Coming into the 2021-22 season, my biggest concern about the Timberwolves was how much they were going to be asking of and counting on a literal kid who had just turned 20 years old in August. If I had a dollar for every time I typed or said the phrase “growth isn’t linear” to myself or others in an effort to temper expectations for Anthony Edwards, I’d be rich enough to fund Tim Connelly’s bonus program.
The closing act of his rookie season was so good and so fun, but I still almost wanted to protect him from unfair expectations and responsibilities for a kid learning how to be a pro.
What I failed to realize is that Anthony Edwards is just built for this.
We’ll review the season in spurts in a second, but the end result is just a massive success. In so many ways, Edwards proved that his post-All Star break surge to end his rookie year was not a mirage. Rather, it was just the earliest signs of a young soon-to-be superstar harnessing his otherworldly physical gifts into productive, winning basketball. The kid is here, and he’s here to stay, no question about it.
Rollercoaster Regular Season
After a down, and then up, rookie season that saw Ant post a 19/5/3 line on relatively poor efficiency, with at times dreadful defense, you could see the makings of a star, but there was still much to be determined about who he would become as a player. Well, Edwards built on that and then some. His raw stat line wasn’t dramatically different (21/5/4), but Ant accumulated those numbers in a manner that was much, much more conducive to winning basketball.
Edwards boosted his shooting numbers from quite literally every distance, which led to an increase in eFG% from .488 as a rookie (league average was .538) to .527 this year (.523 league average), as well as increasing his TS% from .523 as a rookie (.572 league average) to .560 this season (.566 league average). In short, Ant improved from a woefully inefficient scorer as a rookie to roughly league average in that regard, which is incredibly impressive when you consider his volume and difficulty of shot attempts. He proved that his shooting is real. He is a legitimate knockdown shooter that teams cannot leave, which will only open up his driving lanes moving forward. With minor improvements in a few key areas (more on that later), it stands to reason Edwards can soon become a 25ppg+ scorer on above average efficiency.
While the season-long numbers paint an overarching picture, Edwards season still was a bit up-and-down due to a few factors.
He started the year slow shooting the ball, just like every other player on the team besides Karl-Anthony Towns. October and early November were ugly from a shooting percentages point, but it was clear from the beginning that Edwards didn’t come back the same player that walked off the court in Minneapolis in May of 2021. He was bigger, stronger, and more sure of himself, and he told Stephen Silas exactly what was up in the very first game of the season.
ant man hit a three and told the rockets to call a timeout lmao he's so cool pic.twitter.com/XrOeNjMevm— jack maloney (@jackmaloneycbs) October 21, 2021
The wow moments were there early, but the consistency was still lagging a bit behind, as he’d follow up a monster performance with a bit of a dud in many cases (9 points on 4-11 after the 48-point outburst, 11 points on 4-9 after the Heat game). The cold, bitter parts of the winter is when he really broke out, highlighted by capital-S Superstar performances to will the Wolves to victory in Denver (38 points on 14-21 shooting, 10 made 3s) and in Portland (40 & 9, +14 in a two point win).
It’s impossible to know how much the knee contributed to a really rough February shooting the ball (.378/.253/.661) as opposed to just inconsistent focus over the course of a brutally long season, but whatever it was, it didn’t hold Ant down for long. In March, whether it was health or just a renewed focus as the stretch run approached, Ant made 43.4% of his threes.
The regular season is just really long. It’s only natural for kids to go through some ups and downs, but it was encouraging that Edwards was able to get out of his valleys and get back to playing winning basketball in relatively short order. At the time the regular season concluded, the year had unequivocally been a success for Ant, but there was still much more for us to find out about him with the postseason on the horizon.
Built for the Big Stage
Everyone wants to believe that their star will perform in the playoffs, but the fact of the matter is you never truly know until you see it. The confidence and bravado of Anthony Edwards surely hinted at the idea that the moment wouldn’t be too big for him, but again, you just never know. Many NBA stars have gone through some brutal moments in their postseason debuts. The tenacity and level of play is just different.
Well, Edwards closed the door on any of those concerns immediately.
The NBA might pretend that the stats from Play-In games are just washed away into the ocean, but we still have records of those games. I know this because I’ve watched it on League Pass 10 time since then. While the Play-In against the Clippers wasn’t a win-or-go-home affair, the difference between playing Memphis and Phoenix, matchup wise, was drastic for Minnesota.
With their season in jeopardy, and with Karl-Anthony Towns quite possibly playing the worst game of his career, Anthony Edwards grabbed the game by the horns and, along with D’Angelo Russell, willed the Wolves to a win. It was everything that night for Edwards. The drives into, over, and around the Clippers for acrobatic layups, the step-back threes, and the ferocious dunk to put a bow on it all.
Anthony Edwards driving dunk, Target Center explodes pic.twitter.com/WT7vmN9hb6— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) April 13, 2022
He’s here, man. He’s here. 30 points, all of which necessary in the biggest game of the year.
At that moment, my questions were pretty much answered. He looked comfortable in that setting, and he continued to look comfortable in the Playoffs right off the bat, starting with a Superstar performance in Game 1 in Memphis. Ant hit tough jumper after tough jumper to pour in 36 points, making some truly incredible shots. He’s not afraid of the moment, he’s built for postseason success.
More than anything this season was a success because the Wolves know they’ve got their guy. Edwards is the type of player built for playoff success, and he’s only going to get better. Not every game was perfect, but 25/4/3 on great efficiency (.604 TS%)? Yeah, that’ll play.
There was so much to like from Edwards this year, but, like any 20 year old, he’s still got a lot to learn.
He made big strides defensively this year, showing an ability to be a problem on the ball, and being a menace in passing lanes. Can he bring more consistent focus away from the ball? That’s the next step for him on that end, even as encouraging as his strides were this year, which were genuinely monstrous. Considering how badly Ant seems to want to win, my guess is yes.
The areas that the Wolves will surely want Edwards to improve are his playmaking, two-point scoring, and rebounding.
The playmaking and passing is a little more obvious, as the Wolves would surely like to be able to trust Ant to make better reads as a passer. Chris Finch spoke at times about how Edwards was mostly limited to predetermined reads this year, which isn’t bad necessarily, but it leaves room for growth. As the Wolves put the ball in his hands more often over the coming years, being able to trust Edwards to make the correct reads on the fly will be crucial.
The rebounding is a little bit more subtle, but it might be a bigger factor in their team success in 2022-23, especially if D’Angelo Russell is not traded. It’s not a secret that this was a brutal defensive rebounding team, and while the reaction to that from the public has been to make the front court bigger, I don’t think that’s really the issue. Both Jarred Vanderbilt and Karl-Anthony Towns are good defensive rebounders, albeit in different ways. Towns doesn’t box-out, but he’s big enough where he’s going to bring down most rebounds that are in his area. Vando is a little different in that he’s more of an out-of-area rebounder, who is great at reading angles and flying around to snag rebounds.
The bottom-line is that Minnesota’s front court really didn’t perform at a poor level on the glass. Where the Wolves could use more help is from Edwards. That’s not to blame him, but he is a place to look where the Wolves could improve internally on the glass this year. If Edwards goes from a four or five rebounds per-game guy to a six or seven rebounds per-game guy, that would go a long ways. He has the physical tools to do so, it would just requite a more consistent focus and attention to detail from Edwards.
The Wolves will also hope for better results moving forward when Edwards goes to the rim, particularly when it comes to drawing fouls. Part of it is earning respect from referees, but part of it is also on Edwards to embrace contact more often, instead of trying to jump or contort his body around contact at the rim. An easy way for Ant to increase his scoring and efficiency next year would be to aim to shoot 6-7 free throws a game next year, as opposed to the 4 a game he attempted this year. Those are easy points for him that also help protect against the nights where his jumper isn’t falling.
As far as continuing to improve as a playoff performer, improving his in-between game will be crucial. Ant started to shoot better from the mid-range late in the season, but one thing I’d really like to see him add is a floater. He hasn’t displayed much touch in that range yet, but being primarily a threes and layups scorer can be a limiting factor in a playoff setting. I’m not campaigning for Edwards to lean heavily into the less efficient areas on the floor, but it’s still important to have a variety of tools at your disposal for when they’re needed.
Summer School Assignment
I’ve thought a lot about who I’d like to see Ant steal things from, and a few names stick out to me more than most, starting with Paul George and Stephen Curry.
Number one for me is Paul George. Edwards might not be 6’10” like PG, but they share a lot of similarities. Edwards has proven to be a damn good shooter, and he has athleticism that a younger Paul George could relate to. Ant has the tools to become a two-way terror like George, but where he can learn the most from the Clippers wing is how he plays away from the ball.
George is a phenomenal example of how you can be a real star without having the ball in your hands all the time. My one fear for Edwards’ development would be Minnesota steering into a heliocentric type offense around Ant, because that seems to be the way the NBA is moving with the next batch of stars.
If your player is good enough, a heliocentric offensive system is a great way to ensure that your team wins a lot of regular season games. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I also am not sold that it lends itself to consistent postseason success. The only player that’s really been able to play that way with an abundance of playoff success is LeBron James. If that’s the bar for winning in the playoffs that way, I’d suggest going another direction.
Ant will take more on-ball reps offensively as he ages, but it’s going to be important for Minnesota to keep taking advantage of him as a shooter off-ball as well. On catch-and-shoot threes this year, Edwards shot 41.3%. He’s a lethal catch-and-shoot player, and the Wolves would be foolish to take that part of his game away. Watching the way George moves without the ball, and moves around screens to get himself open would do wonders for Ant’s career.
Maybe this is all unnecessary. After all, he did score a very efficient 25ppg in the postseason this year without some of these tools. I wouldn’t want him to ever steer too far into these shot-types anyways, but we’re kind of nit-picking when it comes to his scoring, and these are areas that he could improve to make himself scheme-proof.
While the comparisons to PG are more about on-court, tangible impact, I think any team with a young star right now would be foolish to survey the league and not come to the conclusion they want their guy to turn out like Stephen Curry. There are things on the court that only Steph can do with his shooting, but he also finds a way to impact every game whether his shot is falling or not. I genuinely think Curry is one of the best leaders in all of sports, if not the best. Their personalities are not the same, but there is so much that young players can learn from the way Curry has built up his teammates over the course of his career.
At the end of the day, these improvements we’re asking for from Ant are, in a way, a compliment to just how good he already is. He has surpassed even the most optimistic pre-Draft projections for him through two years rather easily, and now it’s just about rounding out his game.
Part of this, to me at least, is also just about the fact that he’s already shown he can and will work to improve his game during the offseason. None of this feels unrealistic. Ant told us he was going to come back for his second season as a knockdown shooter and he did just that. He told us he was going to be a better defender this year, he did just that. The sky is the limit for him. He’s got the base, now it’s about fine tuning.
I say it nearly every time I write about Ant, but I again want to drive home just how lucky we are to have him. He is maybe the most pure, charismatic athlete in all of sports right now, and he plays basketball in Minneapolis. Make no mistake, the explosion in ticket sales, interest, and noise in Target Center had as much to do with the teams young, charismatic star as it did the wins being racked up. He made it cool to like the Timberwolves again. Here’s to hoping that never changes, and appreciating Anthony DeVante Edwards, 2022-23 All-Star and All-NBA performer.
We often see funny Anthony Edwards.— Jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) April 24, 2022
We've seen primetime Ant.
This is leadership Ant.
McLaughlin and Okogie aren't looking for credit for being professional, great teammates
But when one of the best players shows a genuine appreciation of it, that matters. It goes a long way pic.twitter.com/IvxtCxfMOy
Ant: “I feel like Black Jesus.”— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 26, 2022
DLo: “Sit back for this one…”
Pure, unadulterated Anthony Edwards pic.twitter.com/jqUEEQ49MQ— Jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) April 24, 2022