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Behind the Scenes of the Timberwolves’ Decision to Draft Anthony Edwards

A third of the NBA called about the no. 1 pick, but Minnesota ultimately couldn’t pass on its top-ranked prospect. Here’s how the Wolves’ front office came to a decision in one of the most difficult-to-evaluate drafts in history.

Jonathan Bartlett

Anthony Edwards answered a question about Minneapolis, the new home of the NBA’s no. 1 overall pick, at his post-draft Zoom press conference with a few questions of his own. “I’m curious. I have a college teammate from St. Paul. Is that near there? He tells me there’s a mall there? Mall of America? Is that it?”

Edwards, who grew up in Atlanta and played one season of college basketball at Georgia, has never been to Minnesota, let alone made the roughly 15-minute drive between the state’s two biggest cities. He’s young even by the standard of one-and-done players. He turned 19 in August, making him the fourth-youngest player in this class. Edwards skipped his senior year of high school and entered college a year early. But while his youth made evaluating him more difficult, it’s also one of the reasons why the Wolves picked him.

Few teams around the NBA envied the decision Minnesota president Gersson Rosas had to make Wednesday. There were many questions about the consensus top-three picks—Edwards, LaMelo Ball, and James Wiseman—and little information to answer them. Edwards is the only one who actually played in a competitive basketball game in 2020. Ball played 12 games in Australia before injuring his foot last November, while Wiseman had only played three for Memphis before NCAA eligibility issues ended his season. Most NBA executives I asked said they would try to trade down if they were in Rosas’s shoes because of the lack of a surefire star. Ten teams called him about the pick, but none were willing to meet his asking price for it.

Edwards was up and down in his one season at Georgia, averaging 19.1 points on only 40.2 percent shooting, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. His shot selection came and went while his defensive intensity was never there in the first place. The Bulldogs finished with a 16-16 record, a terrible mark for a college team with a future NBA lottery pick. But the Wolves don’t believe those numbers tell the whole story.

“I love his edge. I love his toughness. His grit,” Rosas told The Ringer after the draft. “What he has overcome. His motivation to be successful in life. I love that he’s a multisport natural athlete who is smart and bright and intelligent and, at the same time, young, raw, and naive to life.”

The teenager grew an inch during the never-ending predraft process that stretched from March to November, another reminder of just how many ways he still has to grow. Edwards is now 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan. He’ll be one of the strongest and most powerful shooting guards in the NBA, while ranking in the 89th percentile among players at the position in running vertical leap and the 100th percentile in 3/4 sprint.

“His physical and athletic tools for that position and that profile in the NBA are just freakish,” said Rosas.

What makes him even more exciting as a prospect is that he has the skills to go with his physical gifts. He can create his own shot from any part of the floor, and showed flashes of real playmaking ability with the Bulldogs, too:

“You have to take his freshman season into context. Would we have loved if he had dominated? Absolutely,” said Rosas. “But you’re talking about a guy who should have been a [high school] senior and changed sports in high school.”

Edwards was essentially drawing dead as soon as he enrolled at Georgia. There was little talent around him. The Bulldogs had five freshmen in their rotation, and Edwards was the only one ranked in the top 50 of their high school class. Defenses could pack the paint against him, knowing his teammates couldn’t make them pay. Georgia ranked no. 326 in the country in 3-point shooting percentage.

It would have been difficult for any freshman to lift them out of mediocrity, much less one with his background. Edwards started his career as a football player and didn’t focus on basketball until high school.

“He was very honest and very transparent about who he is and who he is not,” said Rosas. “He’s a young guy who’s got a lot of work to do and a long way to go. And he’s very realistic about who he is and the work he has to do.”

Edwards is about where he should be in terms of development if you take a step back and look at the larger context of his career. One season of college basketball is a small piece of a much bigger picture.

When Wolves assistant GM Gianluca Pascucci started as a European scout in the 1990s, the most precious currency in basketball was VHS tapes. He had cables from multiple satellite dishes running through his house in Italy, recording games from all over the world 24/7.

“Now I open my iPad and I can watch games everywhere,” he said. “It’s an advantage that is right there for everybody. It kind of flattens a little bit. In the past, the more connections you have, you could create a little bit of an edge.”

It’s getting harder to find one these days. Rosas, Pascucci, and executive VP of basketball operations Sachin Gupta all worked under Daryl Morey in Houston, where they were one of the first front offices to fully incorporate analytical research into their draft process. They had an incredible hit rate for a team that never drafted in the top 10, finding players like Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell, Chandler Parsons, Aaron Brooks, and Carl Landry at the bottom of the first round and into the second. They pioneered many of the statistical insights that are now gold standards around the league, like the importance of free throw shooting percentage at the NCAA level when evaluating shooting potential, and the value of block and steal percentage when evaluating athleticism.

But there’s no longer any real conflict in NBA front offices between analytics and scouting. Every team incorporates both when evaluating prospects. The low-hanging fruit has mostly been plucked.

“Everyone is starting to have similar boards. Maybe two to three [different] players at most in the top 20,” said Rosas. “I think teams are getting smarter. The data is the same. People are processing the information more consistently and more effectively.”

So where is the next edge coming from? The Wolves believe it is in evaluating players without much statistical data from either the NCAA or major international leagues. In that sense, the 2020 draft, where so little is known about the consensus top prospects, could be a preview of the future.

The most meaningful games that Wiseman played before the NBA weren’t at Memphis, where he faced two overmatched mid-major squads and played only 22 minutes because of foul trouble against Oregon. The last time he faced fellow NBA prospects came when he played guys like Isaiah Stewart (no. 16 pick in this year’s draft) and Vernon Carey Jr. (no. 32) in the AAU circuit.

“AAU. USAB. International competition. Anything and everything you can get your hands on,” said Rosas when asked about how he evaluated prospects with so little college experience. “Different exposure points. Different interactions. Those all come into play when you don’t have enough current data.”

For the most part, the top prospects have been household names in the basketball world since they were high school sophomores, competing on teams with players from around the country in quasi-professional leagues like the Nike EYBL. LaMelo’s vagabond-like career pushed that dynamic even further. He has been playing with his older brothers since he was 8. One NBA analyst said that not only could he remember watching LaMelo at that age, but there were games he could go back to on tape and see a much younger version of himself in the stands.

“Being a former agent, the work starts in high school and the AAU circuit when you are evaluating talent,” said Wolves assistant GM Joe Branch. “A ton of YouTube clips. Social media hype. There are opportunities to learn about guys that are a click away on your phone and computer.”

The draft cycle stretches far beyond a 12-month calendar these days. NBA teams are evaluating players at least three years out from when they are eligible to be drafted. There are informal 2022 draft boards circulating around the Wolves’ front office right now.

Just as important, the earlier you start, the better information you can get. It’s almost too late to make calls about players in the months leading up to the draft. Everyone in their circle already has their guard up. They are all incentivized to spin things in a positive direction. But talk to people a year earlier, or even multiple years before the draft, and you are more likely to get an unfiltered opinion. It’s especially true if you can build relationships with those people over time.

One NBA scouting director told me several years ago that he tells people trying to break into a front office to become high-school-recruiting experts. That’s a constantly evolving and murky world that most older executives don’t have much experience with or bandwidth to examine. The people who know where the proverbial bags are dropped have a huge advantage.

An under-the-radar story line this offseason was the beginning of the arms race for those kinds of people. The Wolves hired Josh Gershon of 247 Sports while the Thunder hired Corey Evans of Rivals, two of the most respected evaluators of high school talent in the country. NBA teams have always taken those rankings seriously. I’ve talked to executives who can reference an NBA’s player RSCI rating (the average of their ranking among the top recruiting services) as easily as their draft position. Now the people who make those recruiting rankings are being recruited themselves.

It’s all part of the preparation process for when the one-and-done rule is eliminated and high school players are once again eligible to be drafted. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been pushing for the rule change for years. The latest step is the NBA G-League Ignite Team, which is slated to debut this season. The league is paying several of the top prospects in the 2021 draft to skip college basketball and train in a facility near San Francisco. They are coached by former NBA head coach Brian Shaw and will play in exhibition games on a team with longtime veterans like Amir Johnson who want to transition into coaching. Not everyone in the league is a fan of ending one-and-done, but all recognize the seeming inevitability of his plan.

“When people talk about the challenges of this draft, maybe it’s abnormal relative to what it’s been like for the past several years,” said Gupta. “But going forward this could be the new normal.”

While Rosas said he ultimately viewed Edwards as “head and shoulders” above the rest of the class, the Georgia product took matters into his own hands during his predraft workout with the Wolves. His trainer walked him through the shooting portion of his routine in the middle of the workout, including multiple long 2-pointers and midrange jumpers. After he was done, Edwards told him to take those shots out of the workout because the analytics-minded Wolves wouldn’t want him taking too many of them.

“Coach [Ryan Saunders] and I were just sitting on the side [of the court],” said Rosas. “We didn’t even say anything.”

Edwards had gone to dinner with the Wolves’ brain trust the night before, where they had a long conversation about their offensive philosophy and the role they envisioned for him next season. They went over their roster and how he would complement the strengths and weaknesses of their current players.

“It was like a kind of college recruitment. That’s what made me feel comfortable with Minnesota,” said Edwards.

Edwards will also likely feel more comfortable in the NBA than in college. Minnesota’s goal is to simplify the game for him and allow Edwards to create shots within the structure of its offense rather than him forcing shots to be the offense. He won’t need to dribble the ball into the ground like he did at Georgia and take highly contested jumpers against defenses geared up to stop him. The ball will swing his way after someone else has already initiated the offense, giving him runways to attack defenders once they have started moving.

Edwards should have no problem buying into his new role. He called Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell “superstars” in his press conference. Some NBA fans might roll their eyes at that, but the two players were miles ahead of where Edwards is at this stage of his career. Both Towns and Russell will certainly make the rookie’s life a lot easier on offense. He has never played before with anyone like Towns, the most potent stretch 5 in NBA history, while Russell’s ability to threaten the defense as both an on- and off-ball player should create a lot of open looks.

There is a chance for powerful synergy to develop between Towns, Russell, and Edwards—all of whom were drafted in the top two—over the next few seasons. It’s not just that all three play different positions and attack the defense from different parts of the floor. Their different styles of play could also blend together in an interesting way. The hope is they become Denver North, a group better than the sum of its parts.

“D’Angelo and Karl are [high] IQ and feel and skill. [Edwards] is the guy who is the brute-force explosive athlete,” said Rosas.

The Wolves aren’t expecting to transform overnight. Edwards, like any 19-year-old, has bad habits the team will have to break. The nice thing about Edwards is that he should be able to immediately fill a smaller 3-and-D hole as a rookie, and then slowly grow into a larger role over the next few seasons.

They don’t have to force-feed him shots and minutes right away. Minnesota already has depth on the wing. The team will try to re-sign Malik Beasley, a restricted free agent whom they acquired at the trade deadline, and expect growth from third-year swingman Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver, the no. 6 pick in last year’s draft.

Edwards isn’t even the biggest name the Wolves acquired on draft night. They also traded for Ricky Rubio, a fan favorite who had been their starting point guard from 2011 to 2017 before being pushed out the door by the previous front office under Tom Thibodeau. Rubio instantly provides a much-needed boost of playmaking and defense, as well as veteran leadership for one of the youngest teams in the NBA.

The Wolves know they will never be a free-agent destination. Their only way out of a never-ending cycle of mediocrity that has caused them to miss the playoffs for 14 of the last 15 seasons is identifying and developing young talent. The 2020 draft could be a huge step in that process. Minnesota made a dizzying number of trades that also netted it two other intriguing prospects in Leandro Bolmaro (no. 23 pick) and Jaden McDaniels (no. 28). Bolmaro is a 6-foot-7 point forward coming over from Barcelona, while McDaniels is an athletic 6-foot-9 wing who spent one season at Washington.

While Rosas is only in his second season running the Wolves’ front office, the decisions that he made on Wednesday could make or break his tenure. The team may not have its first-round pick in 2021, a class that is widely regarded as significantly stronger than this one, after trading the top-three protected pick to Golden State as part of the Russell-for–Andrew Wiggins trade. And even if the Wolves make their picks in 2022 and 2023, the players likely won’t have much impact on whether or not Towns commits to Minnesota long-term. It usually takes a couple of years for prospects to show who they really are.

The lengthy draft cycle simultaneously works forward and backward. NBA front offices started evaluating the 2020 draft in 2017, but we won’t really know whether or not they made the right call until 2023. If Rosas and his lieutenants were wrong on Edwards, and to a lesser extent on McDaniels and Bolmaro, someone else will likely be cleaning up their mess. Towns will probably be on his way out the door, and the franchise would have to start over again.

“We need talent in the stage that we are in. Getting guys that are more ready to play in the NBA and get us marginal wins has a limited ceiling,” said Rosas. “I’d love to be in a situation where we are winning 50 games a year and are in the playoffs. We aren’t there yet. We have to take bets. We have to take developmental projects. We have to take the highest upside.”