The small steps forward that may represent a giant leap for Anthony Edwards


The leap for Anthony Edwards may not be coming in a single bound in his third season in the NBA. Maybe it’s more like a triple-jump, with a series of smaller bounces that eventually add up to a giant vault forward.

What Edwards did in a badly needed Timberwolves victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night started in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers two days earlier. Thrust into lead playmaking duties by an injury to D’Angelo Russell, Edwards is quickly learning how to combat aggressive double teams, get his teammates open looks and control a game without a big scoring night.

In one of his most mature performances of the season, Edwards put up 19 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and just two turnovers in a 112-110 road win. For a young player who is typically at his best when he is riding a wave of emotion to big dunks and splashy step-back 3-pointers, this was a game highlighted by discipline, poise and an understanding of how the game was going and what the Timberwolves needed from him.

The Wolves were down Russell and Jordan McLaughlin (calf), both of their point guards. Rudy Gobert (ankle), Karl-Anthony Towns (calf) and Taurean Prince (shoulder) were all out as well, leaving Edwards to take on so much more of the responsibility. But instead of forcing himself upon the game or being baited into a toe-to-toe scoring duel with Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Edwards took the ball into his hands and quarterbacked the Wolves offense with patience and precision.

“We’ve been trying to preach to Ant, it’s not how much you score, it’s how much you create,” coach Chris Finch said.

The lessons are starting to sink in. The loss to the Clippers on Wednesday night could have just been a throw-away game, the kind a struggling and injury plagued team is expected to lose against one of the deepest teams in the Western Conference. But the Wolves got something out of it by putting Edwards into that lead ballhandler role and throwing him to the Clippers, a team loaded with wing defenders.

With so much Minnesota firepower sidelined, the Clippers threw the kitchen sink at Edwards, trapping and doubling him as soon as he touched the ball. It forced him to make quick decisions, recognize where the holes in the defense were and get the ball moving. He had only three assists and five turnovers in the game, but the Wolves clanked many of the open looks he created for them in a 99-88 loss.

Running a team is the hardest job in the NBA, especially for a 21-year-old who has made his mark in this league as a scorer. And in a season that has started off so underwhelmingly, the crash courses Edwards is receiving now could be starting to take hold. Those hard moments against the Clippers helped build the bricks that Edwards stood on in Oklahoma City.

It’s amazing for him, and I think it’s a credit to who he is as a player when they bring a second guy to make you get rid of the ball,” Gobert said after the Clippers loss. “It’s a big compliment to a player that you’re recognized. When that happens, for us as a team, it’s a good thing.”

The Thunder watched the video of how the Clippers defended Edwards and used many of the same principles. They threw pit bull defender Lu Dort at him, then gave help early and often to try to get the ball out of his hands and into a group missing five of its top eight players.

To make matters worse, the Wolves were heavy-legged on the final night of a 10-day, five-game trip. Edwards started with Austin Rivers, Naz Reid, Kyle Anderson and Jaden McDaniels, a different vibe than when Russell, Gobert and Towns are surrounding him. But instead of coming out of the gates firing against OKC to make up for the loss of scoring from the injuries, Edwards tried to get his teammates going.

Edwards had three assists and five rebounds in the first quarter alone. Reid was the primary beneficiary, scoring seven of his team-high 28 points in the opening period. Edwards did take five shots himself, but scaled back his aggressiveness as the game went on and players such as Reid, Rivers and Nathan Knight got rolling.

“If he can do that every time that we need him to, within doing what he’s capable of and what we need him to do, that’s big time, real big for us,” Reid said. “I believe he can, and we all believe he can. That’s a special ability, being able to lead the team that way, and it’s a big task.”

Edwards’ numbers this season are up across the board — points, rebounds, steals, assists, 3-point percentage and field goal percentage. But the tantalizing signs Edwards gave fans in his first two seasons, most notably in a breathtaking debut playoff series against Memphis last spring, set the bar even higher for Year 3.

The third season is often when the true superstar players really assert themselves, Ja Morant and Luka Doncic being two of the most recent examples. Edwards hasn’t been that emphatic in the first two months of his third season, but there are good reasons for that. The Timberwolves offense doesn’t revolve around one person in the same way that the Mavericks revolve around Luka or the Grizzlies orbit Morant. Edwards is surrounded by big-name teammates. The early part of this season has seen the team struggle to establish a flow and a pecking order that is readily apparent in so many other franchises that have a clear-cut No. 1 star.

“Our system is also one that relies on a lot of people trying to make plays, which is sometimes why we have heavy turnovers,” Finch said. “But yeah, we need more guys making more plays for more people.”

Edwards has also shown at times that he still has much to learn, about playing on the second night of a back-to-back or in the afternoon or against teams that do not have the star opponent to grab his attention.

With so many players down with injuries right now, it provides a chance for the Wolves to be more Ant-centric. He is showing that doesn’t mean he has to take 25 shots to fulfill that role.

The gravitational pull that Edwards creates with his drives sucks defenders into his space, opening things up for teammates on the outside. Rivers had his best game as a Timberwolf, scoring 20 points, going 4-for-5 on 3-pointers and racking up five of Minnesota’s 16 steals. McDaniels scored 14 points, Jaylen Nowell had 13 and Knight finished with an important 10 points off the bench in his first extended time of the season.

Edwards is also showing that he understands when it’s time to look for his own shot, or dunk. When the Wolves get stagnant or miss a few shots, Edwards can still put his head down and score with the best of them.

He was only 6-for-16 from the field against the Clippers on Wednesday, but his ability to finish at the rim while the entire defense was collapsing on him was jaw-dropping.

The Timberwolves led Oklahoma City by 14 points in the third quarter, but a collapse over the final four minutes actually put them down by three points early in the fourth. Edwards only scored four points in the final quarter, but he blocked a shot by Gilgeous-Alexander late and then made the play of the game when the Thunder appeared to have him caught in a trap just over the halfcourt line.

Instead of panic, Edwards surveyed the floor as best he could with Jalen Williams and Aaron Wiggins in his face. He then lofted a perfect crosscourt pass to Rivers, who nailed the 3.

“The essence of offense in the league is when they put two on you, you create an advantage, no matter how you do it, pick-and-roll, trap, early gap help, all that stuff is a gravity that he creates,” Finch said. “Just trying to continue to find the right play.”

In other words, don’t try to win the game all by yourself. Edwards is starting to understand how helpful his teammates can be when he gets them involved. That should help the Wolves immensely when Russell, Gobert and Towns return. They will find a more in-control young star there waiting for their help.

“You’ve got to keep trusting the right play, trust the open pass and keep trusting your teammates,” Finch said. “He’s doing a great job, he loves playing with those guys and his voice is growing louder and louder as well.”

(Top photo: Zach Beeker / Getty Images)


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