Timberwolves

The Sequence That Sums Up The Start To Anthony Edwards’ Career

Photo Credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

On Saturday night, a play unfolded that was a microcosm of Anthony Edwards’ first 10 NBA games and, I would argue, his time at Georgia as well.

With 15 seconds left and down three points, Edwards had a great contest on a DeMar DeRozan jumper, placing his hand about two inches or so above DeRozan’s on the release. It was close enough that by snapping his wrist, DeRozan involuntarily gave Edwards a high five on the release. The Minnesota Timberwolves fumbled with the rebound, but eventually, the ball found its way to Edwards, who looked to the right break and saw DeRozan trying to slam on the brakes on his closeout with no other San Antonio Spurs player within 20 feet of the basket. 9.5 seconds left.

Edwards made a quick jab right and dribbled hard left, with DeRozan, unable to cover all of his bases due to the hectic nature of the closeout, forced to trail, reaching out at a full extension to keep the faintest contact on Edwards’ inside hip as Anthony shot to the unmanned rim.

8.0 seconds left — 3-point game.

There is one more piece of vital information, arguably the most important tally of the game, considering the current drive that is two-tenths of a second away from entering the paint. Can anybody guess what it is?

One timeout. The Timberwolves still have their last timeout remaining.

There is actually a great, great moment in the sequence, a sequence that I’m sure most of my readers remember ends with a jump-pass turnover. There are five Spurs players on the floor, all of whom made it back onto the defensive end, and, discounting DeRozan, who is in his 12th year in the league and on the ball for just a moment, here are the four off-ball players and their level of NBA experience:

Before you make your mind up (or, more likely, you have already made your mind up), consider the reactions of these four players.

The young guys, Johnson and Murray, responded with variable stages of poor game awareness. Johnson, the youngest Spur, and the last one to cross half-court losing his head. Despite being the furthest defender from the play, he panicked, made a direct beeline towards Edwards, only to pull up five feet short as the jump-pass whizzed easily over his head towards KAT, on a flight path towards the spot on the arc Johnson had just left. Murray, who is a little more experienced, didn’t completely abandon his man, but he didn’t exactly guard anybody or try to anticipate anything, save for probably an Edwards dunk, either.

The vets, however, well, their behavior was super telling.

From the moment that Ricky Rubio heads the ball up to Edwards, all Mills is thinking about is taking away his man (D’Angelo Russell) along the arc. As Rubio gets into his passing motion, he’s breaking towards denying the skip passing lane. As Edwards is driving past DeRozan, he’s making sure he can see both the ball and his man. As Edwards is getting closer to the rim, Mills is setting up for a stunt and recover, which he times and executes beautifully. At no point does Mills overreact, and the only collapsing he does here is a fake to try to bait Edwards into throwing the ball away trying to force it to Russell. I think Mills’ actions potentially threw Edwards for a loop, as he was certainly thinking drive and kick here. After he gets past DeRozan, Mills is the only remaining player in his sightline. Sure, Mills is a point guard, and I guess that figured into his decision making, but that brings us to the center, Alridge.

I don’t know if Alridge is a dad or not, but his energy on this play would strongly imply he is. He never really breaks into a run, just a jog. He’s the second to last player to cross half court. He’s the one that notices that the young’un is freaking out, so he slyly slides back a step to cover for both Johnson’s man and his own in center field. Finally, he’s the one who gets credit for the steal as he bats Edwards’ jump pass into the air with a full extension that had Aldrige skying, I don’t know, four inches off the ground?

I hope my tongue-in-cheek tone isn’t dampening how I feel about this defensive sequence for Aldridge. It’s brilliant. It’s a five-second tour de force on how somebody lasts 15 years in the NBA, never mind excels. The likely future-Hall-of-Famer pulled a telekinetic soul read onto the rookie and barely broke a sweat doing it.

So, yes, this is a comprehensive, roundabout way of saying that Anthony Edwards should’ve taken the dunk.

Eight seconds to go? Even without a timeout, you dunk the ball, you foul, and the nightmare scenario is that your team is down one with five seconds remaining. Even if they get the ball into their best free-throw shooter, Patty Mills, there’s a better than a one in four chance he misses at least one free throw given his career average. There could be a steal, leading to a breakout, another dunk, and the lead. There could be a five-second call. The ball could find its way into the hands of a 70% free throw shooter, who is more likely to miss at least one than make both. And if the worst thing happens, you got five seconds to get a three.

And this is without a chance to advance the ball with a timeout.

This isn’t something you think of in the moment. This is part of the preparation, the act of mentally readying yourself for the moments that matter most. You don’t need to know specifics, but eight seconds is clearly within the limits where you take the 100% two over the chance for a ~40% (at best) three. Elongate the game. Keldon Johnson just panicked once on the Spurs. Maybe he will again.

The question isn’t whether Edwards’ heart was in the right place (it was) or his mind was in the right vicinity (it was… down three points, try to get a three, easy enough). The questions here are two-fold:

  • Why didn’t Anthony make the right play and just dunk the ball?
  • How can he learn from it? How can the team learn from not this one play, because no one play is make-or-break for any player’s career, save Michael Jordan yelling, “Shoot it, you fucking midget,” this is likely a pattern of behavior?

And yes, this is a pattern of behavior with Edwards. It can be observed since his first game at Georgia, it almost certainly extends back earlier than that. Not paying attention, don’t want to see it, I don’t care. This is a pattern of behavior.

And that pattern is that Edwards does not pay enough attention.

If you only watch his highlight tapes, if you only focus on his assists and his made shots, and you throw everything else out as “he’s learning!” well, you’re probably missing it. And if you’re somebody who demands a mountain of annotated and organized evidence to the contrary because you can’t be bothered to contribute to the discussion beyond a “says you” or a lone clip of two of right decisions being made, well, you’re not worth my time. You can sit through the possession-by-possession mosaic of tunnel vision and forced shots that were his time at Georgia, I already did, and you’re not obligated to any more of my energy.

Because the fact is that it’s a play that invested high school players can make. This author has even seen the occasional middle-schooler make it. Anthony’s baseline with eight seconds remaining needs to be to take the two. The fact that the team also had a timeout makes it unforgivable because ever since Chris Webber meme’d himself in the 1993 National Championship game, the fear of that moment has permeated into every basketball coach in America’s conscience. Webber’s coach Steve Fisher graciously has given Webber the out of a lifetime, claiming that he didn’t give the team’s state of timeouts enough time in the final huddle. This has been repudiated by basically every other Michigan player. Webber’s former coach was an altruistic move to try to draw some of the blame onto his shoulders. But this only served to echo the antidote to Webber’s ailment as a cosmic edict for all coaching kind: Always tell the players how many timeouts you have in late-game huddles. Make it a focal point.

Don’t believe me? Head to any AAU tournament in America. The younger the players, the better. Coaches and kids of all ages, genders, and walks of life, it’s arguably one of the only cultural constants in the sport. You will hear every coach, even the ones who look like they got dragged off a suburban dive bar’s dirty floor during warmups, harp on how many timeouts they have in these scenarios. Every coach remembers what happens when you don’t bring this to players’ attention in a direct manner — every one.

Don’t believe me? Watch Ryan Saunders the instant he realizes that Edwards is trying to pass, he sprints up the sideline to the nearest official, hands in a T, begging for the ref’s whistle to allow the team a reset, even if it means burning their chance to advance the ball later. Am I supposed to believe that the lifelong NBA coach’s son who has never worked a job outside of basketball in his life committed a cardinal sin, or the 19-year old got caught up in the moment?

Anyway, now that I have thoroughly made my case, why is it important? This already looks like a long year, and Anthony needs his reps, right?

Right.

The whole point of reps is that Edwards needs to do exactly that and learn from them.

And through his 10 games in Minnesota and his 32 games in Georgia, I don’t see a lot of learning.

I see many reps and a lot of mistakes, misreads, absent-minded moments, and attempts to brute force the ball to the rim. These lead to a lot of blown assignments on defense, simple passes left unthrown, bad jumpers early in the shot clock, and instances of Edwards leaving his feet for no reason and then trying to salvage the situation with an out of control pass or shot. Some of these even result in assists or made shots, like.

Honestly, I weirdly give Edwards credit on this play: He had a plan when he left his feet, something I thought was missing when he took off from literally the right elbow with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter of the same game, only to find that he had massively overestimated his jumping ability, and couldn’t dunk like Michael Jordan in Space Jam.

That play ended with two gracefully ugly points, as Edwards turned a pretty good scoring opportunity into a bumbling, choose-your-own-adventure into his own freak athleticism and awkwardly threw the shot in off the glass with two hands as he was already coming back down to earth. Again, I award him partial credit for being able to pull such a thing off once (something not many NBA players will do in their career). Still, I dock him partial credit for leaving his feet, yet again, without a clear understanding of the situation.

That is a “highlight play” in the same sense that the .gif of that skateboarder biffing on a kickflip only to land, wheels down, ass resting upon the board, after it careened out of his control is a “trick.”

Suppose you like stuff like that, nothing wrong with it. It’s fun. It doesn’t sound like I think it’s fun, but I thought it was awesome in the moment while watching the game live, and I stand by that reaction. But, my job here at ZoneCoverage isn’t to have fun; it’s to be objective.

The point of this is that there Edwards was, 12 minutes of game time later, making the same mistake, just in the opposite way. And no, I am not giving him partial credit for having some idea of a plan, not with the game hanging in the balance. That’s not partial-credit worthy. That’s borderline a prerequisite for playing in the NBA, a Martell Webster incident and a J.R. Smith error aside against 10,000-plus of these final possessions accumulated throughout NBA history.

The root of the problem isn’t jumping, or his athleticism, or that he means well (and I think he truly, truly does).

It’s this: He isn’t making enough of an effort, like at Georgia, to analyze situations before he acts. And like at Georgia, he isn’t being held accountable for this.

The proof is in the pudding:

  • He can pull off the freak plays like this and is shooting 49% at the rim in the half-court.
  • He is 6-for-37 (16%) on his off-the-dribble jumpers in the half-court.
  • He is capable of incredible defensive contests, like the one he had on DeRozan seconds before his game-ending turnover. Still, He rarely comes close to even attempting a deep defensive stance and barely bands his knees when on-ball defensively, like he was seconds before DeRozan dribbled right at him and settled for that mid-range attempt.

I’m not anti-reps. Reps are good.

But how many reps does any player need when they haven’t shown much use for them in the last 42 games of their career, going back to the beginning of last season.

Edwards has 147 jumpers taken off the dribble during his time at Georgia. He made 42 of them. That’s 29%.

In the last game of his career there, he had missed his last eight attempts off the dribble. He had literally almost 2.5 times as many misses from off the bounce than makes by this point in the year, over 100 misses. In just this type of shot attempt. There were 13 seconds on the shot clock. His Georgia team was up 15 in an elimination game with nine minutes to play. Edwards got about four feet of space 23 feet from the rim.

And he shot it. He shot it! Of course, he did.

It’s.

What.

He.

Does.

This is the core problem, he does not use everything at his disposal, and it’s just business as usual. He took almost 150 of these shots in college. He made less than 30% of them. He heard his name called first at the draft. He’s on-pace to take the same rate of off the dribble jumpers in the NBA.

He took one every 13.9 minutes at Georgia.

He has taken one every 14.5 minutes so far in the NBA.

24-second shot clock versus a 30-second one, and the NBA game is trending towards… Blah, blah, blah. I don’t care how somebody might try to justify this.

He shot 29% last year. He’s shooting 16% now. The first number is insane. The second number is also insane, more insane even, because it’s happening after we know what happened in the first instance!

Every player gets assists and makes shots. Stop trying to talk yourselves into the idea that it’s a turning point every time he hits the wide-open man directly in his field of vision, especially when he ignores him five possessions later. Or, celebrate it equally when every Wolves player does this. Just don’t act like it’s some fantastic achievement that Edwards has been doing on an intermittent basis since Georgia.

Stop this.

Stop the 27% Usage Rate, the 3rd highest on the team.

Stop the 20-plus FGA attempt nights. Make him earn those. And he’ll earn them by making the most of 8 to 10 possessions in 25 minutes a night. Tons of NBA players learn at that initial stipend. Most start with far, far less. If Edwards is the star the Wolves need him to be, he’ll naturally graduate into more opportunities a night. Handing them to him is the same problem that he had at Georgia. Being first overall selection is just reinforcing that idea — although if you redrafted the 2019 Draft now, Edwards would’ve likely gone fourth overall at the earliest, if not fifth or sixth.

RJ Barrett was a chuck, too. But he won a hell of a lot more games than Edwards. Even if he wasn’t the best player on his team, you know NBA GMs fall victim to situational success like that all the time. And I bet pointing this out would be a bitter pill for Edwards to swallow, but it’s the truth. He shouldn’t be handed the keys to the car like most first overall selections, especially not when he’s handily outplayed by picks No. 2, 3, and 4 so far. Not to mention pick No. 12, Tyrese Haliburton, who is scoring only about 10% fewer points per night, on literally only 60% of the possessions.

I’m not staying stop the reps. Keep the reps coming. He needs the reps.

But, more than he needs All-Star-level volume, he needs to be able to remember all the stuff that has happened in these games. What worked, what didn’t work. What is likely to work again, what was just a lucky break when he got in too deep. He needs to be thinking about what happened on every single possession like this, not just the one out of 25 that people will remember at the end of a close game. I could’ve made this case on any number of the 15 or so possessions like this that have occurred in 10 games. I chose one that it is inarguable that Anthony needs to be thinking about the game situation, but every time Edwards tries to dribble through the same defender’s chest for the third time in six possessions, well, they all would’ve worked too.

Make the kid think. Stop enabling him to fall into the same holes over and over again by overloading him with reps. It makes this situation worse, not better, because it’s delaying the consequences until this is so unsustainable that the rug is pulled out from underneath him. If you’re worried about his confidence being damaged, well, watch what happens to players like Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson, who go from franchise cornerstone to afterthought over the span of one summer. The number of players who can succeed by just going through brick wall after brick wall physically are so rare. Betting Edwards, or any non-generational player like LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, will be one of them is a sucker’s wager, especially when the player in question is about average height for his position and doesn’t have overwhelming height to pair with overwhelming strength and quickness.

Make him value every single possession. Stroking his ego, enabling these awful habits, it’s turned him into a first overall pick, but it’s also turned him into a player who just skates from one possession to another.

He isn’t apathetic towards basketball in general like Andrew Wiggins appeared to be. He’s apathetic towards each possession because there has always been one around the corner every single time before. Why would you learn to value each one when the world is your oyster like this? And valuing every possession is what turns immensely talented players into immensely successful ones in this league.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

And that’s exactly what the Wolves are doing, game-by-game, with Anthony Edwards.

Spot the insanity. We can have the reps without the ingraining and the enablement of bad habits.

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