Timberwolves

Ant's 35-Point Performance vs. Lithuania Should Not Be Lost To History

Photo Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

The FIBA Basketball World Cup has reached the elimination stage, and Team USA has advanced to the final four after beating Italy Tuesday morning. The game was pretty much a blowout end to end. Every player on Team USA besides Cameron Johnson scored at least one basket. That includes momentary Timberwolf Walker Kessler, who put up 4 points and 5 rebounds in his second extended run of the tournament. Anthony Edwards had a quiet night by his standards, putting up 3 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists, with a block. However, Ant deserved a night to relax and share the load after doing everything in his power to try to help Team USA come back from behind against Lithuania in the previous game they played.

Ant scored 35 points against Lithuania. He came just 3 points short of setting the Team USA record for most points in a single FIBA World Cup game, Kevin Durant currently holds. Unfortunately, Ant’s incredible performance was overshadowed by the team’s loss in an upset. However, that doesn’t mean it should be lost to history, especially if you’re a Wolves fan who missed the game, or have been watching to see what Anthony Edwards has been improving on this summer.

Not only did Edwards score a ton, but he scored efficiently, and from almost every spot on the court. Ant shot 53.8% from the field on 5 of 13 (38.5%) shooting from beyond the arc, and 9 of 13 (69.2%) inside. In classic Ant fashion, he had several highlight plays where he blew by everyone using his incredible athleticism and skyed for an emphatic dunk. One came off a fast break where Tyrese Haliburton had the ball and passed it backwards to Edwards, who kicked into gear immediately after getting the ball and weaved through 4 defenders like they were cones in a dribbling drill, and walked in for a wide-open slam.

He also hit three threes in the 4th quarter that almost got Team USA back into the game, as we’ve seen him do many times for the Wolves. However, Edwards made some other incredible offensive plays during the game that should get Wolves fans excited about what he has added to his bag over this offseason.

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that Edwards is starting to look more comfortable with his midrange game. He’s also seeking out spots he knows he can confidently pull up and hit from. In this game, specifically, Ant was seeking out mid-range shots around the free-throw line. On the first possession of the game, Jaren Jackson Jr. got the ball at the 3-point line and did a dribble hand-off with Ant. Edwards used the space created by the handoff to get in front of his defender. After recognizing that Jonas Valanciunas was waiting for him in the paint, he pulled up from just above the free-throw line for a smooth two points.

On the USA’s second offensive possession, Ant got the ball again. He used a JJJ pick to get separation from his defender, and pulled up from almost the exact same spot for another mid-range bucket. In FIBA, there is no defensive 3 seconds rule, so centers like Valanciunas can camp out in the lane and defend the rim as much as they want. Ant and (likely) the coaching staff’s ability to recognize this and go to the mid-range early to try to pull Valanciunas further from the basket was a smart strategy, even if they didn’t ultimately win.

The mid-range shot has gotten a bit of a bad reputation in post-analytics basketball. For most players, it’s almost as hard to hit as a three and is worth one less point. However, the mid-range has a lot of merit for elite shooters and scorers. Ant has reached the point in his NBA career where teams have started to try to scheme to stop him from using his strengths to score.

For the most part last season, this came in the form of teams sending a double team to Ant when he caught the ball on the perimeter, attempting to cut off driving lanes to the rim to prevent easy baskets, and making sure to stick tight to him on the perimeter so they can guard his catch-and-shoot threes. The more teams scheme to try to take away those high efficiency areas that he’s best at scoring, or even sell out to take them away during a game, the more the midrange is going to open up for him.

That’s why seeing Ant get comfortable in the mid-range during FIBA is so exciting. It’s the one layer of his incredible offensive ability that has looked less polished over his first three years in the NBA. It’s also something that will ultimately make him even more unstoppable if he’s able to bring it into next season and implement it at the right times.

Stemming off of this, it seems like Edwards has gotten more comfortable playing off different types of bigs in pick-and-roll. Although we know that Ant has become pretty savvy at playing with more traditional 5s like Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and JJJ, these Team USA games have given us a chance to see how Ant plays with a small-ball center more regularly. Specifically, Ant has looked great in pick-and-roll actions with Bobby Portis. According to Basketball Reference, Portis has several incredible nicknames, including The Mayor of Milwaukee, Bobby Buckets, and Crazy Eyes, is a 6’10”, 250-pound hybrid 4-5 who was an essential part of the Bucks’ championship in 2020-21.

The Mayor of Milwaukee has a versatile game. He’s adept at operating pick-and-rolls and hand-offs with wings, because he has good instincts and ball skills as a big. On a play in the 4th quarter, BP got the ball at the top of the key. After seeing that a cutting Cam Johnson wasn’t open enough to sling the ball in, took two dribbles towards Edwards. Ant runs from the wing towards him, and Portis’ handoff gets Edwards a switch onto a different defender. Portis then recognizes he can still help on the play, moves to re-screen Ant’s new defender. He half boxes him out, creating several seconds for Ant to decide whether he wants to drive at Valanciunas or pull up in the mid-range again, which he ultimately does before draining the jumper.

About a minute later in the game, they ran the same dribble handoff action, and this time Portis’s screen got Ant open for a 3. On the next possession, after getting Ant two screen/hand-off assists, Portis set a pick-and-rolled hard to the basket, and Ant hit him with a perfect pocket pass that set up an And-1. The pairing combined for 8 points in the 4th quarter in just over two minutes of play together.

Watching Ant play extremely well in a two-man game with a physical 4 or small-ball 5 like Portis is very encouraging. The Wolves have several “traditional” 5s on the team right now, but the Wolves are likely going to change their roster construction over the next few years. Seeing Ant get comfortable thriving with various bigs is important in his progress towards hitting his ultimately ceiling.

It also gives the front office more ideas of how to build out the team in the future. Ant already plays well with Kyle Anderson, who is similar to Portis in that he can facilitate and play small-ball 5. Therefore, much of what worked for Team USA could work in a Wolves context too. Similarly, we could see Naz Reid get slotted into a similar role to Portis in more lineups with Ant in the future. Naz already has the ball skills to run dribble handoff actions, so it would be fun to see the two of them work that into their games more.

Ant also played some successful pick-and-rolls with Paolo Banchero. Banchero is even less of a traditional big than Portis, and a few times the screens he set for Ant were more an illusion of a screen than an actual hard pick. Often, instead of setting the pick and waiting for Ant’s defender to run into him, Banchero would pause for barely a moment, and then slip the screen almost immediately and run towards the hoop.

That’s not meant to make fun of Paolo. For all I know, that could be what the coaching staff wants Banchero to do because he’s not normally a center, and they don’t want him banging into guys too much or risking setting moving screens. The point being, even though these screens made relatively little separation for Ant, he was still able to use that small window to score. This could ultimately give the Wolves more flexibility to run pick-and-roll actions between Ant and another dynamic scoring wing (which Banchero projects to be in the NBA) like Jaden McDaniels.

We are starting to get to the point of the World Cup where there are no more pushovers, and many of the teams are probably flat-out better than rebuilding teams in the NBA like the Houston Rockets and the Charlotte Hornets. These are valuable high-difficulty reps for Edwards. It’s incredibly impressive that he’s not only taking steps forward in his game with Team USA this summer, but also standing out in a room full of high-level NBA players in a situation that he’s not used to. Edwards’ 35-point performance was one to be remembered, even if it came in a loss. Ant put himself in team USA’s record book just one spot under KD. It will be even more memorable if he can help Team USA bring home the gold medal from the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

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