Be Patient With Anthony Edwards

The Timberwolves rookie and No. 1 draft pick has struggled out of the gate, but you can see something special is materializing.
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For a first pick, Anthony Edwards is borderline anonymous. Despite the fact that he leads all rookies with 13.6 points per game, several catch-all metrics look at his impact and throw up all over themselves. His value over a replacement player is -0.5 (dead last in the 2020 draft class) and he ranks 372nd in real plus-minus.

Edwards jacks up 24.3 shots per 100 possessions. That’s more than Joel Embiid, Paul George, Zach LaVine and all but 26 players in the league. By itself this isn’t an issue. But 1) many of Edwards’s looks grind Minnesota’s already problematic offensive flow to a halt, and 2) he isn’t exactly the mark of efficiency: Edwards is shooting 37.6% from the floor and is currently on track to become the second player in NBA history with a usage rate above 25 and a PER below 10.

Even with his boundless athleticism, Edwards’s fearlessness can be his own worst enemy. He loves to challenge seven-footers at the rim, believing his hang time will defeat their verticality. So far, not so good. Nobody who’s taken at least 90 shots in the restricted area is less accurate than Edwards's 47.5%. (LaMelo Ball is 10% better.) The Timberwolves, a team still stuck in mud for a variety of reasons beyond and within their control, see their league-worst offense mostly unaffected by his presence.

None of this is great! It’s also too early to be that concerned. Edwards’s growing pains are extensive and costly, but also appropriate for a 19-year-old trying to figure the league out during a pandemic, sans Summer League, a normal training camp or regular practice schedule, without basically any minutes beside the franchise’s other two cornerstones, in an environment that isn’t conducive for development compared with those currently sheltering other top picks like James Wiseman or Ball.

All that considered, the Timberwolves selected Edwards first because they believe his long-term upside is higher than every other prospect. This belief can still hold true, thanks to a recent uptick in glimpses of what he can someday be. Edwards’s physical build, potent dynamism and flair don’t just belong in the NBA, they were crafted to eventually own it. There are nights when he’s a red-hot branding iron doing battle with a popsicle; plays like this—happening more and more since he entered Minnesota’s starting lineup a week ago—help illustrate why:

Edwards can be unpredictable with the ball—which isn’t fun for a team that allows more transition opportunities than any other and is way worse in that area when Edwards plays (probably thanks to all those misses at the rim)—but he’s starting to turn it over less while making more simple, correct reads out of the pick-and-roll.

And after shooting just 27.6% from behind the three-point line in his first 10 games, Edwards has drilled 39.3 in the 11 since. For the season, 20% of his shots are spot-up threes, and he’s making a tidy 39.3% of them.

Not to bury the lede, but the great irony about some of Edwards’s early wastefulness is that whenever he engages in the single least efficient mode of offensive production (isolation) he’s ... excellent? According to NBA.com, Edwards is currently the third-most efficient isolation scorer in the league, out of 114 who qualify. Before comparisons to James Harden start to rage, the sample size here is minuscule—Edwards finishes only about one possession per game in these spots—and some come in garbage time against garbage lineups. But for a perpetual NBA punching bag searching for some semblance of optimism, Edwards does stuff one-on-one that should have Timberwolves fans daydreaming about what this will look like two or three years from now.

Edwards’s defender on this play is Solomon Hill, a 6' 6", 225-pound, 29-year-old wing whose main function in the league is to prevent players like Edwards from doing exactly what he did. The turbo boost here is incredible. Edwards dusts Hill without a screen, gets into the paint, draws help, and singlehandedly creates an opportunity for Ed Davis at the rim.

Above, Edwards shows off his unteachable strength. There’s nothing fancy about this play, just a simple left-to-right crossover before he rumbles downhill for a layup through Utah’s top perimeter defender. (Note that Karl-Anthony Towns is also on the floor, occupying Derrick Favors’s attention. Minnesota’s offensive rating in the 48 minutes Edwards and KAT have shared the court is a sizzling 122.9.)

These examples will be normalized. Edwards’s ceiling is an elite offense unto himself, a bull unbothered by the first layer of defense that’s propped up to slow him down. The midrange pull-ups are a nice long-term counter against opponents who will load up to take everything else away, but Edwards’s bulk, handle and zip (not to mention the craft, where he’s already starting to change speeds and decelerate around the basket) mean a majority of his damage can be done more efficiently, at the free throw line, at the rim, with some reliable pick-and-roll playmaking mixed beside a few step-back threes. This is the big-picture pallet Edwards should ultimately be working with.

Patience is required before that player ever materializes, of course, and despite some truly grotesque numbers—in between the telegraphed cross-court passes, over dribbling, nonexistent impact on the glass, and low-light reel of bricktastic fadeaways—you can see something special.

Edwards’s defense isn’t phenomenal, and that was expected coming out of his one season at Georgia. His awareness and effort have to be more consistent. But, if we’re being honest, that side of the ball doesn’t matter nearly as much if he can’t become an unstoppable three-level threat. It’s offense where Edwards’s ability to impact the game has no tangible limitations outside the choices he makes. Where, as the first pick, he can one day lift Minnesota out of its never-ending rubble.

How this team will look if/when that happens won’t be close to its current approximation. The roster is uneven, with several pieces who don’t complement Edwards so much as limit his growth. Still, he’s already flashed enough potential to make daydreaming about a brighter day feel more practical than it’s been in a very long time.