Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Anthony Edwards: The making of a star (All-Star?)

In year three of the Ant Experience, our sense of anticipation and imagination of what the wunderkind might become can no longer be unfettered.

Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards going to the basket past Sacramento Kings forward Chimezie Metu in the third quarter of Monday night’s game at Target Center.
Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards going to the basket past Sacramento Kings forward Chimezie Metu in the third quarter of Monday night’s game at Target Center.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The honing of Anthony Edwards is a joyous hoot and a bittersweet grind.

As the ace wingman and now unquestioned alpha of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ant’s game is being inexorably smoothed out like a stair bannister or the handle of a cane – as a source of constant reliance, absolutely vital to the forward progress of a franchise decades removed from genuine relevance.

As a teenaged rookie, Ant’s signature play was a ferocious dunk, a play so spectacular it left you a little dizzy from the buzz of it. Two years later, he is focusing our attention on the scoreboard instead of the spectacle.

With 3:44 left in the fourth quarter on Monday night, the Wolves were trailing the Sacramento Kings 93-92 as center Rudy Gobert came out by the three-point arc to set a screen for Ant. Instead of going left to utilize it, he hit the jets off the dribble and finished a layup past both chasing defenders to put the Wolves in the lead. The score was the same at 2:54 when Ant caught the inbounds, took a single bounce to sell a hard feint to the left, then rose up to can a 17-foot pullup jumper with a defender’s hand in his face.

Article continues after advertisement

After the Kings had whittled the margin back to a single-digit at the 2:12 mark, Ant again had the ball at the top of the arc, this time utilizing Gobert’s screen to dribble left. Sacramento swarmed, surrounding him with three players as Gobert dove toward the basket as a lob target. Instead Ant executed a left-to-right crossover dribble and cut across the lane, with by-now four Kings in pursuit. He twisted for another midrange pullup, the arms of his opponents outstretched in front of and behind him as the 11-footer sailed into the hoop – his 29th and 30th points of the night.

Nevertheless, the Wolves found themselves down by 3 with 20 seconds to play as Ant came down the court and received a pass from D’Angelo Russell. He drove hard to his left, then cut toward the hoop when he got to the baseline. With two Kings on him and another converging, he zipped a pass to a wide-open Jaden McDaniels in the right slot above the three-point arc. It became a shiny dime – Ant’s 5th of the game – as McDaniels buried the trey to force overtime.

The ‘Ant Experience’

After the Wolves chose Ant with the top pick in the 2020 NBA draft, he quickly revealed himself to be a publicist’s dream. Somehow there was a hint of shyness in his klieg-light smile, gilded by a guileless, aw-shucks demeanor that legitimized both the homespun wisdom and genuine humility of his spontaneous responses to the media. His charm was irresistible, the cherry on top of basketball skills that had to be seen live to be fully appreciated. You went to watch Ant because he might just do something you’d be recounting to your grandkids someday.

All of that is still intact. The verbal instincts are still unerring, the sky-walking dunks are still delivered with savage efficiency, and the goodie grab-bag of steals, euro-steps and stop-and-rise three-pointers still spill forth in delightful assortments. But in year three of the Ant Experience, our sense of anticipation and imagination of what the wunderkind might become can no longer be unfettered. “Might become” is now “becoming.” We are living the dream.

Over his three years in the NBA, per, the percentage of Ant’s field-goal attempts that are dunks has dropped from 6.6 to 5.5 to 4.6 – from 70 in the 2,314 minutes he played as a rookie to 39 in the 1,937 minutes he has logged this season. In a similar vein, we will no longer see sights like a gleeful Ant swapping jerseys with his boyhood heroes like Damian Lillard after a game – unless it is some similarly awestruck young player initiating the exchange a few years down the road.

Be it at Target Center or on your screen of choice, Ant is still a must-see attraction. But as we become enmeshed in the first real honing phase of his burgeoning team leadership, the primary drama is where it belongs: Can he deliver what is required to create a victory?

Against Sacramento on Monday night, the answer was no. I recounted his crunch time heroics in the fourth quarter, but the game, which ended in an overtime loss for the Wolves, was pockmarked with a half-dozen of his turnovers. Twice he drove into traffic and lost the ball in the first quarter. He fumbled his dribble in the second quarter, mishandled a simple pass in the third quarter, had a pass deflected and stolen with his team down two points with just over a minute to play in the fourth quarter; and had another pass filched in overtime.

This is part of the learning curve, and of adjusting to the enormous weight of the load he carries. Nobody in the NBA has logged more minutes than Ant this season. He has battled through myriad minor injuries – most notably a painful hip bruise after getting sideswiped from a great height on a drive to the hoop in Milwaukee – to play every game, thumbing his nose at “load management.”

Article continues after advertisement

To get a sense of his burden, consider that Ant is second only to Trae Young of Atlanta in total turnovers. But in terms of “turnover percentage” – the number of turnovers by per 100 plays in which the player is involved – Ant ranks 59th in the NBA, and 5th on his own team behind Kyle Anderson, Gobert, D’Angelo Russell and McDaniels.

That heavy playing time also enriches the appearance of some positive statistics. For example, Ant is second in the NBA in total steals, but only 16th in steal percentage. Obviously, as the cliché goes, one of the most important abilities to have is availability, and so the value of Ant being a stalwart presence in the lineup is a factor that goes beyond totals and percentages. But there is also ample evidence that, at age 21, he has become the most complete player on the Timberwolves roster in terms of what he can deliver for his team.

It is not an exaggeration to say that for lengthy portions of the 2022-23 season, the Timberwolves have flirted with disaster. The ballyhooed pairing of big men Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns was more dysfunctional than dynamic through the team’s first 21 games before KAT was sidelined with a significant calf injury. Furthermore, for much of the season, the team has evidenced a lack of character and purpose that made it impossible to determine how much of their underachievement was unfamiliarity with each other, or ill-fitting schemes and player combinations, and how much of it was simply lack of physical and mental commitment.

On New Year’s Eve, the Wolves suffered their sixth straight loss, this time to the lowly Detroit Pistons, putting them five games under .500 at 16-21. It was hardly the final indignity they have foisted upon their fans this season – a second ugly loss to the Pistons and an embarrassing setback against the wretched Houston Rockets have ensued since then – but January will go down as the month in which the Wolves found their footing and began to establish some traction. The unquestioned catalyst of this growth and unity has been Anthony Edwards.

The leap to leadership

Ant’s grip on the leadership of the Wolves has been secured in a variety of ways. One revealing indicator has been the reversal of the team’s capabilities in the third quarter. Per, at the onset of 2023, the Wolves were 28th among the 30 teams in net rating (points scored versus points allowed per 100 possessions) at minus 11.3. It seemed like an incriminating case of a team not being ready to perform coming out of the locker after halftime, contributing to the argument that they lacked sufficient commitment to sustain quality play.

But in January, they dramatically reversed the trend, posting the 6th best net rating (plus 6.4) and outscoring their opponents in ten of their last eleven games en route to an 11-5 record for the month. Ant was the obvious spearhead, playing significantly more minutes (161, DLo was second at 120), and accounting for an oversized portion of the team’s offense. He scored 144 third quarter points in January – DLo was second with 51. He did it with efficiency borne of accuracy – 50.5% from the field, a scorching 54.5% from three-point range and 92.3% from the foul line. He also led the team in rebounds, assists and steals, and was second to Anderson in blocks.

In the locker room after the Wolves had beaten the Kings Saturday night in the first matchup of their two-game miniseries, Ant acknowledged that he sought to shore up a chronic team weakness.

“I know we come out slow in the third quarter, so I try to put it on myself to come out with some energy and put in a couple of buckets,” said the 21-year-old guard.

Article continues after advertisement

But Ant’s rescue mission extends beyond the third quarter. In the 32 games since KAT went down, the Wolves offense is bereft when Ant isn’t on the court. Consider that since KAT’s injury the Wolves have scored 116.1 points per 100 possessions in the 1,175 minutes Ant has played. In the 366 minutes Ant has rested, the team has scored 103.1 points per 100 possessions. The next most anemic scoring totals with players on the bench are McDaniels at 110.7 and DLo at 111.9 points per 100 possessions.

To put it in perspective since KAT’s injury, the Wolves score at a rate that would rank them 5th in offensive efficiency when Ant is on the court – and a rate that is 5.9 points per 100 possessions fewer than the last-place Rockets on offense when Ant rests.

That kind of influence ensures that opposing defenses spend copious time designing schemes specifically to limit Ant’s offensive capabilities. Yet despite the traps and the double-teams, the physicality and unpredictable churn in coverages that opponents lay out for him, Ant has once again made this season significantly better than his last one.

His field-goal percentage has risen from 41.7 his rookie season to 44.1 last year to 46.5 thus far this season. From three-point territory, the jumps have been 32.9 to 35.7 to 37.7. His per-game rebounding, assists and steals are all career highs – and remain that way even factoring in the added playing time, for per-minute category averages.

Ant has also improved defensively. Yes, he is still prone to mental lapses, especially with respect to his peripheral vision and off-the-ball rotations, or when his assignment isn’t a notorious scorer that presents a blatant challenge and measuring tool for his skills. But both his on-ball footwork and effort and his off-ball awareness have improved to the point where he is not a liability at that end of the court.

Through Monday, his defensive stats showed him to be at 71.8% by yielding only .83 points per play when defending post-up plays; at 65.6% by yielding .93 points per play defending the pick and roll ball handler; and at 57.7% by yielding .89 points per play defending opponents on isolation plays. His biggest statistical weakness was defending handoff plays – 1.13 points per play put him at 21.7%.

For what it’s worth, Ant also currently ranks 5th in the NBA in win shares – an analytic metric at that estimates the number of wins a player earns for his team via his defense. Ant’s win share is 2.5, putting him behind just four highly-regarded defenders (Evan Mobley, Bam Adebayo, Jason Tatum and Jarrett Allen) and immediately ahead of Nic Claxton, Brook Lopez and Joel Embiid. It is a gaudy ranking bolstered in part by his heavy minutes, but not really supported by the eye test (my eyes, anyway).

All individual defensive metrics come with a lot of noise. So let’s keep it simple and show that overall this season the Wolves have allowed opponents to score 112.6 points per 100 possessions, which is the exact same total they yield with Ant on the court. That is fourth among the starters, ahead of only DLo.

Article continues after advertisement

Numbers tell the story

Focusing just on the 16 games of January, the Wolves allowed 112 points per 100 possessions and 110.6 points with Ant on the court. I keep reducing the scope to this period because of its clarity. For many months over the past two or three seasons, the Wolves have had players off the bench who contributed in ways that were demonstrably better than the starters in some instances. But this past month was an outlier. Two key players from previous months and seasons – KAT and Jordan McLaughlin – were both injured for all of January. Another key reserve, Taurean Prince, missed five of the 16 games. And both Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell suffered serious slumps in January.

Consequently, the Wolves rode their starters to a significant degree, and the quintet put together the first clear-cut identity of the Gobert-era Timberwolves. Ant, Gobert, McDaniels, Anderson and DLo logged 155 minutes together in January. And even though Gobert missed three games and DLo and Anderson were out one apiece, the next-most frequent five-player lineup was 54 minutes.

During those 155 January minutes, the starters scored 111.9 points and yielded only 99.7, for an impressive net rating of plus 12.2. The early-season defensive issues involving Gobert, Ant and DLo were significantly resolved: In the 227 minutes the trio shared the court in January, the defensive rating rose to only 105.9 points allowed per 100 possession, while the offense was scoring 115.9 for a plus 10 net rating. Finch had frequently complained about the lack of physicality both DLo and Ant were showing during their leaky collaborations with Gobert earlier in the season. When I asked him before Monday’s game what accounted for the improvement, he specifically cited all three principals: DLo’s greater attention to on-ball coverage, Ant’s willingness to chase his man, and Gobert’s greater willingness to challenge at the point of attack.

In the incredibly bunched Western Conference standings where the Wolves could be in fourth place had they won on Monday but instead fell to ninth with the loss, having some of the clutter and chaos removed provides a huge confidence boost moving forward. With Kyle (Slo Mo) Anderson in the frontcourt beside him, and McDaniels as the wing stopper, Gobert is getting much more comfortable with his normal housekeeping in the paint. DLo has been in the best shooting phase of his career, caused in part by Ant taking on more of the playmaking and allowing him to play off the ball. The team has found its groove from three-point range, shooting nearly 39% in January.

At this point in time, the adjustments that will be required when KAT returns feel more onerous than positive, which is an unfair consequence of KAT’s injury. In the long run, at least for the rest of this season and the next, figuring out a way to maximize Gobert and KAT together remains the highest possible ceiling for this team, and perhaps worth the bumps required to make it work.

Beyond that medium time frame, however, it bears noting that the two most improved players on the Timberwolves are 21-year old Ant and 22-year old McDaniels. That both are extremely athletic, tireless workers, and healthy presences in the locker room should provide genuine encouragement for both the organization and its fans on what can be achieved down the road.

For Edwards, the sky is the limit – and clearer than ever as he soars up through it with dedication to match his natural prowess.