Ant vs. NAW Is Minnesota's Basketball World Cup

Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not the USA vs. Canada gold medal match everyone may have wanted to see, but at least they will still face off in FIBA. The bronze medal game between USA and Canada will feature two Minnesota Timberwolves players who have filled huge holes for their respective national teams. Anthony Edwards has become the face of Team USA much in the same way he has become the face of the Wolves.

He will match up against teammate Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who has become a crucial sixth man and glue guy for Team Canada, similar to his role in the 2023 Wolves playoff run. Edwards and Alexander-Walker’s teams put up disappointing losses on Friday morning. Still, Wolves fans will be able to watch a great game that will feature two crucial players for Minnesota’s upcoming season.

Edwards has taken Team USA by storm. He has been spectacular. Team USA felt Edwards could contribute to winning basketball, but it is hard to imagine he would take command of the team full of all-stars and become their go-to player in crunch time.

He displayed that throughout the tournament, but it was especially on display during the semifinal game against Germany. Edwards touched the ball and commanded the offense on many of the final possessions in the fourth quarter. In all but one play, he displayed why this trust was warranted. In the clips below, Edwards is shown having an emphatic dunk and a massive three to keep the game close.

In perhaps the most crucial play, though, Edwards showed the flaw in trusting a 22-year-old in an international tournament. Edwards misread the play and threw the ball out of bounds, likely being the game-ending turnover for Team USA.

That’s something Wolves fans have seen many times throughout Edwards’s development. With his incredible talents, he still lacks the experience to avoid these types of mistakes in critical possessions. Below is a similar miscue dating back to his rookie season, where Edwards appears to jump in the air without a clear plan for the ball, resulting in a losing effort in 2020.

Miscue in the semi-finals aside, Edwards has vaulted into the national eye while increasing expectations for the Wolves this season. In FIBA, Edwards has 18.1 points per game (1st on the team), 4.6 rebounds per game (2nd on the team), and an encouraging 2.7 assists per game (3rd on the team).

He also leads Team USA in FIBA’s efficiency metric, with 16.6, Ahead of all-stars Mikal Bridges, Tyrese Haliburton, and Knicks Star Jalen Brunson. That’s quite impressive, seeing how he is playing on a team with multiple established NBA veterans, many of whom are 2-3 years further along in their NBA career.

On the national stage, Edwards played a lot like he did in the NBA. Edwards is, in fact, A-1 since Day 1.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker is the other Timberwolves player in the Bronze medal game. In these games, Alexander-Walker has proven that many of the things he brought to the Wolves after the trade deadline are staples of his game. Alexander-Walker has applied the same energy on defense and willingness to accept a less glamorous role on an NBA-filled Canada team. He coupled this gritty defense with continued strong three-point shooting in FIBA, as well as increasing his role as a second-unit playmaker.

Alexander-Walker has made a crucial impact for Canada, much in the way the Wolves hope he can do for their team in 2024. Averaging 10 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists, Alexander-Walker had increased his playing time each game. He’s also shooting a well above average 42.2% from three in over 6 attempts per game with confidence.

Perhaps the three-point shooting is the most encouraging sign from Alexander-Walker from FIBA, but his increased playmaking could be a close second. 2.3 assists per game may not seem like a lot, but it is the third-highest on Team Canada. He also ranks at an 8.9 efficiency rating, good for sixth-highest for Team Canada, and is higher than USA players Bobby Portis Jr. and Brandon Ingram.

Alexander-Walker signed a two-year extension with the Wolves, indicating that he may have a bigger opportunity in the backcourt. He could also turn himself into a fixture in Minnesota with good play next year. After FIBA, he showed that he can thrive in a similar third guard role that Minnesota will ask him to play. That could be the first of many positive signs leading to a breakout season. Below is another confident spot-up three from Alexander-Walker against Serbia, the kind of shooting the Wolves have desperately needed in the past.

On Sunday, both Alexander-Walker and Edwards will face off head-to-head. While Alexander-Walker is not asked to play the same role as Edwards for Team USA, it’s likely they will match up against each other consistently on Sunday morning. It will be interesting to see how Edwards responds to Alexander-Walker’s intense defense. Below is Alexander-Walker’s version of defense, picking the opposing player up at half-court every possession.

In the play-in game against his cousin and fellow Team Canada guard Shai Gilgious-Alexander, Alexander-Walker showed that he rises to the occasion on defense and can shut down gifted scorers. In FIBA, he’s also shown that his hounding pressure can lead to opposing players making mistakes and getting called for offensive fouls. Edwards will have to display a level-headed approach and may have to embrace more off-ball movement to get open than he is used to.

On the other side of the court, Edwards will likely match up against Gilgious-Alexander, who will push Edwards more than any other FIBA opponent he’s faced. Gilgious-Alexander has been leading the entire FIBA tournament in points per game at an astounding 29.0.

Edwards has always risen to the occasion. Watching him try to slow down Gilgious-Alexander will be interesting, especially given the large offensive load Team Canada has tasked him with. The parallels between his role on Team USA and the Timberwolves are strikingly similar. He was expected to do the same thing last season in the five-game series against the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs. Including taking the last shot of the Timberwolves season.

Regardless of which team comes away with the Bronze medal, someone from the Wolves will have bragging rights. While both teams have disappointed thus far in FIBA, oth Edwards and Alexander-Walker have provided very positive glimpses into what the Timberwolves could be in 2024 if they carry their positive improvements forward.

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