Anthony Edwards Has Become The Star The Timberwolves Needed

Talent was never the question for Anthony Edwards as he came into the NBA. Instead, the question was whether he’d be able to refine and apply that talent in such a way that he’d reach his sky-high potential.

Edwards arrived in the league with an NBA frame and the athleticism to match, but plenty wondered if he would put all the pieces together. An infamous pre-draft profile on ESPN raised questions about his commitment to basketball, while his love of Popeyes and McDonald’s led to plenty of scrutiny of his diet (including from his own teammates). All of this combined to paint a portrait of an immensely talented young player whose ceiling may never be reached.

In his first two years, Edwards’ lack of consistency was maddening, including to Edwards himself. Teams around the league grew to expect him to effectively no-show back-to-backs, with Edwards lamenting that “it’s normal for me to be bad on back-to-backs” after a dismal effort against the Spurs in the second week of the season in which he scored just nine points in a loss. He said he needed to find the juice to come out every night with the same effort and energy level, putting the onus on himself to make that leap to being a more reliable star for the rest of his team.

It appears that night proved to be a wake-up call for Edwards. Since then, the Wolves have played nine back-to-backs and Edwards has matched or exceeded the first night’s scoring total six times, averaging 27.2 points on 51.2 percent shooting in those nine games on the back-to-back.

That consistent productivity has allowed Edwards to become the much needed North Star for this Timberwolves team. He has quite literally been the most reliable star in the league, having played in all 60 games this season and leading the entire NBA in minutes played. On a team where Karl-Anthony Towns has missed the last 39 games and Rudy Gobert has missed 11 games, that availability has been critical in keeping the Wolves afloat. But it hasn’t just been that he’s on the court, because Edwards is giving his team star production most every night.

Edwards has fully embraced his role as the offensive engine in Minnesota in Towns’ absence. He is posting the best numbers of his young career across the board in every category, whether it be a raw productivity, efficiency, or usage stats. His 28.8 usage rate is a career-high and ranks 18th in the NBA among players who have logged 1,000 minutes. His 24.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game are all career bests, as is his 53.3 eFG% and 57.1 TS%.

The biggest difference this year has been the continued development of his jump shot and his ability to get it off in tight quarters, aided by a handle that continues to improve. With the Wolves roster constructed as it is — particularly with the addition of Gobert — maximizing the space on the floor to make strides as a scorer from all three levels was necessary in order to make the leap he has this season.

Edwards is already an elite driver. He gets to the rim at a rate (30.3 percent of his shot attempts inside three feet, per Basketball-Reference) that is equal to LeBron James and higher than any non-big on the top-20 in usage in the league, and he finishes at a robust 66.5 percent clip when he gets there. His burst, deceleration, balance, footwork, and touch around the basket are spectacular, and you can start to see how that foundation he’s built as a driver and finisher is already starting to expand beyond the restricted area.

He has gotten more adept at the little push-offs and tricks great scorers use to create enough separation to get his shot up, using an off-arm or his shoulder to get a defender on his heels to give him space to stepback for a jumper. His deceleration was already a weapon at the rim, but it’s now a bigger part of his midrange arsenal, taking advantage of how defenders have to retreat due to his ability to drive to the rim to stop and pop at the elbow. His footwork and handle are steadily improving, allowing him to get into his shooting motion from just about anywhere and remain on balance on fadeaways and stepbacks. While he’s still a ways from being at the elite level of a Devin Booker, his improvement from the midrange has been notable and is creating serious issues for defenses facing the Wolves who want to collapse on his drives.

Even with those improvements, attacking the rim is where Edwards creates the most headaches for opponents. Edwards is fearless getting into the paint no matter what center is lurking, but it’s against teams that lack an elite shot-blocker that he becomes unstoppable. Take Monday’s win over Dallas, where he showed his full range of abilities around the basket, speeding past perimeter defenders, absorbing and finishing through contact, throwing a long stride at the end to get a big stuck under the rim, Euro-stepping through a pair of defenders, and more.

What’s scary is this feels like the floor for him as a scorer. While there’s no way to know if his jumper continues to improve, it’s good enough now to keep defenses honest even if he plateaus in terms of efficiency — although, given his prodigious talent, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue improving. But if he starts getting calls at a rate that’s more in line with how often he gets to the rim, he could start to add 3-4 points to his scoring average just off of free throws.

Edwards’ .281 free throw rate is among the lowest of the top-20 usage guys in the league, with only Stephen Curry, Jaylen Brown, LaMelo Ball, and Donovan Mitchell below him. That’s particularly notable when you again consider he has the highest rim frequency of any of the non-bigs on the list. That’s where his strength works against him, as does his stature as a first-time All-Star who hasn’t quite earned the same respect of the officials. Edwards absorbs contact and finishes so fluidly that fouls don’t always look like fouls because he muscles through them — his propensity to yell “HEY!” on just about every drive when he gets contact might also not endear him to the officials. Still, the calls will come as his stature rises and he continues to attack the rim, and if that free throw rate creeps closer to the .400 range where most of the league’s elite drivers live, he’s going to see that scoring average take another leap.

All of this is a testament to Edwards’ commitment to putting in the work to round out his skill-set and become more consistent. The talent has been there, but over the last few months, he has started to show a maturity on the court that is impressive for someone who is still just 21 years old. He embraced the challenge from Chris Finch to be more reliable and change the league-wide perception of him on back-to-backs and beyond. He’s also done so as the unquestioned focal point of opposing defenses with Towns on the shelf, and has refused to let that or an ever-changing roster do anything to the upward trajectory of his career.

The result is an All-Star campaign that has kept Minnesota afloat in the crowded and always fluid Western Conference playoff race — currently 8th, but a half-game back of 5th — with the added bonus of shifting his reputation into being one of the league’s most reliable stars. When the playoffs and play-in arrive, the question this year won’t be whether their star shows up at his best every night, and that is a dimension the Wolves have lacked for some time.