At the ripe age of 21, Anthony Edwards has grown into the leader of a team with aspirations of making a deep playoff run.
As the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2022-23 season has threatened to go off the rails numerous times, they’ve looked to their blossoming star as their conductor tasked with avoiding complete disaster. The relationship between Edwards, the most important person in the Timberwolves franchise moving forward, and his locker room has shown itself this season. That connection is one that makes you sleep well at night, in large part because it’s organic.
Edwards wasn’t thrown into a group full of teammates who also couldn’t legally celebrate their victories with a post-game beer — one that he would own by default. The locker room belonged to numerous vets before him, but now in his third NBA season, he’s earned the right to lead the locker room both with his play and the way he interacts with his teammates. He’s able to deliver constructive criticism in a way that’s appropriate, but he also makes a point to deflect the praise he receives onto a teammate who helped him out in a victory.
You can set your clock to it during his on-court interview with Bally Sports after a game, with the only ambiguous part of the equation being which of his buddies will get the credit any given night. Whether it be Taurean Prince, Kyle Anderson, Jaden McDaniels, Jordan McLaughlin, etc., Edwards has made a point to give genuine praise to his teammates in public. Surely, that means a lot to the other guys in the locker room.
All of that is great, as it’s just part of who Ant is. It’s genuine. The Wolves have a leader for the foreseeable future, but it’s not just because of his interpersonal skills. Of course, much of Edwards earning a leadership role has to do with his actual play on the floor, as well.
Edwards has won over that mantle in part by playing in every game. That might not sound like much, but in the modern era it is not the norm. It is especially unusual for a star to play through a nagging injury the way Edwards continues to play through what the team describes as left hip soreness. He landed awkwardly on that hip in Milwaukee on December 30th, but has not missed a game since.
In January, he’s averaged 23/5/5 on roughly league average efficiency, despite being the focal point of every opponent’s defense. Minnesota has a +7.8 net-rating with Edwards on the floor during that span, which has led them to a 6-2 stretch to start the new year. Those raw numbers also include the two games he started and left early (though he did bizarrely return after being ruled OUT in Detroit on January 11th). The point being, Edwards has clearly looked hobbled at times, but has more or less been able to play through this injury and look like himself.
You better believe his teammates appreciate that toughness and desire to win.
Austin Rivers on Anthony Edwards: “It just sets a tone like this dude’s invested. He’s here. This guy’s playing through injuries, no matter. The Houston game, a lot of guys would just sit out, like, ‘Hey, we’ll win without him.’ But Ant came out there and really showed us.”— Chris Hine (@ChristopherHine) January 14, 2023
Not only is Edwards showing up and playing every game, but he’s playing damn well as a 21-year-old kid tasked with added burden of leading a team.
What makes him so unique, though, is that we still really don’t know who or what he’s going to become. I mean, we feel pretty good about his chances of being a legitimate superstar during his prime, but because of how his career has started, we don’t have a great grasp of what kind of elite player he’ll be. While he’s only 21, it’s rather uncommon for a young player to be this good, and to still have so much ambiguity around what type of player they’ll ultimately be at their peak.
We knew guys like Ja Morant and Luka Dončić were going to be stars who are dominant because of their on-ball talents, and as Devin Booker was blossoming, it was rather apparent that what made him special was his willingness and ability to get off the ball and be lethal playing off the catch. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick has flashed a bit on both sides of that spectrum, which is great, but it just makes it harder to project exactly who he is in the future.
The most common discussion around Edwards going forward revolves around how much he’ll be on the ball, and how much playmaking responsibility he’ll have. Ant could lean all the way into an on-ball role, attempting to follow in the footsteps of other ball-dominant stars like James Harden or Dončić. On the other end of the spectrum, he could maintain his more balanced offensive diet and lean into the Paul George, Booker archetype. More usage will come, but it’s a matter of how much is too much for Edwards.
The Timberwolves have a wildly talented ball of clay. Over the first two-and-a-half seasons of his career, they’ve seen the quality of the material steadily improve without really beginning to take a solid shape. Edwards is still a scintillating yet sculptable player like he was when he entered the league; only now, the final product the Wolves coaching staff is working towards is of the highest quality. Safe to say, he is not the next Dion Waiters.
You could tell me that, in five years, Edwards is one of the five highest-usage players in the league and I wouldn’t be surprised. In a similar vein, you could tell me that his usage increased from where it’s been to start his career (27.2% career, 28.5% this season), but he maintained his off-ball role to a degree a la George/Booker, and I’d believe that too. He could still really become anything, and he would likely excel in either role.
It’s simply a matter of which one is best.
I’ve noted numerous times here that I personally believe the best use of Edwards’ skill-set is more in the George archetype than the full-time lead-guard role. Part of that belief comes down to how good he is as a spot-up shooter.
Per nba.com/stats, the Atlanta, Ga. native has made 42.3% of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season, after making 41.3% of those attempts last season. He doesn’t take a ton of them, but the sample of him being a knockdown catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter is large enough now to say he’s very good at it. It would be a shame to cut that out of his game.
He’s made real strides as a playmaker this season, which makes it all the more tempting to markedly increase Ant’s usage. What still concerns me is that the leap he’s made with the ball in his hands has taken him from someone who is a beat slow as a passer to a player who is a bit more willing and less reactive, but still falls well short of being a proactive passer. To be tasked with the usage of guys like Morant, Dončić, or Harden, being a proactive passer is normally a requirement. Those three are orchestrators, while Edwards is still learning his scales.
On top of that, the only ball-handlers who have ever really been able to sustain that level of usage while remaining a good defensive player are LeBron James and the late, great Kobe Bryant. I think Edwards is a potential MVP candidate during his prime years, but excuse me if I hold him to a standard below LeBron.
In all seriousness, the impact Ant has shown he can make defensively is an important part of his progression and should be factored into the discussion about who he’s going to become. The consistency he has shown on that end of the floor this season is a noticeable improvement, and the value he adds there going forward is really important.
Being able to do stuff like this is extremely rare.
The defensive combination of an engaged Edwards and Jaden McDaniels on the wing for the foreseeable future is something that will need to value.
If this wing duo is ever going to hit the Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown ceiling, it’s going to have a lot to do with how good they are defensively. They’re unlikely to be as good as that duo is collectively on offense, but there’s potential to make up ground on defense to create a legitimate championship-level wing pairing.
So, while I don’t prefer the heavy usage role for Ant, it’s only fair to admit that every point against that role is speculative. Meanwhile, the Wolves have already begun the process of putting more on his plate, with impressive results. Since Karl-Anthony Towns went down on November 28th, Edwards’ usage rate is up to 29.5%, compared to 26.5% before Towns’ injury. Further, over the last 15 games his usage is at 31.0%, and in January it’s up to 31.9%.
For context, only 16 players who average 30 minutes or more have a usage rate of 30.0% or higher. Steph Curry’s usage rate is 29.8%, the highest of those short of 30.0%.
The point being, Minnesota has continued to give their young star more and more responsibility, and the results have only encouraged them to continue to find the inflection point between usage and team-wide efficiency. Since Towns’ injury, Minnesota has an offensive rating of 116.1 points per-100 possessions with Edwards on the floor compared to an ORTG of 106.4 with him on the bench. Over the last 15 games those figures are 116.4 points/100 on-court, and 105.8 points/100 off-court. In January, it’s 177.7 points/100 on, 115.4 off.
For reference, the Boston Celtics lead the NBA in offensive rating this season at 117.8 points/100, and post an ORTG of 119.8 with Jayson Tatum on the court. In short, Ant isn’t just driving good offense, he is driving great offense as he’s given more responsibility.
On a similar note, the belief that Edwards’ passing vision isn’t good enough to be an uber-high volume superstar is what conventional wisdom would suggest, but I’m starting to believe that Edwards’ gravity might be the kind that defies conventional wisdom.
Anthony Edwards is not Giannis Antetokounmpo, but teams are starting to prepare for his drives in a similar way that teams do to the two-time MVP.
Man, to possess this level of gravity.. This is like a Giannis-level of defensive load up.. pic.twitter.com/qpqGxzKtPA— Jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) January 17, 2023
It’s not just a one clip thing, either. The shot didn’t go in, but there’s a reason that McDaniels was standing all by himself in the strong-side corner of Edwards’ drive to close the fourth quarter against the Jazz on January 16th. At the time of Ant’s pass to McDaniels, both Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson are chasing Edwards, Ochai Agbaji is helping off of D’Angelo Russell and has two feet in the paint (in part to tag Kyle Anderson), and Walker Kessler has left Anderson on the weak side of the floor to step in front of the drive as well.
The help was a bit exaggerated since it was the last play of the game, but the point stands. The kid draws a crowd that just makes passing angles much easier for him, and make it so that his currently imperfect vision just doesn’t really matter as much. This only promises to be more fruitful when Towns returns and Minnesota has two lethal scoring options on the floor in crunch time.
As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. I personally love the mix between on-ball and off-ball opportunities Edwards has enjoyed throughout his career, but I would be foolish not to admit that he’s earned more ball-handling responsibility with his play. I wouldn’t want to stretch those responsibilities to the absolute limits where his offensive load negates his ability to be an asset defensively, but the Wolves would be silly to not at least see how he would handle a usage rate right above 30% for an extended period of time, in the same neighborhood as guys like Tatum, Booker, George, Brown and Donovan Mitchell.
With all that said, there are enough signs there to point to a trajectory leading to ultra high-usage in the Dončić/Harden mold. Ultimately, it’s possible that that’s the best way to capitalize on his prime, but I think more than anything this will ultimately come down to if Head Coach Chris Finch is still the leading the Timberwolves during that time. As a massive proponent of a more free-flowing offense in comparison to a pick-and-roll heavy offense, I think it is near impossible that Ant would ever be thrust into a 35%+ usage role over a full season as long as Finch is his coach.
If the first few seasons of Anthony Edwards’ career have taught us anything, it’s that he’s likely able to handle much more than we’re giving him credit for, even as lofty as those standards are. By now we should know he’s going to be great, but it’s the ride to get there that promises to be the most enjoyable part. That we hardly have a clue what that ride will look like is what should excite us most.