What the Toronto Dunk Says About Anthony Edwards’ Future

Feb 19, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards (1) dunks the ball against Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe (18) in the third quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

It was arguably the dunk of the year so far in the NBA.

Toronto Raptors defender DeAndre’ Bembry tried to jump a Jordan McLaughlin pass, Anthony Edwards drove left along the baseline, then Yuta Watanabe declined to make a business decision, and…

Even for a player like Edwards, this punch over a 6’8” defender was jaw-dropping. I’ve pushed back on the idea that Edwards is an athletic freak. It’s a label thrown on a very athletic — but not freakishly so — unpolished product to justify taking him first overall instead of prudently trading back.

However, this is easily the most freakish that Edwards has even looked on the court. He has had a few very impressive dunks so far in his career, most of which haven’t reverberated around the entire league. There was this two-handed dunk from the previous meeting with the Raptors, only five days before the big detonation on Watanabe, that acted as a bit of foreshadowing to the main event.

However, when going back and watching both dunks again, I’m going to go out on a limb — something I have done with Edwards consistently since before Adam Silver called his name on draft night — and say that Wolves fans should be more excited about the less-acknowledged dunk than the one that made headlines.

Yes, the first dunk is a more impressive show of pure athleticism and power. Edwards rises up in a way that few guards are able to, and punches home an and-one in a way that looks like he’s snatching Watanabe’s entire soul on his way to the foul line for the free throw attempt. When I watched this live, I swore out loud involuntarily. Had I been at a game live when a player pulled something like this, I would’ve lost my mind like everybody else.

But let’s talk about something else: All the parts of the play that happened before Edwards left the ground. In fact, the only reason that the dunk unfolded the way that it did is because of the three main actors in the play (Edwards, Watanabe, and Edwards’ man, DeAndre’ Bembry), there were three notable mistakes made, and only one player actually did his job the way he was supposed to.

The play starts in an odd way. Opposing guard Malachi Flynn misses a 3-pointer, and Naz Reid has control of the ball with 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter. This should be a classic time to hunt a two-for-one, as basically any shot taken in the next five seconds is almost certain to be a net-positive for their chances to win this game.

Jordan McLaughlin is ready to receive the short pass and head the ball up, and Malik Beasley — somehow one of the only beacons of possession-by-possession awareness and consistency on this team this season — is actually already out of frame after he contested the shot, no doubt hoping the ball will be headed up to him for a quick-hitter on the break.

But the pass is delayed from Naz. Why? Because Edwards makes literally no effort to even consider boxing out his man at any point in the shot, and Watanbe gets a free gamble double-dip, running up Edwards back to hunt an offensive rebound, and then taking a swipe at the ball in Reid’s hands upon his landing. This delays the pass to McLaughlin by two seconds, and blows up any possibility of getting a two-for-one chance.

Is this nitpicky? A little.

Does it mean that I’m wrong? Absolutely not.

Is boxing out one of those simple plays that is taught to every basketball player in junior high, and is such a formality for 99.8% of the NBA that even feigning the effort and lazily putting a forearm into an opposing player will normally get the job done? Absolutely.

This doesn’t matter 96-98% of the time. But, considering the average NBA game has 50 defensive rebounding opportunities, on average, by my calculations, this sort of thing matters one to two times a night.

Considering how little effort the posturing of boxing out actually takes until the final six or so minutes of close games, this is inexcusable of Edwards. And, though it will never show up in a box score, you’re kidding yourself if you want to say that declining on box outs doesn’t cost teams points. It’s just that this time was in a slightly more indirect and abstract way.

So, two-for-one opportunity blown, McLaughlin starts burning the clock to deny the Raptors as much time as possible for their quarter-ending possession. There is only one action on this play, a high pick-and-pop between McLaughlin and Reid, with Edwards in the left corner, Beasley in the opposite corner, and Jaden McDaniels on the left wing. As Naz is about to get into his pop, McDaniels notices that Watanabe is sagging and a little too engaged with the pick-and-roll. He has his head and body turned towards it just enough where he is likely having a hard time using his peripheral vision to keep a tab on McDaniels.

McDaniels, without the luxury of the nudging eye contact of a ball-handler — the type that says, “I’m staring at you because I see something, and I’m waiting for you to see it too before I hit you” — cuts to the rim, and he does so right in front of Edwards’ line of sight.

I don’t know if Bembry is overreacting to McLaughlin’s unpromising driving seam on the big that switched onto him, or if he doesn’t trust that Watanabe, who has already become a fan-favorite in Toronto due to his effort and attention to detail, will see the cut. He eventually does and cuts it off, but Bembry overhelps, and steps just one foot into the restricted area. Edwards is now open in the corner, and should be reacting to his teammate’s cut and lifting, helping the ball-handler make a simple pass through an open window.

Instead, first Edwards is thinking only about the fact that he’s open. He puts his hand up in the air, standing still, to call for a pass through literally two defenders and a teammate’s body for a half-second. Then, realizing that he may be open but he’s calling for a pass that would make Jason Williams blush, and simultaneously being prodded by an awkward McLaughlin pick-up while the point guard is staring Edwards down, finally lifts, about a half-second late. This delay almost blows the entire play up. Instead of being able to deliver the skip pass on the both, McLaughlin nearly travels on a gather and is forced to deliver an awkward, telegraphed overhead pass to the barely lifting Edwards.

Bembry, who in a lot of ways is the actual MVP of this poster dunk, sees his chance to parlay Edwards’ sluggishness into a bailout for his overhelping misstep. He decides to seize the moment and jump this telegraphed pass. It’s hard to say exactly how much he misses getting a hand on this pass, but we can safely say it’s not much, and the opportunity cost of gambling on this steal doesn’t just mean he won’t be there to closeout on Edwards — he’s not even in a position to hinder a straight-line drive to the rim. When Edwards catches the ball basically on the arc’s break, Bembry is already higher than Edwards and has all of his dead-sprint momentum pushing him further out of the play.

All that’s left for Edwards to do is catch and straight-line drive to the cup.

Except, that’s not actually what Edwards does.

Inexplicably, Edwards escapes dribbles left, further into the corner. He actually ends up moving backwards, and if he doesn’t step out of bounds here — the ref is right there — he misses stepping on the white line by less than an inch.

Why does Edwards do this? The entire play unfolded right in front of his face, and this was literally a perfect set-up for a straight line drive. He saw the pick-and-pop happening 35 feet away. He knows that Bealey is in the opposite corner. Vanderbilt’s cut happened right in front of his face. He even reacted to it! That leaves one lone unaccounted-for defender, his, and that guy just whizzed past his face, dramatically so!

Why does this happen? Because Edwards hasn’t developed great court awareness yet.

Why does Edwards escape dribble? Because he’s not paying attention to the play unfolding within his entire 90 degree field of vision. He’s standing in the corner, everything on this play happens right in front of him. He should know, or at the very least, have a very good idea of, where all five defenders are on the floor.

Why does Edwards want to take a three off the dribble? Who knows?

And for whatever reason Bembry refuses this deus ex machina, decides that he shouldn’t be fine with a 29% shooter off the dribble taking this three he’s eyeing, and inexplicably doesn’t sell out to put his body in front of Edwards. Edwards finally notices the thing that he should’ve been expecting — that the baseline is basically a red carpet to the rim here — and then poor Yuta Wanatabe, who did everything right this sequence, makes one poor decision at the end: try to jump with Edwards.

Want to see why Edwards went first overall? Focus on everything that happens from his second dribble onwards.

Want to see why Edwards is shooting 37% from the field and 41% from two? Focus on everything that happens until he takes his second dribble.

Want to see what Edwards could be, but currently doesn’t seem to have much of an interest in being at the moment? Watch the other dunk, the two-handed slam over Raptors center Chris Boucher.

This play is remarkable in Edwards’ career so far in that, outside of the dunk, it’s very unremarkable. This is the type of play that I will need to see more out of Edwards before I change my tune on him. Sure, Reid makes a great decision to set the screen out of the outside of Edwards’ defender, but Edwards runs Fred VanVleet into it by taking a close, aggressive angle off Reid’s body. Boucher is caught a little too cozy on what I suspect was a drop coverage, and instead of forcing a jumper at the first glimpse of space, Edwards decides to keep attacking this vulnerable big, and doesn’t let him off the hook, though Boucher is trailing right on his hip.

He keeps his speed as fast as he can on the hand exchange. He’s basically forcing Boucher into choosing between keeping inside position, or trying to contain the edge. Boucher chooses the inside position, giving Edwards just a glimmer of an opening on the edge. When Boucher leaves his feet to contest this shot at the rim, he almost certainly was expecting a layup that he could either swing down onto or bat away before it got even to a height of 10 feet. This is a shot that happens two, three, or even four times a game. Sometimes the big gets overanxious to make the block, and he jumps too early, resulting in a foul. Sometimes the guard snakes a crafty layup past the big in an unexpected way, or hits him with a pump fake. Usually, though, this is a missed shot. Either the big blocks the lay-in, or he swallows the smaller player up with his presence, forcing a wild shot.

Very rarely does the smaller player attempt to dunk the ball here, facing the presence of a much larger player so close to the takeoff spot.

Even more rarely is the dunk actually a successful one. It usually involves a sharp cut-in towards the hoop, a one-legged takeoff with the outside foot, and a twist of the prevailing momentum of the player back towards the rim. Very few players are able to do this, and fewer are able to do so while keeping the ball safely out of the defender’s wingspan to the outside. LeBron James, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, and, at his peak, Giannis Antetokounmpo — it’s a very short list, and they’re freak athletes. For mere mortals, even the highly athletic ones like Edwards, this play requires exposing the ball shortly after lift-off.

Edwards, in trying to dunk this ball, is basically saying to a center that has almost half a foot on him, “I can get this ball over your hand and into the rim before you’re done reacting to the fact I’m trying to dunk this.”

And he does. Edwards doesn’t yam this like NBA Jam, but at no point in the motion is he in serious danger of being rejected.

This is the dunk that you try to do against air in a driveway on a nine-foot hoop while your friends watch. And that’s when you realize that cutting in like this, and getting the ball from the outside to the inside to get it above the rim and down, is not that easy.

Edwards does this on a 10-foot hoop, and against a 6’9” center who is trying to stop him.

But, like before, yeah, the dunk is great.

Forget about the dunk for half a second.

Focus on what came before it. It’s not exactly a hard read. It’s actually kind of simple.

If Edwards ever wants to start consistently making the simple play, with his athletic gifts and confidence — well, he won’t be shooting 41% from two for long in that scenario.

But, it’s not enough to do it once. It has to happen every time.

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Feb 19, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards (1) dunks the ball against Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe (18) in the third quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

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