Anthony Edwards played his first game in a USA jersey since becoming a professional, and he did not disappoint. In a 117-74 win over Puerto Rico, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ star contributed 15 points, four assists, two rebounds, four steals, and a block in 22 minutes, during which the United States was +18. Overall, it’s tough to imagine Edwards’ debut going much better than it did.
From the tip off, it was clear that the influence of Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr and his impressive USA Basketball coaching staff has started rubbing off on Edwards. Historically, Edwards has always had the ball in his hands and been the primary option. On this USA team, though, Edwards is one of many impressive pieces. The result being that he isn’t going to experience the same usage he has throughout his career. So far, Edwards is adapting just fine.
Playing on the USA team has almost always been a boon to players’ development. They are practicing against some of the best players in the world, being coached by some of the best coaches in the world, and must adapt their games to fit in which breeds ancillary skills they haven’t been able to focus on. In the exhibition game against Puerto Rico, Edwards seamlessly blended his on and off-ball skillsets, making him a dynamic offensive weapon.
To start the game, USA ran a series of plays that required significant off-ball movement from everyone on the floor. We’ve seen in the past that Edwards will just go through the motions, or even be statuesque, if he knows he isn’t getting the ball. Most of these plays didn’t result in Edwards getting the ball, but he still moved with intention and set quality off-ball screens. As the game progressed, the set plays became less frequent, but the Atlanta native’s off-ball movement didn’t regress. While he wasn’t running off as many screens, he was still active away from the ball. There were natural relocations where Ant filled the space that the attacking ball handler had just vacated. When running in transition, Edwards eagerly beat his defender down the floor and properly filled his lane to create an outlet or drag a defender out of position to create space for a teammate. When Edwards didn’t have the ball, he still found ways to bolster the offense.
With the ball, the 2023 NBA All-Star continued to show the growth we’ve seen from him in his early career. He took advantage of mismatches in the post and mid-range. He decisively attacked closeouts to create attempts at the rim. Whether it was out of dribble handoffs or the pick-and-roll, Edwards consistently collapsed the defense.
Edwards’ rim pressure didn’t always result in a bucket for himself, but his playmaking and ability to collapse the defense often resulted in someone else getting a clean look. There were a handful of drives where Edwards effortlessly beat his man with his first step, which resulted in the strong side corner help defender to collapse. Ant regularly made the easy kick-out to a teammate for an open corner 3. This isn’t an overly complicated read to make, but it is always the right one. When we try to translate it to the Timberwolves, it’s easy to see him making the same types of passes to Jaden McDaniels, Mike Conley, Karl-Anthony Towns, or whoever else is set up in the corner.
Edwards still didn’t show off an playmaking in terms of throwing lobs, but his gravity at the rim created some easy put-backs for teammates. Last season, Edwards constantly executed one of the best euro-step and deceleration shot creation packages in the league. While that’s still his go to move, Edwards also is incorporating a bit more flair in his rim attacks with spin moves (yes, he’s executed a spin move before). By continuing to pressure the rim at will and diversifying his shot creation, the Timberwolves’ centers should feast on the offensive glass this year. Even when Edwards doesn’t necessarily make the shot, he’s still attracting the attention of multiple defenders, which presents ample offensive rebounding opportunities for the rest of the team.
While Ant had a notable offensive outing, his defensive performance was significantly more impressive. Edwards consistently picked up at the point of attack and showed much better screen navigation. His footwork and strength regularly stymied drives. Even when Edwards couldn’t get around a screen, he would recover and perfectly funnel the ball-handler to the drop defender. An encouraging sign for next season.
The biggest growth in Edwards’ defense, though, was away from the ball. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick has always struggled with his off-ball defense, but this was arguably the most impressive it has ever looked. He was communicating switches, navigating screens, anticipating plays, and playing with active hands. Edwards still showed off his defensive playmaking chops, but he also combined it with more refined fundamentals and a heightened awareness.
Anthony Edwards has a lot of expectations heading into the FIBA World Cup. Yes, this was just an exhibition game against Puerto Rico, but it would’ve been just as easy for Edwards to overlook it as it was for him to come out with a strong performance. His continued growth on the defensive end combined with his diversified and simplified offensive game is a great omen for the coming tournament and season.