Anthony Edwards had a turbulent start to his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves due to early-season scoring inefficiencies. One of the biggest knocks on Edwards as a prospect was his inefficient shooting. Besides shot selection and an inconsistent motor, there was no reason for concern with his interior finishing. Unfortunately, Edwards had poor shooting percentages from nearly every area of the floor, which prompted the early consternations of, “Is this really happening again?”
Edwards being an inefficient scorer right away was not a surprise. With basically no off-season, early-season injuries throughout the roster, and a coach hanging on by a thread, it would have been a miracle if Edwards would have significantly fixed his worst offensive habits. I was resigned that Edwards would produce a nightly highlight, but the process and overall results would be rough throughout his first season.
Then something happened that is incredibly rare for rookies: a switch flipped in the middle of the season. Essentially overnight, Edwards went from an offensive liability to an at-rim scoring phenom. The pre and post-All-Star Break splits for Edwards’s interior scoring are eye-popping. They are numbers that reflect entirely different players.
In the first half of the season, Edwards took 42.4 percent of his shots inside ten feet, where he shot 48 percent, and 15.3 percent of his shots as pull-up two-pointers where he shot 26.8 percent. After the All-Star Break, Edwards took 46.2 percent of his shots inside ten feet, where he shot 59.2 percent, and 9.4 percent of his shots as pull-up two-pointers where he shot 28.6 percent.
Edwards’s nearly overnight change in scoring philosophy did wonders for his effectiveness and the team’s offensive success. His drives per game rose from 8.9 to 12, and his field goal percentage on drives jumped from 39.2 (a horrific number for someone of his size, skill, and athleticism) to 52.4 (same realm as James Harden, Ben Simmons, and Jamal Murray). Edwards went from drawing a foul on 8.7 percent of his drives and scoring on 58.3 percent of them to 10.4 and 68.5, respectively.
Those changes are so substantial that it makes you pause and question which half of the season was the fluke? That is until you watch the tape.
But what actually changed?
The coaching change immediately comes to mind and helps explain the shift in Edwards’s shot selection. The rise in foul rate also suggests that referees were giving Edwards a more favorable whistle. Both of those can be true, but they don’t explain the upsurge in scoring efficiency. Changes and influences on the periphery are feasible, but Edwards was the one who still had to execute the adjustments.
Seemingly overnight, Edwards realized that his mediocre, which has always passed for brilliance, was no longer acceptable in a league where brilliant is the expectation. Instead of relying purely on his explosiveness or strength, Edwards added craft, deceleration, and angle manipulation. Edwards made changes we see as players develop over their careers, but he did it in the middle of the season.
To understand what changed, we must first figure out what wasn’t working. If Edwards could simply flip a switch as he did, why did he start the season in such a ghastly fashion?
Ryan Saunders always preached about eliminating (or at least minimizing) the mid-range jumper. Still, it wasn’t until Chris Finch came aboard until we saw that philosophy implemented by Edwards, as we saw earlier. Plays like below were a regular occurrence. After coming off the stagger screen, Edwards has a clear lane to the rim and should cut it to a three-point game. Instead, he passes up the open drive for a step-back 17-footer.
Early in the season, fans were frequently up in arms about Edwards not getting any calls. In many cases, this was fair. However, Edwards brought a lot of those non-calls on himself as he was poor at initiating contact and disrupting the defender’s balance. Most of his Euro steps took him away from the rim instead of towards it. Edwards also didn’t get into the defender’s body to negate their shot-blocking ability and would frequently let defenders off the hook by carrying his momentum on drives away from the rim.
Even when Edwards did initiate contact, there was an apparent learning curve on how to finish through it. Edwards struggled with the NBA’s physicality and was even affected when the contact never came. He has always been the strongest, most athletic player on the court until he got to the NBA (and he’s still pretty damn near the top of that list).
Finally, Edwards lacked the craft of elite scorers. He frequently took off too far from the rim and rarely changed speeds. Everything was a straight line or an attempt to use brute force to succeed. It is nearly impossible to succeed in the NBA at a high level relying purely on athleticism.
The first half of the season was a painful experience, but then everything changed with what seemed like a snap of the finger. The game seemed to slow down for Edwards as he used his freak athleticism in many ways while also combining craft, guile, and authority to his drives.
Edwards still used plenty of his explosiveness, but he also implemented more deceleration to his game. His freak athleticism shines brightly at both ends of the spectrum. When defenders were tight on his hip, Edwards simply planted a foot to halt his momentum while the defender flew by. A subtle adjustment that significantly increased the quality of his shots.
Edwards also adjusted to NBA physicality much quicker than most rookies tend to do. Edwards became more earnest about initiating contact, ensuring he got to the line more. Additionally, by getting into the rim protector, Edwards negated their shot-blocking ability because they could not fully explode at the rim or were put off balance. Edwards is a freakishly strong and explosive athlete, so it was incredibly refreshing to see him utilize his gifts.
One of the most impressive changes that Edwards made was his improved understanding of angles at the rim. When players slash across the lane to finish on the opposite side of the rim, there isn’t much room for error. Since their momentum is taking them away from the rim, it is challenging to initiate contact to negate the shot-blocking ability of the defender. This reality is what makes using the rim as a shield so important. Earlier, we saw Edwards get to that opposite side of the rim relatively quickly, but he angled too far from the rim, which allowed the defender to heavily contest or block his shots. Here, we get a great view of how Edwards corrected his slashing angles. Edwards gets to the opposite side of the rim but stays within the restricted area. This allows him to use his shoulders and the rim to protect the ball while not drifting too close to the weakside defender. Edwards even gets a slight bump in his defender’s chest as icing on the cake.
Seeing Edwards adjust on the fly in these specific ways was incredibly encouraging after a highly discouraging start. However, the most encouraging evolution of Edwards’s at-rim finishing was how he put it all together in the pick-and-roll. Edwards has the athleticism to score whenever he wants in isolation, but being a threat as the pick-and-roll ball-handler adds an entirely new dimension to the offense. It gets other teammates involved, forces the defense to make proper reads and rotations, and creates easier scoring opportunities for Edwards.
Here, Edwards dribbles tightly off the screen and gets his defender on his hip. As Edwards attacks the free-throw line, he executes a perfect hesitation. By hesitating, Edwards allows his defender to seemingly get back in the play (Edwards is too big and strong to enable him to reestablish position fully), which is the drop defender’s queue to recover to his man. Once Edwards sees the drop defender move to recover, he explodes to the rim. The drop defender attempts to recover and gets in a pretty good position, but Edwards has already beaten him off the floor. By aggressively attacking the rim, Edwards initiates the contact, mitigates the shot blocker, and has the strength the hang in the air and finish through the contact.
Again, Edwards dribbles off the screen and hesitates at the free-throw line. He glances over his shoulder while simultaneously reading the drop defender. Edwards recognizes the drop defender is more concerned with recovering to Naz Reid, so Edwards explodes to the rim to finish with ease before his initial defender can recover.
This time, we see Edwards attack with hostility. As Reid sets the screen, Edwards launches into his attack. The drop defender attempts to step up to corral Edwards at the free-throw line, but the defender is in a square stance and doesn’t have the agility to dissuade Edwards. Edwards blows past him to the opposite side of the rim, allowing him to shield the ball from the block attempt.
Rookies are always expected to grow and improve their games, so I wasn’t entirely crestfallen (albeit slightly perturbed) over Edwards’s start to his rookie campaign. Edwards is too strong and too good of an athlete to be that poor of an at-rim finisher, so I knew the growth would come. However, I expected it to come in the offseason, as we see from essentially every player. Changing a substantial aspect of his game in a myriad of ways in the middle of the season continues to amaze me. It shows me that so much talent is still waiting to materialize and that the “kid who doesn’t like basketball” may actually care quite a bit about it. Edwards’s natural gifts are beyond rare, but knowing that he is aware, willing, and able to improve his inefficiencies with a snap of the finger engenders an uncommon sense of optimism.