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This Ant be real

Anthony Edwards is emerging as the Timberwolves not-so-secret superhero.

Anthony Edwards dunking the ball during the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on Tuesday night.
Anthony Edwards dunking the ball during the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on Tuesday night.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody can tell you they expected this, this roulette-wheel superhero turn from Anthony Edwards, this process where you drop the ball into play and watch it start bouncing, wait for it to nestle into a slot that will determine the fortune of the play, the game, the season, and, hey, maybe the franchise. 

In 2020, we had no insight into this. On that November night when Ant was drafted with the first pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the conversations were remarkably pedestrian. There was some ongoing debate over whether the Wolves should have selected Lamelo Ball or James Weisman — some fool even recommended Onyeka Okongwu. In any case, the reacquisition of point guard Ricky Rubio shared the conversation and the headlines that night. 

Maybe Edwards’ most ardent supporters had a superhero in mind. If you squinted at those clips from his lone collegiate season at Georgia and wished hard enough, you could see him bouncing off bodies in beast mode while clambering toward the basket and conjure up Wolverine, a boon for Timberwolves marketers if they hadn’t already been shell-shocked by too many “Eyes on the Rise!”-level embarrassments. 

Nowadays there are definitely times when the roulette ball drops into that Wolverine slot. With less than six minutes to play in a tie game against the Portland Trailblazers Tuesday night, Ant confronted three opponents at the top of the key, utilized the split-second reprieve of a slipped pick by Jarred Vanderbilt to shed two of them, and doggedly dribbled left past 290-lb Yusuf Nurkic. A crossover dribble took him back to the right at an angle into the paint, where Norman Powell flung a futile forearm from his right while Robert Covington, who rightfully boasts that he has “the best hands in basketball” for snatching the ball from his foe, lacked the quickness and muscle to successfully put those paws to work wresting the ball from Ant’s left. 

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That left CJ McCollum as the lone presence between Edwards and the rim. Ant welcomed contact from McCollum like a mother’s embrace, then sent him flying into a legs-up sprawl beneath the bucket as his shot motion rose. The ball escaped the tangle, crept up into the space between the backboard and the heel of the rim, and rolled down through the twine. A free throw to complete the three-point play gave Ant 36 points at the time, which explains why all five Blazers desperately tried to stop him on the play. 

Yet little did we know that Ant’s bag was brimming with other cartoonishly vivid superpowers. That he could be Iron Man as inhabited by Tony Stark, blessed with levitational jets to extend his hang time as mere mortals succumb to gravity and able to pluck the exact, resonant quip to further enlighten the sensation. “I feel like Black Jesus, yeah,” he offered after pouring in seven layups and a dunk as part of his 40-point performance on Tuesday, occasionally forsaking the hang time in favor of “Euro-steps” employed before banking the ball off the glass. 

Treys of Thunder

The greatest ambush of all, however, is the outside shooting: Ant morphing into a combination of Hawkeye and the Human Torch from behind the three-point arc. In his lone season at Georgia, he converted just 29.4% of his treys from the closer collegiate distance. And in his rookie NBA campaign, he became a notorious bricklayer, with the worst accuracy, 32.9%, of the 30 players who logged at least 41 games and jacked up at least seven three-pointers per game. All that clanking was especially maddening given his phenomenal scoring prowess in the paint — each pull-up missive was a gift to opposing defenses. 

But practice makes progress toward perfection. In the first five games of the 2021-22 season this past October, he was seventh in the NBA in three-point frequency (9.3 attempts per game) and way down the list in accuracy at 31.9%. In November he launched 8.5 shots from distance per game and ticked the accuracy up to 35.3%. Covid cost him a chunk of December, but in the eight games he suited up, he nailed 40.6% of his 8.6 attempts per contest. And with three games left in January, he’s clearing the increasingly higher bar of this pattern, splashing home 40.9% of his 9.2 three-pointers per game this month. 

Stack up the months and the only players making more treys per game thus far this season are a trio of three-point specialists: Stephen Curry, Fred VanVleet and Buddy Hield, aged 33, 27, and 29, respectively. Ant’s three-point percentage is in their realm: He’s at 37.6 compared to 39.3 for VanVleet, 38 for Hield and 37.3 for Curry. He is the only one making more than half of his two-point attempts — Curry’s 48.4% is a distant second to Ant’s 50.5% — and he shoots more of them per game than the other three players. He is 20 years old. 

When I and many others were criticizing the frequency, inaccuracy and seeming illogic of Ant’s three-point shooting, he shrugged, smiled and said, “I spend too much time in the gym to worry about my game.” 

Indeed, the fallacy of the criticism was that it was a zero-sum game; that clanked threes would sabotage the benefits stemming from a higher percentage of made twos. But per, Ant has improved his field goal accuracy from every distance level on the court, from 0-3 feet from the hoop and outward, including 3-10 feet, 10-16 feet, 16-23 feet and beyond the arc. He’s also improved his free throw accuracy. Throw it all together and Ant’s true shooting percentage has bumped from 52.3 as a rookie to 56.5 this season, even as the NBA overall has gone the other way, from 57.2 last season down to 55.7 this year. 

The hustler

Although the long-range shooting is an unexpected bonus, Ant was drafted first overall in 2020 because he profiled as a relentless scorer. Which is why the Wolves organization and fans have to be especially heartened that, by almost any measure, he has made steady strides in becoming a more complete player this season. 

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Because his minutes-per-game have climbed from 32.1 to 35.1, the gross numbers are up across the statistical ledger. But even on a per-minute basis, his steals, rebounds, blocks and especially assists have all ticked up slightly. 

As for what the NBA defines as “hustle plays,” Ant is ascendant. Among players who have logged at least 20 games this season, only Ja Morant has recovered more loose balls on the court and he also ranks 24th in deflections, second on the Wolves to Vanderbilt. He tied with Vando for 16th in the NBA in steals per game.

At age 20, Ant still has frequent lapses in terms of his on-ball defense and dedication to defensive rotations. But that aspect of his game is still much improved from his horrendous rookie campaign, especially the dreadful learning curve he had trouble scaling in the first half of the season. 

Because defense is such a teamwork-oriented endeavor, one of the better ways to measure effectiveness is with team efficiency ratings. Last season the Wolves surrendered 114.5 points per 100 possessions. When Ant was on the court, that figure rose to 115.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, and fell to 109.5 points allowed when he sat. Bottom line, the Wolves gave up 6.1 more points per 100 possessions when Ant played compared to when he didn’t.

This season, the Wolves have shaved nearly six points per 100 possessions off their defensive rating (it’s 108.7 points allowed overall). When Ant is on the court that rating actually drops to 107.5 points allowed, versus 108.1 points allowed when he is out. Because Ant missed some games due to Covid protocols, the on/off numbers aren’t quite as clean as when he was a rookie. But the team is still allowing .6 points per 100 possessions fewer when he plays compared to when he doesn’t. In other words, his presence doesn’t penalize the overall defense. 

Meanwhile, his presence on offense continues to make an enormous positive impact. Last season the Wolves offense generated 7.9 more points per 100 possessions when he played versus when he didn’t. This season, that gap has grown to 9.8 more points scored per 100 possessions when Ant is on the floor. 

Like Wolverine, in Hulk mode

All this stats-and-superheroes talk is especially relevant now because Edwards had arguably the best game of his young career Tuesday night in Portland. He started slowly, missing his first four shots (three of them treys) before converting a three-pointer off a skip pass by Jaylen Nowell and then wresting the ball away from Powell and going coast-to-coast for an and-1 layup. But his ability to keep the Wolves close in the second quarter was crucial. After the Blazers had boosted their lead from 4 to 13 within the first four minutes of the period, Ant entered the game and promptly scored 11 of his team’s 18 points so they closed out the half down only 63-55. 

The last fifteen minutes of the game were stupendous, and brought to mind another superhero comp for Ant. Down by as much as 13 early in the third quarter, the Wolves began to claw back by dint of their defense (and Portland finally missing shots) and the sudden engagement of KAT on offense. With 2:46 to go in the third, Malik Beasley blocked a shot and Taurean Prince fed Ant for a layup in transition to cut the lead to 3. With 31 seconds to go, Ant surveyed the court well beyond the top of the key and unfurled a 28-foot jumper to tie the game. With a second to go, he then threaded his way through four defenders for a layup that gave the Wolves the lead. 

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Wolves fans know this is the slight vibration that can escalate into a rumble. Nobody is ever sure when it is going to happen, or for how long, but suddenly Bruce Banner turns into the Incredible Hulk, and opposing defenses are laid to waste. With 8 points scored three different ways in less than three minutes time to suddenly tilt the game in the Wolves favor, Ant was in what folks could hope was the early stages of a Hulk performance.

Head coach Chris Finch gambled on providing Ant with a four-minute rest to start the fourth quarter, his first of the second half. When he returned, the Blazers had regained the lead, 90-87. Ant promptly erased it by being fouled on an obviously contested step-back three, hitting the free throw to complete the four-point play. After Portland regained the lead a minute later, Edwards came down and flicked a 26-footer through the hoop: Wolves up 2, Edwards with 33 points for the game.

Forty seconds later in a tie game, Ant made the and-1 Wolverine play (in Hulk mode) described at the top of this column. With four minutes to play and the Wolves now up seven, he jumped the lane for a steal and drove the length of the court for a two-handed flush, the athletic equivalent of an orator delivering a simple declarative sentence. A fadeway jumper pushed the lead to nine with three-and-half minutes to play. 

At this point the Hulk turned back into Bruce Banner, and the Wolves survived nail-biter, breaking the evening’s final tie on a goaltending call of DLo’s layup with three seconds to play. 

After the horn sounded on the 109-107 victory, Ant was doused with water by a bottle in each of Beasley’s hands, peeled off his wet game jersey, and gave it to a kid in the crowd. He had scored 40 points, 21 of them in an 11-minute span in which the Wolves went from a five-point deficit to a 9-point lead with those 3 and a half minutes to play. He had nine rebounds, three blocks, three steals and zero assists. When he was on the court, the Wolves scored 113.3 points per 100 possessions while allowing 96.4 points, and his plus-14 was the best of the game.

A heady time

With the win, the Timberwolves nudged over the .500 mark during the second half of a season for the first time since their only playoff appearance in 18 years, back in 2017-18. They currently hold the seventh seed in the Western Conference, a game and a half behind Denver for the sixth spot that guarantees a full playoff series without a “play in” game.

In short, these are heady times for the Wolves, and there are a boatload of feel-good stories as to why they are overachieving on preseason expectations; before Ant’s latest explosion, I was going to write about the emergence of Jaylen Nowell today. 

For all the warm vibes wafting off this team right now, a cold hard fact, one that is suddenly not unpleasant, stands tall: To really be regarded as a contender for an NBA championship, you need a superstar — and hopefully more than one — with the special qualities that make a team greater than the sum of its parts. 

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So let’s finish this by delving into the superhero bag one more time. If Anthony Edwards can attain the peak of his phenomenal potential, he has the chance to mesh a lot of extraordinary skills together: strength, speed, stamina, agility, durability, healing and reflexes. His unpretentious, marvelously instinctual, utterly confident approach to life gives him the mystical aura of a sage, knower of the cosmic joke, immune to the attacks of his enemies — indeed, he is capable of gaining strength from those attacks. He can become the natural leader of his tribe, in a village that sorely needs it. 

After Wolverine clambers, Iron Man levitates, Tony Stark cracks wise, Hawkeye and the Human Torch light up the perimeter, and the Hulk molds the game to his will, there are other frontiers to breach, like sustainability and playoff success. Sounds like a job meant for the Ant rendition of Black Panther. 

Hey folks: In order to stimulate more interaction with my readers and also drum up support for Minnpost, I’m going to start doing occasional mailbag columns that answer your questions. I’m also going to do pregame zooms that give you a chance to verbally interact and get my thinking as the Wolves play increasingly important games the remainder of this season. 

The first pregame zoom will begin at 5 p.m. next Thursday, Feb. 3, before the road game against the Pistons. The mailbag will likely occur shortly before or after that. Check the notice elsewhere on this page and stay attuned to my twitter feed for more info. And keep this slowly but surely rewarding comments section going! Thanks. 

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