Victories are everything for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. The gravity of these wins goes far beyond the team’s standing in the playoff chase, though. Minnesota’s reputation is on the line more than ever, and it is furiously trying to claw its way back into relevance in the eyes of the scrutinous public.
Of course, this is an assembly of players that has been trying to win back public favor since Jimmy Butler brought the house down. It is easier to label a player “soft” than it is to wrest with the intricacies of why a young player who is in tune with his feelings is being labeled as such in the first place. It panders to the short attention spans of an increasingly guarded and anonymous internet fanbase. Then again, that picture with DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t do Karl-Anthony Towns any favors.
Anthony Edwards is one of the many players on the Wolves roster with something to prove this year. On Tuesday, a looming matchup against LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets pits Ant against his de-facto rival in the NBA.
While Edwards and Ball were taken Nos. 1 and 3 in the 2020 NBA draft, their public standings could not be more different. Ball is the last child of the darling family that has dominated the NBA’s aura since the oldest of the three brothers, Lonzo, was taken by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2015 draft. LaMelo has had all eyes on him since before he could legally drive. The same cannot be said about Edwards.
One needs to look no further for evidence of LaMelo’s popularity than any middle school classroom, my own notwithstanding. I tend to flaunt my Timberwolves gear early in the school year, so my students know exactly where my priorities lie. I recall a “conversation” with a student who, upon seeing my Edwards jersey, had this to say:
Student: “Who’s your favorite player?”
Me: “On the Wolves? Definitely Anthony Edwards.”
S: “Oh, well, he sucks.”
Me: “Why do you say that?”
S: “LaMelo is better.”
That was, unfortunately, the end of that.
Ball has found his niche with the younger generation. He has built his brand through his Instagram, which boasts over eight million followers, his patented emoji sequences, and a vast array of cool things he’s bought for himself. The absence of personality and authenticity is intentional. A few inspirational quotes and a general aloofness go a long way in establishing yourself as intriguing and mysterious, all aspects that endear themselves to an increasingly engaged younger generation of fans.
It also helps LaMelo’s case that he is an extremely good basketball player. Despite the quibbles of Timberwolves fans everywhere, Ball was unquestionably the best rookie in the NBA last year. His All-Star berth this year is well-deserved, and he is every bit as good as the highlight reels suggest he is.
Edwards’ ascension has been much more modest. He does not yet have 1 million followers on Instagram. Edwards has had his work ethic and commitment to basketball questioned before the Wolves drafted him. He also did not grow up spending his entire life being groomed to play professional basketball. Many basketball die-hards have warmed up to Ant’s endearing and effusive personality, but he still doesn’t have the transcendental pull of his NBA counterpart.
Of course, none of this matters when the actuality of one’s being doesn’t translate as well to an aesthetic manifestation of existence. Despite the stark differences in their backstories and personalities, LaMelo remains the more popular of the two by a significant margin. Their teams are achieving similarly moderate degrees of success, and both are in smaller markets.
If there is one way for Edwards to shake free of the inferior mold he has been cast in, he will have to win (and dominate) his head-to-head matchups with LaMelo.
The early returns on this matchup have not been great for Edwards. According to Statmuse, in 3 games against LaMelo, Edwards is averaging 17.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists on a paltry 39.6% from the floor and 20% from three. LaMelo has had 16.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.3 assists in those same games and did all of that damage on 50% shooting and 37.5% from three. Ball amassed a plus-49 over those 3 games; Edwards was minus-43.
It is early in their rivalry, but Edwards needs to make sure to right the ship before these head-to-head statistics get any more out of hand. This year, the Timberwolves are a much more cohesive unit, and Ant’s heightened efficiency numbers (22.4 points, 44.1% fg, 36.2% 3pt) show the value of an improved supporting cast.
Of course, the simple notion of winning would speak louder than any “advanced” statistics. Anyone [sic] can put up big numbers on a bad team. Ultimately, the only stat that truly matters is whether or not a player can will their team to victory. The notion of “meaningful” statistics is inherently flawed. But there is something to be said about those “winning” players who always seem to work themselves on to championship rosters with pedestrian stats. Winners are always better to have than losers.
Before Tuesday night’s tip-off, Ball is 3-0 against Edwards, and the Hornets are riding a four-game winning streak into the Target Center. Edwards, never shy to be the knight in shining armor for this historically beleaguered Minnesota basketball franchise, needs to step up to the plate and put on a show for his home crowd. Only then will he be able to rewrite the league-wide narrative in his favor.