Anthony Edwards had a phenomenal sophomore season. He put the rest of the league on notice in the playoffs when he averaged 25.2 points per game on 45.5% from the field and 40.4% from three-point range against the Memphis Grizzlies. In the regular season, he put up an impressive 21.3 points per game with a True Shooting Percentage of 56% (up 3.7% from his freshman year) and continued to add to an already robust highlight reel of incredible plays.
But Ant’s defense tends to fly under the radar due to his earth-shaking dunks, acrobatic Euro-steps, and jaw-dropping step-backs. Edwards took several strides towards becoming a better on-ball defender. His feel for where he should be on various defensive assignments has steadily improved as he gets more NBA experience. Ant’s stats show this improvement on a broad scale. Last year, he contributed 2.4 Defensive Win Shares (up 1 point from the year before), and his Defensive Box Plus/Minus increased to -0.4 when it had been -1.7 his freshman season.
On a smaller scale, Ant’s ability to cut passing lanes, get steals on the run, and turn them into easy dunks is one of the most impressive parts of his defense last year. We all know Edwards used to play football and that he was incredible at every position. His word is the gospel, and don’t you dare question it. But it really shows in the way he plays defense. Ant often plays like a free safety. He analyzes his opponent’s offense as they’re coming down the court, finds his assignment, and stays in front of his opponent. Then he anticipates the perfect moment to cut into a passing lane to deflect a pass or catch an interception and go all the way to the other end for a pick 6. Whoops, I mean, pick 2. I almost forgot what sport I was writing about.
Now with the addition of Rudy Gobert, we may see Ant and the rest of Minnesota’s defenders be allowed to be even more aggressive going for steals. An inherent part of the Timberwolves’ aggressive defensive scheme is the risk involved in going for the reward of easy fast break points. Like many other Wolves players, Ant would occasionally get burned last year when he was too aggressive going for steals.
Being good at cutting passing lanes requires reaction time, using burst speed to intercept passes, and anticipating an opponent’s next move. If a defender bites on a pass fake or misreads a pass’s angle, they may end up extremely out of position in pursuit of an interception, just like in football. Opponents can then take advantage of what essentially becomes a 5-on-4 for a second while the defender attempts to get back into the play, and the rest of the defense has to catch up to help. Because the Wolves didn’t have much rim protection last year, this often led to the ballhandler barreling towards the rim with a full head of steam. They’d either score at the rim or force the defense to collapse to the paint, resulting in an easy kick-out to an open three-point shooter.
But with the Stifle Tower lurking around the paint this year, it will no longer be so easy for opponents to score in these situations. Instead of seeing KAT or Jarred Vanderbilt in the lane, good defenders who don’t specialize in rim protection, they will instead wind up face-to-face with one of the best rim protectors in NBA history. Not only will Gobert clean up some of these mistakes by swatting a ton of shots, but his presence around the rim simply scares many of the league’s smaller players away from even attempting to shoot in the paint. In an article on NBA.com, John Schuhmann points out that “With Gobert on the floor last season, Jazz opponents took 22% of their shots in the restricted area. With him off the floor (though he was backed up by a seemingly reasonable facsimile in Hassan Whiteside), that rate was 29%.”
I’m not ripping on players who choose not to battle Godzilla when he’s in his strongest form. I’d be scared too. It’s probably a smarter decision to pass out to someone else on the court who can see the rim from the angle they’re standing at. Gobert’s standing reach is only 5″ shorter than the 10-foot-tall rim.
However, this fear of Gobert’s legendary rim-protection helps the Timberwolves’ defense regardless of what the ballhandler chooses to do. Since the Wolves will know Gobert is behind them to help protect the rim, perimeter defenders won’t have to collapse into the paint as much to help because they can trust that Gobert will hold down the fort inside most of the time. Additionally, since they know driving opponents are more likely to kick out the ball when Gobert is in the game (7% more likely, to be exact), they will be able to anticipate opponents’ decisions better. Therefore, they can either cheat out towards their man to make a kick-out harder or cut the passing lane to get a steal. Thus, it seems like nearly a guarantee that Ant will be even more lethal in creating turnovers now that he has Gobert as a teammate.
It’s also very likely that Ant’s defensive skills and Minnesota’s aggressive scheme could benefit Gobert too. Even though Rudy specializes in drop coverage, the Wolves don’t have to strictly play drop coverage when he’s in the game. Gobert isn’t as vulnerable of a defender in space as the haters on NBA Twitter may have led you to believe. He’s actually really good the majority of the time. Schuhmann points out that “among 207 players who’ve defended at least 250 isolations over the last three seasons (including playoffs), Gobert ranks 15th in points per chance allowed (0.84), according to Second Spectrum tracking.” That’s in part because Gobert is very mobile for a 7’1″ center. But it’s also because he is often able to recover and get a block or contest from behind with his 7’9″ wingspan when his opponent gets around him.
Chris Finch is a creative coach. He may not always want to play the standard drop coverage that the Utah Jazz primarily played if he feels Gobert can be unlocked more in a different scheme. Given that Minnesota’s rotation is full of solid perimeter defenders who are much more capable and switchable than those on the Utah Jazz were, it’s possible we could actually see the Wolves lean into the aggressive play style from last year.
If Gobert is allowed more freedom to roam in a Giannis Antetokounmpo-like role now that he won’t have to be anchored to the paint to save the Jazz’s defense, he might become an even more dangerous defender. We’re not likely to see a ton of Gobert end-to-end steals and scores like Giannis gets. However, if Gobert is allowed to be aggressive and starts cutting passing lanes like Finch has encouraged in the past, his steal and deflection numbers will almost certainly go up, and he’ll start plenty of fast breaks.
Regardless of what defensive schemes Finch and the rest of the coaching staff draw up, versatility is the name of the game when it comes to defense in the playoffs, especially in a stacked Western Conference. In one round, you may have to match up against the Memphis Grizzlies’ physical, bruising two-big lineup with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams. In the next, you may play the Golden State Warriors’ lethal small-ball lineup. If the Timberwolves want to make a deep playoff run, they must learn to defend against both ends of the spectrum of offensive play styles and everywhere in between.
Thus, we’ll likely have the opportunity to see Gobert play in a few new defensive sets and odd lineups influenced by Ant’s strengths of aggressive defense, if for no other reason than to find out all the different things the roster is capable of. Similarly, we will likely get to see Ant play in some more conservative, drop coverage-influenced schemes. Only time will tell us what works best.