With no Karl Anthony-Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and even secondary ball-handlers like Kyle Anderson and Jordan McLaughlin, Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch threw Anthony Edwards into a lead guard role. The results have been fruitful. In his last four games, Edwards has 32 assists and just 10 turnovers.
But looking through his dimes, they aren’t super eye-popping. He isn’t manipulating a defense with his eyes and body like Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić or putting the drop big in a blender with his floater/lob game like Atlanta Hawks floor general Trae Young.
So what is he doing?
Edwards is taking what the defense gives him. His raw scoring gravity and otherworldly athleticism forces defenses to help in the gaps and give that one little extra second of help before they close out back to their man.
That gravity has benefitted Austin Rivers, who is enjoying his best stretch of the season. He’s a scorching 14 of 20 from 3-point range in his past four games. He’s also attacked closeouts to get into the paint for his own shot. Rivers is shooting unsustainably well from three, but you can trace his success back to the attention Edwards garners.
“The essence of offense in the league is when they put two on you, you create an advantage,” Finch told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic. “No matter how you do it, pick-and-roll, trap, early gap help, all that stuff is a gravity that he creates,” Finch said. “Just trying to continue to find the right play.”
Most of the time, an offense isn’t going to generate the advantage of the possession on the first action. Sometimes it takes multiple attempts to whittle down the defense enough for the offense to have a clean strike.
The Wolves have struggled in that whittling down of the defense throughout the season. There’s been a lack of flow or the ability to play outside of their sets. The offense would ground to a standstill as the team struggled to create any meaningful advantage, but in recent games, the offense has looked a lot more connected.
Off the offensive rebound, Edwards gets the ball in the post. The Chicago Bulls’ help defenders linger for just a bit as Edwards appears to have a mismatch on Goran Dragić. Instead of forcing the issue, Edwards kicks it out, and the Wolves swing it around the horn for a Rivers 3 before the Bulls even know it.
Going back to the Finch quote about the essence of offense, Edwards is the player that gets two defenders focused on the ball, which starts the chain reaction in a half-court possession.
A clear example of this domino effect is in pick-and-roll. When the Wolves took on the Chicago Bulls, the gameplan from the Bulls’ side was to put both defenders involved in guarding the screen on Edwards for a split second to prevent him from getting downhill.
To counter, Edwards immediately swings the ball to Russell, who feeds it into a rolling Nate Knight. Knight draws in the low-man and kicks it out to Rivers for a wide-open corner 3.
The Timberwolves put up an astounding, franchise-record 150 points against the Bulls. Edwards served as the primary catalyst for the team’s offensive performance. He finished with 37 points and 11 assists. Most importantly, he controlled the game.
“When you on the ball every play, you get to see everything,” Edwards told Krawczynski postgame after the win in Chicago. “A while back, I’m in the corner, I come off, I’m just thinking, like, shoot. But now I’m on the ball every time, so I get to see everything. So it’s pretty dope. It’s actually fun, like I’m having the most fun I ever had playing basketball.”
Edwards has primarily played off the ball in his time with the Wolves, but now in his third season, he’s getting the chance to show his overall feel for the game.
Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum could be a comparable development trajectory for Edwards. Tatum entered the NBA as a poor passer, but he’s taken significant steps every year. Once regarded as a weakness, Tatum consistently makes defenses pay for loading up on him by quickly getting the ball to his teammates.
“We’ve seen a similar growth curve from other athletic forwards who began their All-Star reigns as pure scorers and then graduated into MVP candidates by improving their passing,” Mat Issa of Basketball News said in an article about Tatum’s growth as a playmaker.
Tatum finally found the blend of playmaking and scoring in the Celtics’ first-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets last season.
“The Nets often tried to load up on Tatum in a fashion similar to the way the Celtics did so with Durant…Tatum continuously found ways to knife his way into the eye of the storm…His ability to consistently get two feet into the defense’s place of worship forced the Nets to sink in on his drives, and that shift empowered Tatum to spray passes out to his loosely guarded contemporaries.”
Edwards is going through a similar trial by fire. With many key perimeter players out of the lineup, Edwards has reckoned with a defense fully focused on shutting him down. It all started against the Los Angeles Clippers where the Wolves put up a measly 88 points with many key players inactive.
In that matchup, Edwards learned how to deal with various coverages meant to get the ball out of his hands. He didn’t need to score to punish the defense. All he needed to do was make the right play.
So far, Edwards has made those simple reads. It’s a step in the right direction, but there have also been exciting flashes of him analyzing the backside of the defense for skip passes to shooters.
It’s a broken play with the shot clock winding down. Knight sets a screen for Edwards, who probes within the arc. DeMar DeRozan comes into the paint to tag Knight. Edwards launches out a pass to Jaden McDaniels for the corner 3.
What’s intriguing here is the timing of Edwards’ pass. If he throws the pass a half-second later, Nikola Vucevic might’ve had the time to recover to Knight, and DeRozan could’ve started to run back out to contest McDaniels. Instead, Edwards throws it to McDaniels the moment DeRozan settles his feet on the tag.
The Wolves have found a formula that works. By giving Edwards more ball-handling duties, Russell can use his shooting to make defenses play. He also gets to attack bent defenses and use his genius passing to create high-leverage offensive looks.
Before the Wolves Dec. 21 matchup against the Dallas Mavericks, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer points out pick and roll possessions are shifting to Edwards and away from Russell.
Anthony Edwards ran more pick-and-rolls than D'Angelo Russell only four times in their first 29 games, per @SecondSpectrum.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 20, 2022
Over the last two games:
-37 for Ant, 22 for DLo
-42 for Ant, 29 for DLo
Big change for Minnesota empowering Point Ant.
Pod: https://t.co/sj89YGfPJG pic.twitter.com/j3mPyWh19R
The key will be sustaining this style of play with Towns returning. Gobert and Russell have started to integrate into this Edwards-centric system. Towns provides floor spacing and driving, a perfect off-ball complimentary skillset. It’s a matter if he will buy into the newfound identity.
The pecking order has been murky for this Wolves core, but what’s becoming apparent is Edwards is the most dynamic on-the-ball player the Wolves have. Blend his knack for getting into the paint with his newly discovered passing chops, and the Wolves may have found their recipe for success.
The Wolves will go as far as Edwards can take them. He’s the player that draws enough defensive eyes to kickstart the offense, but it’s a two-way street. If Edwards keeps punishing teams for helping with his passing, teams might decide to test his scoring prowess and stay home.
When a defense falls into that pick-your-poison bind, the possibilities are endless.