On some level, you kind of feel for Anthony Edwards, the presumptive No. 1 pick in a draft lottery nobody seems to want to win, or at least, not that badly. It’s oxymoronic, to be sure. It’s not really Edwards’ fault either, even on the heels of an inarguably uneven freshman year at Georgia that inspired varying degrees of confidence in NBA circles. With the season in the rearview, it wouldn’t be fair to say Edwards has defaulted into his current position—he made clear progress from November to March. But he’s certainly benefitted from being part of a relatively thin crop of lottery-caliber prospects, and sits beneath the microscope for the foreseeable future, anchoring a draft devoid of fully-convincing candidates for the top spot.
Objectively (if I may temporarily remove myself from my vantage point as a media member), it’s difficult to remember a potential No. 1 pick in recent memory who seemed to garner such little fanfare nationally over the course of the season. Two excellent games (and one dud) at the Maui Invitational in November were more or less the extent of his time in the national spotlight, with Georgia stumbling to a 5–13 mark in conference play and far from the NCAA tournament bubble (had there been a tournament, of course). Expect that trend to shift as the draft approaches, and with it, the type of preordained scrutiny that top prospects not named Zion Williamson tend to warrant.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Edwards, and some of the key questions to note going into the predraft cycle.
What makes Edwards the favorite for the No. 1 pick?
It’s a simple question, but one that bears asking—oftentimes the harder it is to boil down the case for drafting a prospect, the more it says about his actual quality (or lack thereof). There’s a strong argument that Edwards boasts a better combination of physical ability and shot-creation potential, relative to his age, than any other prospect in the draft. Those are three critical factors when trying to evaluate a player’s ceiling, which philosophically is the primary determinant behind who to draft first, and of course, teams can only pick from who’s eligible.
In a best-case scenario, Edwards slots into a premium position as a big, strong, shot-creating wing with ability to score at all three levels, and what should eventually become a reliable jump shot. He also has the athletic capacity to defend his position adequately, if not the polish. High-end starters in that vein are among the hardest players to find, and continue to gain value in a fast-paced, perimeter-oriented league. With broad shoulders, a plus wingspan and a naturally muscular frame at such an early stage of development, he projects well to handle the physical rigors of NBA play. And at the end of the day, it’s hard for teams to walk away from 18-year-olds with Edwards’ body type and demonstrable scoring ability, concerns and all.
How might the coronavirus impact Edwards’ pre-draft status?
For a prospective No. 1 pick, the pre-draft process isn’t quite as hampered by not being able to travel, given the limited access teams usually have to top players after the draft lottery. The likelihood was always that he’d only work out for whichever team wins the lottery, and potentially the teams picking second and third. There’s just not as much rationale behind exposing yourself in workouts when you don’t have as much to prove. So Edwards isn’t facing the same type of uphill climb to win teams over in the way that a late first-round or fringe prospect might have really needed workouts to help solidify his standing.
In what scenario would Edwards not be the first player drafted?
There’s a sense around the league that Memphis center James Wiseman could still end up being the No. 1 pick, but only in the event that a team with an obvious need at center were to win the lottery. But the market for bigs has dwindled, and many of the teams slated to pick high in the draft have that position addressed. If, say, the Warriors win it, it’ll at least be an interesting conversation, should they decide to keep the pick. There’s something to be said for teams like Charlotte and Cleveland viewing Wiseman as a better long-term match, given the disparity in ability isn’t all that wide. But in terms of situational upside and overall on-court modernity, so to speak, Edwards is the best prospect available in the eyes of most, even if it’s probably going to take him some time.
Why does age matter so much?
It’s probably worth emphasizing that Edwards played his entire freshman year as an 18-year-old, and won’t turn 19 until August. It’s also important to remember he reclassified, effectively skipping past his senior year of high school to get to college faster (he went from being an older junior to an extremely young senior). He’s the seventh-youngest player listed on our most recent Big Board, with LaMelo Ball and Florida State’s Patrick Williams just a few weeks younger, among the projected first-rounders. From an NBA perspective, the youth factor essentially gives prospects a much longer runway to succeed: there’s more time for players to mature mentally and physically, there’s theoretically less mileage on their bodies when they get to the league, and it’s much easier to invest heavy time and resources in an athlete if their second contract begins in concert with their athletic prime, in their early to mid 20s.
The basketball context here really matters, too. Edwards attended Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta and played a national schedule his senior year, but the program there was far from a traditional prep powerhouse, and there were no other highly-rated players on his team. He didn’t play in Nike’s EYBL, which is viewed as the most competitive summer AAU circuit. The sense I’ve gotten from various sources with knowledge of the situation is that Edwards didn’t have a ton of on-court structure prior to his arrival at Georgia. So, even before this season started, the challenges he faced with efficiency and decision-making were fairly predictable. Some of those things are excusable, particularly given the progression he made in a number of areas. So, the fact time is on the side of someone with Edwards’ physical gifts certainly helps. With all those things in mind, you could actually argue that there’s a degree of floor to his profile, in addition to the upside.
What did we learn this season?
In 32 college games, Edwards averaged 19.1 points on 15.8 points in 33 minutes, while taking 32% of available shots while on the court. He shot just 40.2% from the field, but still converted more than half of his 251 two-point attempts (50.4%), the rub being that he made just 69 of 237 threes (29.1%). His assist to turnover ratio was just a hair above 1:1, with just four more assists than turnovers (91 to 87). For much of the season, Edwards looked like an 18-year-old freshman. But the stats aren’t going to tell the entire story here, and there has to be some margin for failure, particularly with younger players. Almost on the contrary, you could argue that there’s developmental value from simply having the freedom to experiment, and also to to fail. Young, high-volume guards tend to be inefficient. Tom Crean gave Edwards a lot of leeway, and was willing to live with the results (Georgia finished 16–16, and we’ll get to that later). The only way to improve at making tough shots is taking, and missing, a lot of them first.
Having tracked Georgia closely all season, a number of observational positives stood out, at least from my perspective. It’s obvious that Edwards has become more comfortable away from the ball, having started to pick up on basic but nuanced things like back-cuts and sliding down to the corners when teammates drive. There was less stagnancy from him as the year went on, and Georgia was able to let freshman guard Sahvir Wheeler run the offense a bit more frequently. His playmaking ability crops up in flashes, but it’s certainly present. Edwards’ shot selection also appeared to improve on whole during the back half of the season, and while he still settled for too many jumpers, he did a better job attacking the rim with abandon and letting his strength and size do the work for him. In terms of individual growth and overall ability to process what was in front of him on the floor, you can argue that Edwards made some tangible strides, most of which didn’t show up in the box score.
Defensively, he’s still a work in progress, but so are most players his age. Conceptually, positioning and communication is an area teams feel like they can teach, particularly if a player is apt and willing to learn. Edwards has impressive natural balance and has shown potential to consistently defend on an island when asked, plus some base level of natural anticipation skills that point toward eventual improvement. For what it’s worth, he rated in the 86th percentile on Synergy as an individual defender in spot-up situations and in the 95th percentile defending opponents off of screens. Edwards can be pretty hard to score on when he wants to be. He may eventually create enough offense that his defensive contributions become tertiary. But there’s also a lot of room for growth, buttressed somewhat by the fact Edwards is a capable rebounder who can grab the ball off the glass and help initiate transition, where his athleticism pops in the open floor. And if he figures out how to optimize his ability on both sides of the ball, there’s a pretty good chance he adds value.
If there’s a trend here, it feels like the holes in Edwards’ game are mostly correctable—with the most prevalent issues stemming from floor comprehension, and understanding when to be aggressive versus when to defer. He can still disappear for stretches, and it still feels like he’s figuring out what he’s capable of sometimes. These are generally the types of things that improve through experiential learning (read: playing real minutes). There’s also a chance his aptitude never quite picks up to the point that would make him a star. But the odds he ends up being the best player in this draft class are still significant, particularly relative to the field.
Are we sure Edwards is going to be a good shooter?
Admittedly, it’s unusual for a 29% three-point shooter not to be nitpicked more closely. That said, scouts I’ve spoken with aren’t all that concerned about Edwards as a three-point shooter. Mechanically, his shot is clean and pretty smooth gathering off the dribble. He was asked to shoulder a big load, which also led to a lot of difficult looks. According to Synergy’s possession data, 147 of Edwards’ 270 jump shots were off the dribble, and separately, 207 of his attempts were threes. He registered just 83 catch-and-shoot possessions all season.
Factor in the longer college three point line and the overall learning curve, plus the fact he shot a respectable 77% from the foul line, and there’s plenty of reason to think Edwards figures it out. While he only made 28.1% of his total jump shots, he wasn’t granted all that many easy opportunities. Again, Georgia put a lot on his shoulders right away, somewhat out of necessity. Defenses were keying on him all season. There’s certainly a chance Edwards doesn’t peak as a high-30s volume shooter from distance, but it’s reasonable to think he can work his way into an above-average perimeter scorer when you factor in his overall skill set.
How should we consider team context?
While Georgia was not a particularly consistent team this season, again, it’s worth reiterating that it wasn’t all Edwards’ fault. Edwards and Sahvir Wheeler, both freshmen, were the only two players on the team with better assist rates than turnover rates, according to KenPom data. It’s one thing to be an inexperienced team, but that issue is exacerbated when you’re a team that relies on inexperienced ball-handlers. Georgia’s three senior guards, Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris and Donnell Gresham, all played supporting roles, and none of the three were capable of anchoring an offense. Among regular rotation players, center Rayshaun Hammonds was the team’s best three-point shooter at 35.3%, pointing to some of the inherent issues as far as spacing was concerned. Edwards didn’t walk onto a team that could afford to ease him into things.
For the sake of a situational perspective, take Bradley Beal, a similarly sized, highly regarded perimeter oriented off-guard who’s had markedly more success in the NBA than in his year at Florida. In 2011-12, Beal played his entire freshman year as an 18-year-old, and shot 54% on twos (207 attempts) and 33.9% on threes (186 attempts) while taking just 22% of his team’s shots while on the court, averaging 14.8 points in a smaller role and on a slower-paced offense than Edwards at Georgia, and (also, eerily) registering just four more assists than he had turnovers. He rebounded well and scored less, but also had the benefit of playing next to experienced ball-handlers, which helps in terms of efficiency and removes some of the impetus to create as many shots. Beal had a strong freshman season and was picked third in the draft.
Point being, there’s enough reason to excuse some of Edwards’ situational issues when you look at the entire sample, and he’s far from the first promising scoring wing to have gone through some struggles at the college level. He did what he did without a ton of help. Some of his numbers are still glaring, but simply watching him move and execute plays tells a different story when it comes to assessing what caliber of scorer he can become. Frankly, Edwards may not have to be a superstar to deliver on his selection, particularly given the flaws with the rest of the field atop the draft.
Will he facilitate winning?
This is the big question, as it is with most high-volume scoring prospects who aren’t naturally facilitators, and don’t project cleanly as lead ball-handlers. If a guard isn’t running the offense and making the primary decisions, but is still expected to lead the team in terms of volume shooting and late-clock shot-creation, the line can become pretty fine as to whether or not someone is adding value. There are plenty of NBA players who can average 20 points on a losing team. Front offices have to assess whether Edwards naturally does enough to augment winning with more talent around him, or if his proclivities for high usage and iffy shot selection will work to his detriment.
Certainly, one .500 season at Georgia certainly isn’t quite enough to be conclusive. Particularly given the stakes of potentially picking someone first overall, this is the type of conundrum that a GM might ultimately lose sleep over. But in lieu of alluring alternatives, Edwards’ case as the No. 1 pick remains solid going into the spring. The relatively minimal fanfare might say more about the draft itself.