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The Wolves may only go as far as Anthony Edwards (and Ant’s knees) can take them

Without squeezing the most production possible out of their most athletic player, the Wolves are in jeopardy of having their thus-far glorious season end in relative disappointment. 

image of anthony edwards holding basketball over head
Anthony Edwards is arguably the most precious long-term asset in the Timberwolves organization.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

It is a fascinating experience, slightly surreal and a little unnerving, when Anthony Edwards isn’t sure how to express himself. 

After the NBA-best Phoenix Suns thumped the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night at Target Center, storming from behind with a commanding 42-28 advantage in the fourth quarter, Ant was a shell of his usual self, that infectiously good-natured man-child with an unerring instinct for cutting to the quick with gee-whiz truth-telling. In his stead was a desultory figure reduced to terse responses laden with weariness and frustration. 

After the sixth question of the postgame media session — “What did (Phoenix) change up in the fourth quarter that allowed them to get the best of you?” — Ant suddenly erupted, barking at a member of the communications staff. “Hey, bring me a towel, man, this lotion is sweating like a motherfucker.” 

Ant belatedly found his natural equilibrium. He was asked which fourth quarter dynamic prevailed: Were the infrequent and inadequate adjustments on defense that he was bemoaning the result of a lack of planning and execution by the Wolves, or was the Suns talent level too overwhelming? The chance to give credit to his opponents put a wisp of tragicomedy into describing the fruitless frustration of trying to get stops and tempered him closer to his natural groove. 

A superhero’s suboptimal wheels

For a couple of months now, Ant has been physically and mentally negotiating similar headwinds and frustrations related to his performance on the court. Here in the crunchtime of his second NBA season — and his first with a proper training camp — he is being asked to both elevate and sustain the quality of his play at a time when the Wolves have finally improved to the point of playing meaningful games in the spring. Meanwhile, his body has been worn past the point of anything he has ever experienced. On Aug. 5, he’ll turn 21.

Heading into the 2021-22 season, the not-so-secret drama facing the Wolves franchise was whether the team could take significant steps forward under the leadership of max players Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, or whether KAT and DLo would have to be dealt for pieces that would enable the Wolves to build around their younger core of Ant and Jaden McDaniels. After the team suffered its first loss of the season in game three, Ant, who had been nothing but deferential as a rookie, called out himself, KAT and DLo for not sharing the ball more often. Was this the beginning of a soft coup in the locker room?

Absolutely not. Instead it was Ant announcing himself as a more vocal, and supportive, member of the “Big 3,” willing to shoulder a greater share of the responsibility for team play. As the first few months of the season unfurled, the players coalesced. After head coach Chris Finch installed an aggressive new defensive scheme in training camp that featured Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt setting the tone, each member of the Big 3 enhanced their commitment and capabilities at that end of the court. 

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It took more time for the Big 3 to sort out and complement each player’s potent scoring prowess, but since the calendar rolled into 2022, the Wolves have produced the NBA’s most efficient offense. A crucial component in this blossoming process was KAT cutting back on his ball dominance to let Ant flex. In late January, I wrote about Ant’s superhero breakout, noting that while he still scaled the heights of his phenomenal skill set via stupendous dunks and torrid shooting displays, he had matured into greater reliability, improving his accuracy from the rim to the three-point arc and every distance in between.

Alas, the superhero Ant was sky-walking on very human knees, which inexorably began to beg for a recess from the stress. In January, Ant would mention off and on that his knees were bothering him a little bit. As he soldiered on, his performances became more checkered. A season low five points on Feb. 1 at home against Denver was repeated three games later on the road in Sacramento. The very next night in the same city, Ant scored 26 points, albeit on a relatively inefficient 25 shots. As KAT was conducting his postgame media session, Ant unilaterally and uncharacteristically joined him.

“Let me go on and say this: Me scoring five points (the previous night) has nothing to do with how I’ve been playing. I’ve been hurt. Tonight is actually the first night I’ve been feeling good in about a month and a half. I was just trying to be as aggressive as I can and it wasn’t enough,” he said. “It’s been depressing, man. I was in a room sad last night, because I can’t be there for my team, and I don’t like missing games.”

Then he brightened. “Today was the first day I actually felt back to myself, for sure.” But asked later if knee soreness had also affected his defense, he replied, “Yeah, with my knee I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t slap my feet, I couldn’t jump, couldn’t get a burst of speed. But like I said, I’m just happy to be out there playing again like myself.” 

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The next two games, he scorched the Bulls and the Pacers for 31 and 37 points, respectively. But then he left the game against Charlotte in the second quarter and didn’t return, only to come back the very next night against Toronto and score just six points in 31:49 of play in the final game before the weeklong All Star break. For some silly reason, he logged time in the meaningless “Rising Stars Challenge” showcase games for young players during All Star week, then played three relatively unproductive games after the All Star break before finally sitting out for four games. 

At that point the Wolves released an official medical diagnosis: Left patella tendinopathy, which is the degeneration of the collagen protein that forms the tendons, the rope-like tissues that attach muscle to bone in Ant’s left knee. It is caused by overuse or stress on a tendon, which is why knee tendinopathy is often referred to as “jumper’s knee.”

A bizarre situation 

The entire process around Ant’s knee condition has been bizarre. He sits down next to KAT one night and tells the media that it has been hurting him for weeks, but, despite no rest, he is suddenly fine and happy to be back to his old self. This newfound vigor boosts him for two games before he hits another brief trough, yet he still participates in an All Star activity and a few more games after the break, before belatedly resting it.

Meanwhile, Finch has downplayed the issue. After Ant first mentioned to the media that his knee was occasionally troubling him, Finch said he hadn’t been told that directly by Ant himself. During the four-game rest and diagnosis, the coach did acknowledge that “some days it’s been better than others. Tendinitis issues, probably has not had a ton of it in his life, so just figuring out how to manage that. I’m sure it’s affected him. He doesn’t feel like he has the confidence or the explosion to do certain things in certain directions.”

Anthony Edwards is arguably the most precious long-term asset in the Timberwolves organization and it would be lunacy to keep playing him if there was any chance of irreparable damage. Obviously then, the franchise and Ant, with input from his representatives, have agreed that ongoing play is not a threat to his career. By all accounts, however, tendinopathy is a painful condition. That pain can be alleviated somewhat by forms of physical therapy and massage. But you don’t get rid of the effects of a stress injury around your knee by performing as a high-flying wing in the NBA. 

A prime candidate for wing stopper

Without question, the condition waylaid Ant’s production through the month of February. To choose just one handy example, his true shooting percentage, which had risen every month of the season — from 49.6 to 54.4 to 59.0 to 60.2 in October through January — plummeted to 47.8 in February. In the two weeks since he emerged from his 9-day, four-game hiatus to close out the month, the results are more mixed. But they are worth delving into as we contemplate how valuable this dinged member of the Big 3 can be as the Wolves fight for playoff positioning over these final eight games between now and the April 10 season finale. 

Most surprisingly, Ant leads the Wolves in minutes-per-game in March after missing the first four contests because of the knee. But over these ensuing eight games of the month when he has suited up, his usage has declined to a season-low 22.8, well below his season mark of 26.1 and his December peak of 27.2. The true shooting percentage has climbed back up to 58.6, near his peak months of the winter, but his efficiency is coming on shots further away from the basket. 

In the months until March, Ant was shooting 61.8% on shots in the restricted area closest to the hoop; since then he is 57.1%. In the non-restricted area still in the paint, he converted an exact third of his shots at 33-for-99 before March, but is zilch on eleven attempts since then. Conversely, in an admittedly small sample size, he shot 29.6% (24-for-81) on midrange attempts before March and 44.4% (4-for-9) since then, and has boosted his accuracy on corner treys from 35.5% (24-for-81) to 40% (2-for-5). 

But it is on above-the-break three-pointers where Ant is abetting the offense while lessening the stress on his knee. Instead of the twists and torques required to free himself from a defender, he simply shoots over them, canning 43.9% of his attempts (25-for-57) in March after going 34.5% (148-for-429) before then. 

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Then there is defense. Ant has always been a better on-ball defender than he is when helping in rotations off a set scheme. Finch has occasionally put that specific skill to use by assigning him to cover the opponent’s best perimeter scorer — most notably Ja Morant of Memphis. But since Jaden McDaniels went down with an ankle injury versus San Antonio four games ago, Finch has increased these matchups, despite the painful knee. 

This was quickly determined. During the first media session after it was determined McDaniels would be out for weeks, I asked Finch if Ant was a prime candidate for duty as a wing-stopper. “Yes, absolutely,” he replied. “It is a way for him to be more impactful on the ball where he has been best. And I think it will trigger him more offensively; maybe out at the top of the floor he’ll get some break opportunities. The other thing is a lot of times when Ant is super engaged defensively he kind of perks up all the way around. So hopefully it brings him to life there.”

Since then, Ant’s defensive assignments have included high-usage scorers like Khris Middleton of Milwaukee, Luka Doncic on Dallas and Devin Booker of Phoenix. 

Pushed harder by Finch

Because the early March games that Ant missed were blowout wins versus inferior opponents, the stats show the team’s defensive rating to be higher when he’s on the court thus far this month. But the fact is that any stat regarding Ant is a composite of the boom-and-bust cycle that comes with being a player who is both extraordinarily talented and extremely young and inexperienced. Operating with a painful knee throws further noise into the measurements. 

The eye test on Ant will always benefit him because his spectacular exploits seem emblazoned in neon. This is true of hot streaks as well as singular plays. Last Saturday against Milwaukee he went scoreless through the first 4:53 of the game and then poured in a dozen points in the next 4:56 before sitting down. Finch has likened him to a “home run hitter,” someone capable of suddenly tilting the scoreboard dramatically in your favor through a burst of talent. And that’s why you endure the dry spells that are part of the package.

The times when Ant is filling in as the defensive stopper have a similar “home run” quality. You can find video of him effectively hounding Doncic, Middleton and Booker with an athleticism that combines brawn and agility. But there are also times where his concentration lapses for an instant and he is beaten off the dribble, picked off by an unanticipated screen, or gullible to a feint or fake that he susses out when fully engaged.

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Since the knee injury, there are plenty of possessions where Ant seems to be conserving himself for another surge, or, less charitably, allowing the situation to cover up for attention gaps that have plagued his play at both ends of the court throughout his brief career. For a player who doesn’t often shoot corner three-pointers, he is positioned in the corners often in half-court sets, and seems content to remain there even when there is a possibility of a cut to the hoop or a venture in for an offensive rebound. The body language doesn’t help: Sometimes Ant is upright, hands on his hips. Looking at video from calendar year 2021, when the knee apparently wasn’t a factor, shows that Ant “took a play off” like this, or with inadequate defensive rotations and recognitions, albeit less frequently than he does now. 

Bottom line, it is understandable that a young phenomenon who has never experienced a tough injury like this would periodically succumb to inaction to ease the stress and pain — indeed, there are many players who wouldn’t play at all. And throughout his NBA career, Ant has earned the reputation as an inexperienced player thirsty for knowledge and eminently coachable. But that also makes Finch’s “tough love” understandable. He recognizes Ant’s desire to be great and consequently pushes him harder than anyone on the roster, at least with respect to his public comments. 

And, not for nothing, without squeezing the most production possible out of their most athletic player, the Wolves are in jeopardy of having their thus-far glorious season end in relative disappointment. 

Bring the man a towel

I asked Finch a series of questions about Ant’s performance after the Suns had shellacked the Wolves in that fourth quarter Wednesday night, turning a five-point deficit at the start of the period into an eventual nine-point defeat. 

Can Ant reasonably be asked to sustain a high leverage defensive assignment on someone like Booker while still carrying scoring responsibilities or does he need respite on someone else sometimes?  “He’s young enough, he should be able to give it to us at both ends. It is oftentimes the best place for him matchup-wise,” Finch replied, adding that in addition to the agility and physicality he brings to the defense, he is learning how to use his hands better on and gets over screens well. 

On the other side of the ball, I asked Finch about Ant missing four of six layups within four feet of the hoop. “I think he is just being too cute around the rim. He hasn’t finished well for a number of games now. I’d like to see him go in and dunk it: He doesn’t get enough half-court dunks in my mind. He gets a lot of open-court dunks but not enough in the half-court,” Finch said. 

“You don’t think that’s physical, because of his knees?” I followed up. “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him,” Finch said. 

About twenty minutes later, it was Ant’s turn before the media and we dutifully tried to put Finch’s comments into context. 

“You had a couple of missed layups. What are you feeling when you get to the rim and you are not finishing those?” asked my former colleague at The Athletic, Jon Krawczynski. 

“Just missing them. Nothing crazy,” Ant replied, still in terse mode. 

“Is there anything physical that is affecting you that way?” Krawczynski asked.

“Nah.”

“Finch says he wants to see you dunk more on those. Is it that simple sometimes?” said Pioneer Press beat writer Jace Frederick. 

“Yeah, I could have dunked a couple of them, but you know. A little tired, fatigued.” Ant answered. 

Six seconds later, he wanted a towel. There was some lotion sweating like a MFer.