After a few rocky games after Karl-Anthony Towns’ injury, the Minnesota Timberwolves are on a three-game winning streak. While one of the wins came against the tanking Oklahoma City Thunder, two came against teams that were in the playoffs last year, the Chicago Bulls and the Dallas Mavericks. Both were encouraging and important wins in Minnesota’s quest to separate themselves from the unprecedentedly thick middle of the pack in the Western Conference.
Big performances from Naz Reid, Nathan Knight, and Austin Rivers reminded us just how deep this Wolves team is. D’Angelo Russell reminded everyone that he can shoot the lights out of the ball and carry a large offensive load when the team needs him to. However, possibly the most exciting aspect of these wins has been the effectiveness of Anthony Edwards as a lead ball-handler and distributor.
Since Edwards was drafted, the pie-in-the-sky developmental hope has been that he could eventually develop into as good of a distributor as he is a scorer. While we saw some flashes of Ant’s ability to get his teammates open in his first two seasons, it was hard to tell if the dream of point Ant could be achieved. However, in the last three games, Ant has proven that he can achieve it and that he might be ready for that role now. Ant had seven assists against the Thunder, 11 against the Bulls, and nine against the Mavericks. Ant would have had a triple-double against the Mavs — and Naz would have had a career-high in points — if the ball hadn’t tragically bounced in and out of the rim.
It’s not just that all these games have been well above his season average of 4.5 assists per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting the assists. Chris Finch commented on this development after the Thunder game. ”
These last couple games have been good for him being on the ball, they trapped him at the end there, he got off of it, made the right play, he got Naz a bucket in the middle of the floor. You know, just trying to stay patient through all that stuff when they’re trying to take the ball out of your hands.
One thing we preach to them a lot is, you know, the essence of offense in the league is when they put two on you, you’re creating an advantage no matter how they do it, pick-and-roll, trap, etc., you know, early gap help and all that stuff is the gravity that he creates. Just trying to continue to find the right play.
The cliché that you become a superstar when you start making your teammates better may sound a bit corny, but it’s true almost by necessity. Once teams recognize that a player like Ant is an elite scorer, they start doing everything in their power to try to stop them, including double-teaming, and shadowing them with their best defenders. As Finch points out, the best players in the world, like LeBron James and Nikola Jokic, learn how to use that extra attention to their advantage by finding open teammates and holes in the defense. It’s an integral part of the leap to superstardom. If a player never learns how to break a trap, or split a double team, then they won’t be able to effectively take advantage of defenders selling out to try to stop them.
It’s also encouraging that in these situations where Ant is doubled, his passes to open teammates have gotten crisper and cleaner. Against the Bulls, Ant was chucking the ball all over the court like he was Patrick Mahomes. Upon release, you’d occasionally think the pass was going to get picked off because of how tight of a window he was trying to throw into, but then it would fly straight into the hands of an open shooter in the corner for an easy look.
Possibly the most exciting thing, though, is that if Ant can sustain this level of play, it will create a template for how the Wolves can succeed once KAT and Rudy Gobert are back. One of the biggest problems the Wolves had on offense early on in the season, and last year in the playoffs, was that they played a little too much “my turn, your turn” offense that stagnated the ball movement. It sometimes worked for them because of the amount of offensive talent on the team. However, it’s ultimately not the most efficient style of offense to play, and tends to lead to increased shot difficulty. If a defense knows that your offense is mostly based around isoing with one of your big three, it’s easier for them to stay home on their assignments, and not expend as much energy off the ball.
However, if you keep the ball moving you keep the defense guessing, make them work to cover everybody on the court, and are more likely to be able to capitalize on their mistakes when they switch into a mismatch, or a double-team leaves someone wide open. Ant’s ability to be a driving force in that offensive movement, recognize when these openings happen, and capitalize on them may be the most valuable skill he can develop. He already has all the physical tools in his bag to scare defenses into overplaying him.
Flip Saunders once told Britt Robson that team “chemistry is all about establishing a pecking order that is fair and understood, and acceded to even if not everybody totally accepts it.” His theory seems incredibly relevant to the current Timberwolves roster, because the pecking order is still somewhat up in the air. It’s not because egos are getting in the way. By all accounts, it seems KAT has been gracious in sharing the spotlight with Ant as the “franchise player.” DLo has also done a great job of becoming the sage veteran that encourages the young players on the team and helps them develop.
It’s more so that when a game is in clutch time, you want to be confident that you are running the most effective offense your team can, on as many possessions as possible. If Ant continues to be as good of a decision-maker with the ball as he has been in the last three games, then flipping to point Ant in clutch time will give the Wolves the best chance to win. Ultimately, he may indisputably earn that No. 1 spot by the time KAT comes back.
Regardless of how much point Ant we see when KAT comes back, it has been encouraging to watch Ant grow as a distributor. If he continues to take advantage of double teams, and distribute at this level then his leap to superstardom may not only be coming sooner than we thought, but here now.
“What we’ve been trying to preach to Ant [is] it’s not how much you score it’s how much offense you create,” said Finch. “And when you are in a position, you know, with the ball in your hand, we talked about they’re gonna trap you, or commit two or three defenders to you, you just gotta keep trusting the right play. Keep trusting the open pass, keep trusting your teammates, so he’s doing a great job, he loves playing with those guys, you know, his voice is growing louder and louder as well.”
It’s good to know that even if that leap doesn’t fully happen this year, that the coaching staff is encouraging all the best habits and practices, and Ant is picking them up apace.