Sports

Anthony Edwards Is Starting to Look Worthy of the Top Pick

For more than a decade, the Timberwolves have been a franchise in need of a direction—a defined road map to building the sort of stable culture and sustained success that has proved elusive ever since Kevin Garnett became a Celtic. Almost three-quarters of the way through another dreadful season marked by another midseason coaching change, more disastrous injuries and illnesses, and a league-worst record that might not even net a top draft pick, it remains unclear whether the Wolves have found one.

But I kind of like the direction Anthony Edwards has been pitching recently, though: “straight at the rim, relentlessly, without compunction or mercy.”

After an up-and-down opening to his professional career, the no. 1 overall pick has started to soar, showing more sustained flashes of the scoring and playmaking potential that the Wolves felt they couldn’t pass up at the top of the 2020 draft. The 19-year-old has averaged 23.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in his past 20 games; the only teenagers ever to match that level of production through a full season are LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Luka Doncic, and Zion Williamson.

Edwards’s rapid ascent into such illustrious company has been aided by two major factors: the return of Wolves linchpin Karl-Anthony Towns after a missing almost a month due to a bout with COVID-19, and the hiring of new head coach Chris Finch to replace the ousted Ryan Saunders, whose work to revamp Minnesota’s offense has paid immediate dividends and helped create the runway the rookie needs to take flight.

Arthroscopic knee surgery put point guard D’Angelo Russell on the shelf for nearly two months, prompting the Wolves to toss Edwards the keys. That’s come with some growing pains—as is to be expected for any rookie thrown into the fire, let alone one as raw as Edwards on a roster as depleted as the Wolves’. But with Towns in the fold to command defensive attention, and Finch spearheading a stylistic shift aimed at maximizing both former no. 1 picks, the Georgia product has hit the gas in a big way:

Young Wolf on the Hunt

Edwards’ Status G Min/G Pts/G Usage Rate Touches/G Drives/G Drive Pts/G FTA/G Potential Assists/G
Edwards’ Status G Min/G Pts/G Usage Rate Touches/G Drives/G Drive Pts/G FTA/G Potential Assists/G
Starting, Saunders, No KAT 7 30.9 16.6 22.8% 48.6 9.1 5.1 2.3 5.9
Starting, Saunders, With KAT 7 33.9 15.0 23.2% 61.1 10.1 6.7 2.7 5.4
Starting, Finch, With KAT 20 34.9 22.9 30.3% 62.2 12.1 8.0 4.5 6.7

The second-half push might not be enough to vault Edwards to the front of the Rookie of the Year race. LaMelo Ball likely did enough in Charlotte before suffering what may or may not be a season-ending wrist injury to secure the trophy in the minds of most voters. But wherever

Edwards lands on the ballot, the way he’s looked alongside Towns in Finch’s scheme has created a spark of excitement for a Wolves fan base starved for reasons to believe. It’s also offered a glimpse into what the next phases of development might look like for a player who didn’t shift his focus from football to basketball until high school, entered this COVID-jumbled season without the benefit of summer league or training camp, and is still four months away from his 20th birthday.

Finch arrived in Minnesota fresh off a stretch as Nick Nurse’s right-hand man with the Raptors, with a reputation as a respected offensive assistant who’d previously had a hand in crafting schemes around skilled big men like Nikola Jokic, DeMarcus Cousins, and Anthony Davis. His first order of business was to figure out how to get a roster tilted toward offensive talent to actually score like one after the Wolves had sputtered to the league’s third-worst offensive efficiency mark at the time of Saunders’s firing. Minnesota has made incremental progress despite myriad injuries and lineup shuffling, moving up to 22nd in points scored per possession since Finch took the gig. Most notably: The Wolves have scored 113.8 points per 100 possessions when Towns and Edwards share the floor under Finch—equivalent to a 10th-ranked offense over a full season.

We knew that Finch—who helped push the pace-and-space envelope during his time coaching the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Houston Rockets’ G League laboratory—would try to nudge the Wolves’ offense toward more analytically optimal scoring chances. Sure enough, they’re playing faster and are hunting transition opportunities more often, jumping from 23rd in fast-break points per game under Saunders to 14th under Finch. They’re also taking more 3-pointers, free throws, and shots in the restricted area per game. The Wolves weren’t exactly operating in the Stone Age before—they had the NBA’s seventh-best shot profile before Saunders’s firing, according to Cleaning the Glass—but they’ve bumped that up to second best under Finch, with jumps in both frequency of attempts and success rate at the rim.

Much of that shift starts with a reimagining of Towns’s role. Towns is an advanced playmaker for a center, capable of seeing over the top of a defense and slinging passes all over the court. Finch has leaned into that, feeding Towns more touches at the elbows and in the post and looking to leverage the attention he draws to create opportunities for teammates. It’s paying off: Towns is averaging nearly five assists and nine potential assists per game since the coaching change. And Edwards—who leads all rookies in scoring, and whose true shooting percentage has been markedly better with Towns on the floor (.530) than off of it (.488) since Finch took over—is learning how to move off the ball to put himself in position to attack when all eyes drift to KAT:

It doesn’t hurt that Towns is also one of the greatest shooting big men the league has ever seen, making him a hand-in-glove fit for the spread-it-out-and-bomb-away approach Finch favors. He’s hoisting nearly seven triples per night under Finch, a bunch of which have come in the pick-and-pop with Edwards, who’s learning to trust his ability to draw focus and create space with a live dribble, and to make the simple pass to an open shooter:

The partnership has worked the other way, too. When defenders stick to KAT off the screen, not wanting to leave a knockdown shooter alone at the arc, Edwards seizes the chance to get downhill—something no defense wants to deal with:

“We’re starting to figure out what each other likes,” Edwards said after the two combined for 83 points in an upset win over an excellent Suns team last month. “I figured out how he likes to catch the ball, how I like to catch the ball. We kind of just play off each other. … It’s kind of fun playing with KAT. Not going to lie, it was extremely fun.”

Finch has experimented some by having Towns and Edwards run actions on the side of the floor. Sometimes, Minnesota will empty out a corner to make sure defenses have to defend the play two-on-two without helping. Sometimes, it’s Edwards rocketing out of the corner for a dribble pitch or handoff. The goal is the same: Let the rook build up a head of steam and use his 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound frame to bulldoze his way to the rim:

The teamwide imprimatur to launch from long distance has helped open up driving lanes, too. That, combined with gradual improvement as he’s grown more accustomed to the NBA game, has helped Edwards boost his interior finishing numbers. After shooting a disappointing 46 percent at the basket through the first month of his career, he’s up to 59 percent since, and a much cooler 65.8 percent at the rim with KAT on the court since Finch took over. With his size, strength, athleticism, and scoring touch, I’d bet on that number continuing to improve the more he gets to attack with a spread floor.

Defenses will look to counter that by ducking under screens and daring Edwards to make them pay from the perimeter. It’s a good gamble; Edwards is shooting a ghastly 28.3 percent on pull-up jumpers. Well, it is for now, at least. He’s shown he can pull up to punish those unders, and his free throw shooting stroke (78.0 percent as a rookie) offers cause for optimism that the jumper will come online. And the man himself sure doesn’t seem to be lacking for confidence in it:

That’s the vision for Edwards: a high-volume creator who can overwhelm tight coverage to get to the rim or line at will, can splash jumpers when you play off of him, and can facilitate in the pick-and-roll. The only way to slow down a dude like that is to keep him from getting the ball in the first place. Which brings us to Russell.

President of basketball operations Gersson Rosas has made it plain that he envisions the Wolves as an explosive offensive team built around the pick-and-roll partnership of Towns and Russell, KAT’s close friend and the point guard that Minnesota couldn’t live without. Injury and illness have largely conspired to keep the Wolves from bringing that vision to reality, and from figuring out where the team’s most important players—Towns, Russell, Edwards, and shooting guard Malik Beasley—slot into the team’s hierarchy.

They’ll have to wait a while longer to figure it out. Beasley’s now out for four to six weeks with a strained left hamstring, which could mean he’s done for the season. Beasley went down the day that Russell returned, which continued a brutal run of luck for the Wolves—one that started with Towns breaking his wrist one game after the Russell and Beasley trades last season.

“I don’t want to say nothing about being happy or anything because every time we get everyone back, some shit goes wrong,” Towns said last month. “It usually involves me, so I ain’t trying to say nothing. I don’t want to jinx it. When everyone’s back and we’re on the court, it’ll be a great day. Because it never happened so far.”

Well, not “never,” but close to it. Towns and Russell have shared the floor for only 152 minutes through seven games spanning two seasons. They’ve played just 45 minutes with Edwards. Those three have lined up alongside Beasley, Minnesota’s second-leading scorer, for a measly 13 minutes.

In theory, adding Russell (a savvy playmaker and 37.2 percent 3-point shooter through the past three seasons) and Beasley (just under 40 percent on six long-range attempts per game in the same span) into the mix would space the floor even more for Edwards’s drives and Towns’s inside-out playmaking. In practice, it’ll be interesting to see how the unleashed version of Edwards will mesh with Russell, who leads the Wolves in touches per game, average time of possession, and usage rate. Edwards’s usage, scoring efficiency, and per-minute scoring have also dropped precipitously with Russell on the court.

The glass-half-full take: Minnesota has outscored its opponents by a strong 24.4 points in those 45 scant minutes. The trio looked awfully good against Sacramento on Monday, too, taking turns spacing the floor, attacking, cutting, and making the extra pass:

“It’s exciting. [Towns and Russell are] both really clever,” Finch told reporters after the 116-106 win. “They’re able to read the defenses well. They’re able to get to their own shots and create them. It’s a glimpse into what we can be.”

The glass-half-empty view: Towns, Russell, and Edwards shot a combined 20-for-52, and the only reason that was enough to win is because they were playing the Kings, one of the only teams with a defense worse than their own. That Russell took more shots in 24 minutes than Edwards did in 38 probably won’t assuage concerns that his return might limit the rookie’s opportunities. And, at the end of the day, it won’t really matter how good the offense is if the Wolves—who were 24th in points allowed per possession under Saunders, and are 27th under Finch—can’t stop anybody. Like, for example, when Minnesota lost Wednesday, despite Towns, Edwards, and Russell combining for 76 points, because they gave up 141 to a Pacers team that was playing without Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Myles Turner.

We’ll have a better sense of which perspective seems most reasonable by season’s end. For now, predictably, the über-confident Edwards doesn’t seem to be sweating his place in the pecking order too much.

“KAT and D-Lo score the ball,” Edwards told reporters after Russell’s return. “I don’t feel pressure when they’re gone or they’re back. I don’t feel pressure. I never feel pressure. I love this game. This is what I’ve been doing my whole life. I feel like I’m pretty good at it.”

He’s already better than pretty good. Before long, he might be good enough to make Rosas think long and hard about whether the right direction for the Timberwolves is the one he sketched out when he went all in for Russell, or the one Edwards has started laying out on his own.



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