Anthony Edwards has busy ears. There are the whispers from Timberwolves teammates, as he’s heading back to the huddle, as he’s sitting on the bench, as he’s stepping out of the postgame showers. There is veteran guard Austin Rivers’ counsel and hype from the locker next door. Sitting courtside before every pregame warmup, Edwards attends assistant coach Joe Boylan’s private film lessons with an iPad in their lap. He’s wrapped in a constant exchange with head coach Chris Finch, the tactician tasked with sharpening Edwards into the most lethal but honed version he can be. And then there are however many voices in between.
“He’s so good, everybody’s telling him things,” said D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota’s starting point guard. Everybody around the Timberwolves has some form of gospel, no matter how small, to impress upon the 21-year-old with the athleticism as electric as his charisma and the scoring chops to shoulder a franchise.
Like any kingdom, there are many actors circling near Minnesota’s prince. Although here, it is not to gain power or influence over his mighty impact waiting on the horizon, but to help fuel he who has the capability of blooming into the savior these Timberwolves presently need. They are mired in a suboptimal 16-21 start to the 2022-23 season for which the front office invested a staggering five future first-round picks to pair hulking center and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert with sweet-shooting All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns to vie for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Edwards stands in the middle of it all, weaving the ball between his legs and twisting through the mental gymnastics of his never-ending feedback. What’s a good shot and what’s a bad shot? When should he look to score and when should he distribute? When should he attack versus when he can hunt those long balls that puncture road crowds? “We can even yell at him, and he listens,” Rivers recently told reporters. “The young dude listens.” Edwards can be such a good listener, he can take some of the constant critique almost too literally. At the tail of his rookie season, Finch urged Edwards to stretch his step-back long twos into step-back threes. And so, Edwards heard the coach loud and clear. He started almost exclusively launching triples as he lurched his toes behind the line.
But now this is Year 3. Every time Edwards laces his sneakers is one less time as a prodigy and one step closer to the seasoned veteran his team’s ultimate success requires. He is running out of days as the youngster afforded room for errors and ill-advised isolations.
Towns’ weeks-long absence with a calf strain has thrust Edwards onto Minnesota’s controls. For as much as Towns has admirably craved to fill the role of organizational pole, the majority of postseason possessions with games and series and legacies in the balance are conducted on the perimeter. They are conducted by a back-breaking ball-handler like Edwards, even when the opposition throws its greatest ambush his way. “He wants to be in that moment,” Wolves forward Jaden McDaniels told Yahoo Sports. “He wants the ball in his hands in crunchtime.” The choices that come with holding that baton, quite frankly, still remain a work in progress for the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft.
“One thing we preach to him a lot is the essence of offense in the league is not how much you score, but when they put two on you and you create an advantage,” Finch said. “No matter how they do it, pick-and-roll trap, early gap help, all that stuff that comes from the gravity he creates, just trying to continue to find the right play and trusting his teammates to score. Keep trusting the right pass.”
For all his eccentric artistry, Edwards is truly a humble star, interested and excited about generating successes for the players to his right and left. It is a familial trait, one highlighted by multiple Minnesota staffers. “And if I want my teammates to go out there and bust they ass on defense and defend, I gotta give them some more offense, give them some reward,” Edwards told Yahoo Sports. “They’re putting two on me? Let [my teammates] play four on three or whatever the numbers are.”
He’s posting a career-high 4.4 assists — to go along with professional bests in scoring (24.2 points) and rebounding (6.3) — and has often risen to the occasion when Minnesota’s thin lineups demand playmaking more than his scoring. Visiting Oklahoma City in mid-December, with Towns, Gobert and Russell all sidelined, Edwards racked up six first-half assists to power the Wolves’ 63-50 lead at intermission.
Yet when the upstart Thunder, a youthful roster without playoff expectations, walloped their challengers by 16 in the third frame, Edwards’ fourth quarter displayed all the questionable theatrics prone to come between his incredible heroics. There are those head-shaking sequences, the reactions sprinkled throughout Minnesota’s bench, when Edwards seems to be reaching into his bag to pull out something worthy of holding a moniker such as “Ant Man.”
His first attempt of that fourth quarter, the Wolves’ lead trimmed to four with just 6:55 remaining, Edwards drew Oklahoma City’s longest defender, Aleksej Pokuševski, on a switch at the left wing. He sized up those interminable arms and chose to stutter step into a pull-up anyway, where his toe had the great misfortune of touching the arc for his errant shot.
But then, Edwards responded to the Thunder’s made 3-pointer on the next possession with a slick triple of his own, head-faking and side-stepping around the charging closeout. A minute later, Edwards took his catch on the right wing and hurtled toward the rim like a running back, then skied for a two-handed jam no matter which help defenders came in his path.
The seesaw, though, tilted down once more at just over four minutes to play. Edwards ripped a steal and burst into transition. Then as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stalled his drive, with Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey converging on both flanks, Edwards Euro-stepped into a wild floater across the lane, attempting to draw contact and flipping the ball over his head, in the direction against the incredible momentum his legs generated.
With the clock ticking toward 50 seconds and Minnesota clinging to a one-point edge, Edwards gathered the rock for his final look of the evening. Catching just above the foul line, there was Gilgeous-Alexander once more, so too a pair of defenders waiting on each side. Edwards pumped toward his right. He pumped a second time, then detonated to his left with one powerful dribble and unfurled a fallaway prayer toward the rafters, even with four arms splaying across his sightline. Before his heave clanked off the back iron, Edwards could hear the Thunder bench cheering what they had deemed a poor selection.
“It was a bad shot to them. To them it was a bad shot,” Edwards told Yahoo Sports. “But to me, I don’t give a damn. I thought it was a great shot. That’s that. I thought it was a great shot. They had three people on me, I still took the shot.” He smiled that bright smile. “They was doubling me the whole fourth! I was like, ‘Sh**, I gotta get one up!’ I thought it was a great shot.”
Those are the shots often affiliated with greatness. Those are sometimes the only shots available, as victories teeter on the edge of defeat, as a franchise focal point like Kevin Durant or Damian Lillard has multiple defenders draped to his jersey. Through Jan. 4, only 51 players have taken more than 40 heavily contested pull-up jumpers this season, per SecondSpectrum. Durant is the standard, with the Nets’ centerpiece converting 54.4% of his 193 attempts. Edwards has tried 56, the 22nd most in the league, and made just 27.6% of them — good for 50th in that 51-player pool.
They are simply hard shots for Edwards to resist, like a jarful of cookies lurking in your kitchen. He has the power and the pop to get that separation whenever he pleases, as easy as lifting a lid off a container. “Anytime,” Edwards agreed. “Two people, three people, so, it don’t matter. But I can’t do that because it’s a team game, you know?”
He does want to paint that larger picture. He has held the brush over Minnesota’s last two games, helping the Wolves knock off Denver on Monday then Portland on Wednesday after a five-game losing streak. His fourth quarter against the Blazers was a breathtaking display of shooting and penetration, when his eyes are locked on getting to the rim.
When pressed, Edwards labeled sacrificing possessions as his greatest current weakness. You certainly cannot fault the young man for his honesty, his magnetic candor and authenticity, which has teammates so eager to ride his waves no matter where they crash. “Just getting off the ball. I think that’s the biggest thing, accepting it,” Edwards told Yahoo Sports. “Because I still don’t like it. I still think I can shoot through anything or play through anything. But it’s impossible. You gotta get off the ball. That’s the biggest adjustment for me. Just get off of it. Because my mentality, especially in the fourth, I want to shoot every shot.”
“I think he’s just gotta watch more basketball,” Russell said. “Commit himself to that side where he’s actually watching the game and learning from the game. When he watches film and takes things from film and brings it with him. That’s when you take it to the next level. Obviously you’ve got your skill and your talent and your God-given ability. But there’s levels to it that you get from film and study and commitment to that side of the game.”
That depth of preparation was foreign to Edwards before he reached the NBA. He was always superior to his competition, by quite literal leaps and bounds. He scored how he wanted to score and ripped opponents’ handles like a bear pawing honey. Edwards is still very much a fledgling student, figuring how to memorize his foes’ unique arsenal at different spots on the floor. “Just being locked in on people’s tendencies,” Edwards said. “If you mess up on the tendencies, Coach gonna be mad. So, you gotta be locked in on that. I think that’s the biggest thing. How important it is to know who you guard.”
Finch indeed views positions not by where you scan score, but what position you can defend. He is watching Edwards’ growing efforts to guard multiple positions, to guard every single night, and to grow into the leader his fellow Timberwolves can follow past this season’s rocky start. Then, ideally, deeper into the postseason. “Just leading by example,” Edwards said. “Just go out there and play hard. Do everything that Coach asks. Get cussed out every once in a while if that’s what it takes. To show them that I’m coachable, and everyone else needs to be coachable too.”
All this, and he can hardly rent a car. Edwards still lives largely on the court as a boyish blast of excitement and skill. The business of basketball is rooted around a children’s game, after all. And yet, it is the space between fun and function that separates the talents from the winners, and builds championship contenders even in a small market like the Twin Cities.
Edwards sees himself tracking there, fast, primed to give Minnesota the best lift a former top draft pick can. “I’m ready,” he said. “I feel like I’m ready to take that step.” If he can, if he consistently can, the fate of these Timberwolves may depend on it.