Seven minutes into his playoff debut, Anthony Edwards already had one of the NBA’s best defenses on tilt.
Edwards’s pull-up jumper would not miss, forcing center Steven Adams to backpedal and make languishing contest after languishing contest. So Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins opted to switch his most aggressive perimeter defender, Dillon Brooks, onto the second-year Timberwolves guard.
That’s when, with 4:41 left in the first quarter of Game 1, Edwards activated the jets. He beelined through a window of space between Kyle Anderson and Ja Morant, gripped an inbounds pass from Patrick Beverley, and hammered a two-handed tomahawk dunk through the rim.
You probably saw the highlight on SportsCenter. You probably also saw Edwards climb the ladder against Gabe Vincent and YouTube compilations of Edwards’s improv routine at the podium.
Edwards’s explosive hops drew the attention of the Wolves’ brass, who took him with the no. 1 pick in 2020. But underneath all of the explosive dunks lie the subtle nuances that have allowed Edwards and the Timberwolves to arrive in the playoffs sooner than expected.
Edwards’s eyes dart back and forth on the floor, recognizing changing patterns. On a Wolves offensive possession in Game 1, he noticed Brooks had sussed out the floppy set designed to open Edwards up in the corner. “I saw they were taking it away,” Edwards said. “He was playing on my high side, so I just saw the cut.” Edwards also saw Anderson ready to help down low, so he moved for sharpshooter Malik Beasley to cut to the corner. In the split second Anderson turned his head, Edwards made his cut.
Edwards finished Game 1 with 36 points, six assists, two blocks, and a steal as the Wolves won convincingly in Memphis. (His 36 points are tied for the third most in a postseason debut.)
The 20-year-old was supposed to be a long-term project who would need reps and structure to get the most out of his physical gifts. But he averaged 19.3 points as a rookie, flashing two-way potential and finishing second to LaMalo Ball in the Rookie of the Year race.
“I don’t get pissed off about no award or anything,” he said. “I don’t even care about that, because I don’t expect to get it.” Why not? He never has, he explains. “I was the no. 1 pick and everybody was still saying Melo should’ve gone no. 1. I’m never the people’s pick, so I never expect any awards. I just come out and play and have fun. ”
After the Wolves dropped Game 2, Edwards opened his remarks to the media with a smile. “I took a lot of bad shots,” he shrugged.
Edwards’s confidence lends him a quiet, self-sustaining fortitude. Sometimes, it comes off as blasé. He came to his predraft interview in 2020 with a similar vibe — a little more casual in demeanor and attire than his counterparts. In time, Wolves brass learned: He’s casual because he’s confident, not because he doesn’t care. One staffer described him as curious, not limited by his ego.
“People have to remember,” said Wolves assistant Chris Hines, before cutting himself off. “I have to remind myself — he’s 20 years old.”
It’s easy to forget, considering what he’s meant to the once-downtrodden Wolves. Edwards’s early arrival has given Minnesota another star-caliber player alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, and a shot to win its first playoff series in 18 years.
Edwards fired away over 20 times per game in his first 13 contests of this season, shooting 41.6 percent from the field and 32.8 percent from 3. The Wolves were 4-9, off to a predictably depressing start.
Edwards, frustrated with his performance, wanted to work on his game with Hines. Edwards showed up ready to work, shoes laced up and jersey on. But Hines wanted to chat first. They sat down and Hines asked him about his goals. Did he want to get paid? Did he want to lean into the charisma and flash that was making him an NBA Twitter fan favorite?
“He said,‘ Hell nah, I wanna be the best to ever do it. I wanna be the best in the game at the 2-guard, ‘”Hines recalled.
“You wanna be up there with Jordan, D-Wade, and Kobe?” Hines asked.
“I wanna be the best to ever do it,” Edwards repeated.
Hines came up with a plan designed to maximize Edwards’s “superpowers”: his first step, his strength barrelling into the paint, and the pull-up that played Adams off the floor in Game 1. “I just teach him the small things, the nuances he’s still learning in his game, ”Hines said.
Edwards also fine-tuned his form and shot selection. This season, he shot 41.3 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s — a marked improvement from his rookie season and a mark better than even Towns’s 39.7 percent. He’s shooting off screens more often and better, and his pull-up 3s are steadily becoming more accurate. He credits Javair Gillett, Minnesota’s vice president of sports science and performance, with helping him develop the upper-body strength to easily get his shot up off the dribble.
He’s a good listener who soaks up information. Prior to Game 1, Edwards was texting with Tom Crean, his coach at Georgia, about staying on balance while guarding Ja Morant. “He was just saying let the world see what type of defender I am,” Edwards said. After Morant spent the first quarter tearing up the paint, Edwards got the assignment and helped hold the All-NBA candidate to 3-for-13 shooting over the next three quarters.
Two days later, he told ESPN that he thinks he’s the best defender in the NBA.
Wolves staffers have described Edwards as the kind of person who can pick up anything, whether it’s ping-pong or football. At practice before Game 2, he worked on his craft with Hines, at one point walking around the assistant’s demonstration of a move like he was observing a 3-D art installation.
“He’s always asking why,” Hines said. He’s also a quick study. “I’ll show him something,” Hines said, “and he’ll do it next game.”
But Edwards will get bored of menial, repetitive work. So Hines gamifies Edwards’s drills, adding extra rules like making him finish layups through contact without letting the ball touch the rim, giving him “goals within the game.”
The challenge going into Game 2 for Edwards was to read the first three minutes of the game. In that time, the refs would whistle multiple fouls, including two on Adams, who would be benched for the remaining 45 minutes.
The Grizzlies went small and switched on defense, stifling the ball movement that usually makes the Wolves so discombobulating. Edwards forced the same pull-up against Brandon Clarke, who can guard him more closely.
“He’s gotta learn that every game is gonna be different,” Finch said afterward. “That’s part of the learning curve.”
At the podium, Edwards leans back in his chair, wearing the same winning smile he had after Game 1. “I’m not worried. I hope my teammates aren’t worried, ”he said, while wearing a yellow wool robe stitched with orange and blue palm trees.
You believe him because of what happens next. He peers at the stat sheet and sees he committed five turnovers. “Trash,” he whispers under his breath. “That won’t happen again.”