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Anthony Edwards Is Flashing the Potential the Timberwolves Need

The no. 1 pick was thrown into the fire this season, as a rash of injuries made Minnesota the worst team in the NBA. He hasn’t been efficient, but he’s shown athleticism and talent worth building around.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Anthony Edwards probably won’t win Rookie of the Year. LaMelo Ball all but has the award locked up after leading the Hornets to the no. 6 seed in the East at the halfway point of the season. Edwards has been more up-and-down for the Wolves, who have the worst record in the NBA and recently fired their coach. But the no. 1 pick has shown flashes of why he went so high. There are times when he looks unstoppable. Edwards almost single-handedly lifted the Wolves to a 114-112 win over the Blazers on Sunday, scoring a career-high 34 points on 12-of-24 shooting.

The most impressive part of his game comes when he puts his head down and gets to the rim. He’s an incredible athlete with a rare combination of size (6-foot-4 and 225 pounds) and explosiveness. Edwards had one of the best dunks in recent memory in February, but this one was just as impressive because it happened in the closing moments of the fourth quarter against a playoff team. It should not be possible to dunk like this against a set defense during crunch time:

Edwards then closed out Portland with a barrage of 3s. His subpar 3-point percentage (31.5 percent on 6.4 attempts per game) understates his shooting ability because he takes so many difficult attempts. The more telling number is his excellent free throw shooting (80.2 percent on 2.6 attempts per game). The best version of Edwards combines powerful drives with the ability to knock down jumpers when the defense tries to keep him out of the paint. He settles for too many 3s right now, but his shot does look good when they go in:

That’s the balance that Edwards and the Wolves still have to figure out. He’s a long way from being efficient. He’s shooting 42.9 percent from 2-point range on 9.0 attempts per game, and his percentages at the rim (58.0 percent on 4.5 attempts per game) aren’t good for a player with his athleticism. Nor does he get to the line enough considering how often he shoots the ball. Put it all together and it’s easy to see why he has such bad advanced statistics. Edwards is dead last among 80 eligible rookies in win shares (minus-0.7) this season.

None of this should be a surprise considering how raw Edwards is. He reclassified and skipped his senior season of high school, making him one of the youngest players in the NBA. He’s in good company at the bottom of the win shares list, right behind two other highly touted 19-year-olds (Aleksej Pokusevski and Killian Hayes) who have also struggled to play efficiently in big roles in their respective offenses. Edwards is even further behind on the development curve because he focused more on football growing up. He’s playing on talent and instincts at this stage of his career.

Edwards wasn’t supposed to have to do this much. The Wolves’ plan was for him to grow into a larger role on a team built around Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Malik Beasley. But those three have played four games together this season. The Wolves have had unbelievably bad luck with the timing of injuries to their best players. Russell, who has missed the past month after undergoing knee surgery, went down the game before Towns returned from a month-long absence after contracting COVID.

The result has been a disorganized team that has never had a consistent rotation or built much chemistry between its players. And that was before it fired its coach (Ryan Saunders) in the middle of the season and brought in an assistant from another team (Chris Finch) who is learning the strengths and weaknesses of his players on the fly.

Playing off Russell and Beasley would have been good for Edwards. Per Synergy Sports, he’s in the 56th percentile of players leaguewide as a spot-up shooter and in the 17th percentile when shooting off the dribble. Those two would have created easier shots for him and more driving lanes to the rim. Edwards faces crowds in those situations because Minnesota is no. 23 in the NBA in 3-point percentage (35.1). Its starting lineup against Portland had two non-shooters (Ricky Rubio and Jarred Vanderbilt) who the Blazers could leave open on the perimeter.

There are a lot of times when Edwards makes the right pass and doesn’t get rewarded for it:

He’s not a selfish player. Edwards has a positive ratio of assists (2.5 per game) to turnovers (1.9), and reads the floor fairly well. Don’t let some of the bad shots fool you. He has a good feel for the game. That would be more obvious if he weren’t playing on a depleted team that’s been practically forced to give him an unlimited green light.

A smaller role on offense would also help Edwards on defense, where he has all the physical tools to be elite but makes too many mistakes. The Wolves can’t afford to bench him for mental miscues and missed rotations because of how much they need him on the offensive end. They have no choice but to let him play through those and hope that he doesn’t develop bad habits.

LaMelo is the exception that proves the rule. Usually, when a team gives a lot of offensive responsibility to a young player, it loses a lot, which is what has happened in Minnesota. But the upside is that Edwards can benefit from his trial by fire and, hopefully, come out of it a better player.

It’s hard for a volume scorer like Edwards to transition to the NBA. For the first time in his life, Edwards can’t rely on his physical tools to bail him out of bad decisions. He has to learn how to balance shooting and passing, playing on and off the ball, and splitting his energy between offense and defense. That process can take years.

There are still a wide range of outcomes for Edwards’s career. He has the potential to be an All-NBA wing who can defend multiple positions, space the floor, create his own shot, and run the offense. But he could also end up as an inefficient scorer who never learns how to play within a team concept. Minnesota knew that when it drafted him. It took a swing for the fences and counted on being able to develop him. The most encouraging sign is that his teammates love him, which doesn’t always happen when a rookie takes a lot of shots on a bad team. It’s easy to see why in his press conferences, where his positivity and sense of humor have made him one of the better interviews in the league.

The challenge for the Wolves will be aligning the timetables of their best players. They have an interesting core of first- and second-year players, led by Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and Naz Reid, who aren’t ready to contribute for a playoff-caliber team. The problem is their star (Towns) is 25 and in the second season of a five-year max extension. He has said all the right things about wanting to stay long term, but Minnesota has to start winning at some point. It already sacrificed some of its future by trading a future first-round pick to Golden State for Russell. That pick is top 3 protected this season. Losing it would be a huge blow to a team with the worst record in the NBA.

The hope is that Edwards can be the third- or fourth-best player on a more veteran team next season, and slowly develop into a no. 2 next to Towns. The question isn’t whether Edwards can be as good as LaMelo. It’s whether he can develop his nearly limitless potential before Towns gets restless. Edwards won’t be Towns’s current age until 2026. Minnesota is in a race against the clock to develop its star rookie and keep its franchise player in town.