The Minnesota Timberwolves have undergone massive changes in the 2022 offseason, and it’s worth wondering how exactly it will all come together for Minnesota in 2022-23 as they look to build on a promising year. Each week from now until the start of preseason in October, I will be writing about one specific thing for each potential rotation player that I am most intrigued to see in terms of how the team ultimately fits. For last week’s story on Karl-Anthony Towns, click here.
The “third-year leap” is a well-known trope in the NBA. The idea is that players who will become superstars often make major strides in their third NBA season, having had two years to get acclimated to the league and work with the best development teams.
It’s a good sign when a player is expected to make such a leap because it means they showcased plenty of talent through their rookie and sophomore seasons. But in many cases, it comes with high expectations that aren’t easy to fulfill.
Another complicating factor is that these leaps don’t all happen the same way. Fans and media may set assumptions about statistical or team success thresholds that determine if the player took the jump they wanted, but progression is neither linear nor evenly spread across one’s skills. Leaps look different for every player.
This is the high-stakes situation rising star Anthony Edwards finds himself in entering the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2022-23 season. Players and media alike are forecasting him to have a huge year as the new-look Wolves move into greater national prominence, part of the expectation that Minnesota will be his team alone sooner rather than later.
There are multiple ways for Edwards to improve not only to clear All-Star status, but into the All-NBA conversation. Let’s check some of them out by examining previous third-year leaps.
The Jayson Tatum route: Elite, high-volume shooting
Tatum became “The Guy” for the Boston Celtics in 2019-20 after Kyrie Irving’s departure and followed through by making his first All-Star Game and earning All-NBA Third Team honors. All of that was fueled by an elite mix of volume and accuracy from three.
Tatum’s points per game improved from 15.7 as a sophomore to 23.4 in his third season, largely because he shot 40.3% on 7.1 3s per game, per Basketball-Reference. Tatum was a sharpshooter from the time he entered the league, but he never attempted more than four treys per game through his first two campaigns.
Edwards doesn’t need a massive uptick in attempts — he has averaged 7.8 long-range shots thus far in his young career. But one way he can get more out of his game is to elevate his percentage into the high 30s or low 40s.
Edwards has already made real strides on his jumper since joining the Wolves, getting to 35.7% last year despite taking the seventh-most pull-up threes in the league on a per game basis among those with at least 30 games played, per NBA.com.
He put that on full display in high-leverage postseason moments.
Shooting accurately on a high number of pull-ups is obviously difficult — only eight qualified players have shot at least 37% on at least five such shots per game the last five seasons, with multiple appearances by all-time great shooting talents Steph Curry and Damian Lillard. But Edwards looks so comfortable launching off the dribble and has the physical profile to get them off, so nothing is impossible.
He doesn’t have to be Curry or Lillard to see major benefits from deep. But real advances will make Edwards even more difficult to guard than he already is.
The Ja Morant route: Middle game opens everything up
Much has been made of the “death of the mid-range” in recent NBA seasons, but the best teams and players recognize that there is a baseline level of ability top scorers/playmakers need in the area. If you don’t have it, opponents will direct you into the shots you’re not comfortable with.
This was the crucial development for Ja Morant in making his first All-Star Game as well as the All-NBA Second Team last season. He has increased his percentage of attempts taken from 3-10 feet every season up to 29.1% last year, and he shot his best percentage from the range (43.3% per Basketball-Reference).
By adding more craft in the in-between area, including a killer floater, Morant rounded out his skill set and forced the defense to respect him all over the floor. That, in turn, opened up every other aspect of Morant’s game because defenders couldn’t key in on specific areas. It’s a huge reason he saw an uptick from 19.1 points per game to 27.4 points per game while improving his true shooting percentage.
Edwards, meanwhile, has taken only 13.7% of his shots in that range in his career and shoots just 33.6% on them. Learning skills such as that floater, keeping trailing defenders in jail on his back, using his length and explosion to rise for short jumpers, etc., will remove a weapon defenses can use against him.
Edwards and Morant are different players with different physiques, but they’re both wildly explosive with rare ability to change directions on a dime. Timberwolves fans may hate the idea of their star emulating Morant, but Ant should be grinding Ja tape to see what he can pick up.
The Dwyane Wade route: Steady build to leader of a champion
This is admittedly an outrageously lofty goal for Edwards, and not just because it compares him to maybe the third-best shooting guard ever. Wade was 24 years old in his third season while playing alongside NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and a Miami Heat cast that reached the Eastern Conference Finals the year prior. Edwards just turned 21, and as talented as the Wolves are, they have no significant experience deep in the playoffs as a collective unit.
Wade didn’t make a wild statistical leap in 2005-06, but that’s because he was already putting up big numbers by his sophomore year, when he was an All-Star and Second Team All-NBA selection. His third year averages of 27.2/5.7/6.7 on 49.5% shooting are not major jumps; they point to the fact that Wade’s extra time in college at Marquette enabled him to dominate early in the pros in a way unavailable to Edwards.
This is the leap to strive for rather than the one to expect. Wade took over the alpha dog duties from Shaq and led the Heat back from an 0-2 deficit to the Dallas Mavericks with one of the greatest Finals series performances ever.
Putting that expectation on Edwards is too much.
Maybe this year Edwards can make a statistical leap (high 20s points per game, more efficient scoring, improved playmaking and rebounding numbers), get another year of playoff experience and then have his ‘06 Wade moment in his fourth season.
It’s a lot to ask, but the possibility comes with the limitless potential Edwards has.
Andre Iguodala on Anthony Edwards: pic.twitter.com/n5ldTErCz1— Spongewolf (@SpongewoIf) August 26, 2022
It’s the prevailing opinion around the country that if the Wolves are ever to get to the mountaintop, it will be Edwards that leads them there. This upcoming season is neither the first nor the last on that journey.
But if history is to be believed, it is the one where he’ll prove if he has that greatness in him.