot fakes and makes the extra pass for the open Barnes three.

Again, Edwards is completely enthralled with the strongside action. So much so that he might as well have not been on the floor. As the pick-and-roll is being run on the opposite side of the floor, Edwards completely turns his back to Doug McDermott. Not a great idea against a player who ranks in the 92nd percentile in cutting. After McDermott cuts, he proceeds to spend four seconds on the block, and Edwards has no clue he’s there. Thankfully, the Pacers never see McDermott and the new construction home he just built under the rim.

Edwards’ off-ball defensive approach changed rather drastically based on the side of the floor he was on. When Edwards was on the weak side, as we just went through, he regularly got beat on simple movement because he was ball-watching. When he was on the strong side, Edwards became much more aggressive at jumping passing lanes. This approach did lead to some high steals that he took the other way, but it also more frequently resulted in his gamble not paying off and putting his teammates in lousy positions.

Here, Jake Layman and Edwards already know that they are switching as Mikal Bridges drops to the corner and Devin Booker lifts out of it. Edwards is playing gap coverage to deter the drive of Deandre Ayton. A peculiar choice given that Ayton isn’t an elite slasher, and sagging that far off a shooter of Booker’s caliber is rarely a wise decision. As Ayton dribbles towards Edwards, the temptation of the ball is too much to overcome.

Instead of sliding his coverage closer to Booker, Edwards wildly flails to try and intercept the pass. He doesn’t come close. This gamble forces Layman to leave Bridges and switch to Booker. Bridges wisely cuts baseline, and Karl-Anthony Towns drops to not give up a layup. Edwards doesn’t bother to recover to anyone, which gives Ayton a free runway for the dunk.

You can make an argument that Towns should have stayed with Ayton since Rubio had stayed central. However, this clearly wasn’t communicated effectively, and the scramble was forced due to Edwards’ reckless gamble and lack of recovery.

Edwards’ general lack of positioning and trend to put his teammates in bad spots also spilled over to his on-ball defense. Edwards showed a lot of flashes of being a good on-ball defender. He certainly has the athleticism for it. One of the most common issues was his habit of not finishing a play. He’d initially deny a ball-handler’s first or second dribble move, but then he’d think the job was finished and relax. That was the moment ball-handlers would always punish him. It was a mentality of a younger player who wasn’t used to playing against opponents who could string two, three, four dribble moves together. It was also a symptom of laziness and lack of commitment to staying in a defensive stance.

Plays like the one below are incredibly frustrating because Edwards has the athleticism to make this much more difficult for the opponents. De’Aaron Fox is one of the fastest players in the league, so I don’t fault Edwards for getting beaten. I do have a problem with how he gets beaten, though. As Fox attacks, Edwards simply opens his hips and lets him by. At one point, Edwards even stops. This penetration forces D’Angelo Russell to rotate, and Fox makes an easy kick out for the open corner three.

I know that was not the most uplifting read on Anthony Edwards, and while I’m incredibly optimistic about his future, we have to be able to call out where he falls short. Edwards has the potential to be an elite offensive player in the league, but until he improves his defense, he will fall well short of being a winning player.

(I’m sorry for dropping that gag-inducing term, as I know it likely sparked PTSD from any ROTY online debates you may have had the unfortunate pleasure to stumble across.)

Thankfully, there were some flashes of Edwards making a positive impact on defense as well. While it will be a while (maybe never) until Edwards is a technically sound defender, he can use his elite athleticism to be a defensive playmaker.

As the season progressed, Edwards became much more effective at using his athleticism to create chaos. Defensive lapses and gambles not paying off were still common, but there were also many more positive defensive results. Edwards began forcing turnovers regularly, even to the point where he had a 25-game steal streak. Edwards improved his positioning and timing to the point where he could use his athleticism to make a positive impact.

In the below clip, we see a much more encouraging result from Edwards’ weakside off-ball defense. As Alec Burks dribbles of the Taj Gibson screen, Edwards slides over to the block in case he has to tag or contest Gibson’s rim-run. Already an encouraging sign of positional improvement. Additionally, Edwards keeps his hips slightly more open instead of completely turning his back on his man. Edwards’ main lifts out of the corner to create a passing lane for Burks, and Edwards keeps a depth that allows him to see both his man and the ball. The second that Burks picks up his dribble, Edwards bolts back towards his man, enabling him to intercept the pass and finish at the other end.

Again, we see Edwards make a positive impact as an off-ball defender by using his athleticism. Edwards’ man sinks to the corner, and Edwards adjusts his depth to remove any possibility for a back cut while Elfrid Payton dribbles off the screen towards Edwards. Edwards isn’t in an ideal position as you never want to help off of the strongside corner shooter, but he isn’t in a position in which he can’t recover. The positive sign is that Edwards doesn’t help too early. Instead, Edwards holds his ground, and once Payton goes up for an off-balance floater, Edwards swats it away.

Anthony Edwards was a disaster on defense for most of the season. He ball-watched, didn’t try, and seemed to lack any grasp of what the defensive philosophies were. As the season progressed, there were subtle improvements on the margins, but the main improvement was Edwards turning into a defensive playmaker.

Edwards likely won’t ever develop into a great defensive player, and I don’t really expect him to. What I do hope, though, is that he better utilizes his freak athleticism — with more experience, his rotations and off-ball positioning should improve to a point where he is regularly jumping passing lanes (successfully) and swatting shots from the weakside. If Edwards can better utilize his athleticism and implement that effort he preached about, he can quickly go from a defensive tire fire to a ball-hawking free safety.