Minnesota Timberwolves: Examining the early returns on Anthony Edwards’ defense

Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards had plenty of questions around him entering the league, but let’s evaluate how his defense progressed as we near the quarter mark of his rookie season.

It’s no secret to most NBA fans that rookies are notoriously bad at the defensive end, which makes sense. Generally, they’re teenagers going against grown men who have been through NBA workout plans and have to adapt to defensive schemes against much better offenses than they saw in college.

What does that mean for Anthony Edwards and the Wolves?

Breaking down Minnesota Timberwolves’ rookie Anthony Edwards’ defense

Let’s start with what he did in college as a jumping-off point.

In 32 games with the Georgia Bulldogs, the team’s defensive rating was seven points better with Edwards off the floor. That’s not ideal!

Edwards often looked uninterested and disengaged in off-ball situations and would be lazy on-ball. ESPN’s Mike Schmitz described his lack of off-ball effort as “mind-boggling” and The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks said Edwards “almost single-handedly sunk the Bulldogs defense.”

How Anthony Edwards has fared with the Timberwolves so far

As of this writing, Edwards has played the fourth-most minutes per game on the Timberwolves with around 25 per night, playing in every game but has yet to start. He’s still 19 years old and, of course, has a long way to go in his NBA career.

His offensive talent has gotten a lot of the attention so far, but for Edwards to develop into a starter for this team, the improvement needs to come on defense.

Let’s start with some catch-all defensive numbers.

Edwards is tied for the second-worst defensive RAPTOR rating, a FiveThirtyEight metric, among all rookies so far at minus-3.6 and the third-worst among qualified Wolves players. His minus-4.5 defensive box plus/minus is dead last in the entire NBA.

His defensive rebounding rate is in the fourth percentile among players at his position, while his block and steal rates are in the 12th and 18th percentile, respectively.

But his 108.1 defensive rating is fourth on the Wolves. It’s not a great number, nor is defensive rating the best evaluator of individual defense, but it means the Wolves aren’t getting killed while he’s out there on defense.

Examing what Anthony Edwards is doing wrong

So, if that’s the case, why are Edwards’ catch-all defensive stats so poor?

It’s a combination of some lack-of-effort plays, some lack of awareness in certain situations, or a mix of both. In recent games, however, there have been some good on-ball defensive plays that I’ve really liked, but more on those in a bit.

Here are two plays from Edwards in the last few games where he gets caught ball-watching and completely disregards his guy.

I really don’t know what was going through Edwards’ mind here. He helps off of Devin Vassell (a 41-percent 3-point shooter in college), but Jarrett Culver is in good position against DeMar DeRozan. He doesn’t do anything to actually help Culver — except give DeRozan a passing lane.

Luckily, Ricky Rubio rotated into the corner, but Vassell could have easily kicked it over to Patty Mills and got a shot off before Edwards could run out to contest.

Not much different here. Jarred Vanderbilt is in good position if a pass comes to John Collins but Edwards decides to leave De’Andre Hunter (41 percent from three in college, shooting 40 percent so far this year) open and Kevin Huerter finds him.

There were multiple instances where Edwards was ball-watching and his man had moved 10 feet away from him but the other team didn’t pass it over or the player missed the shot.

Another troubling issue is his habit of getting stuck on screens, whether on-ball or off-ball.

Edwards gives up around 10 pounds and five inches to Collins, but that’s no excuse for the lack of effort to get around that screen, giving up an easy dunk for Hunter.

This is lazy from Edwards. He makes little effort to get over the screen and then fouls Grayson Allen on the shot. You could argue Allen sold the call with a flop but Edwards shouldn’t be putting himself in that position in the first place.

In writing about Portland Trail Blazers’ guard Gary Trent Jr’s improvement on defense, I came across this quote from him on the Blazer’s Edge podcast.

“The biggest thing I really found out at the defensive end was just effort. Literally, effort. If you get hit by a screen, don’t give up, keep sprinting through.”

This has been the biggest concern surrounding Edwards’ defense is that the effort is not always there and when that happens, it leads to big mistakes like leaving guys wide open.

What Anthony Edwards is doing well so far in his NBA career

The good news is that Edwards doesn’t appear to be making as many off-ball errors as he was earlier in the season — or even just against the Spurs earlier this month. He’s still a work in progress.

Naturally, it’s going to be a harder transition for Edwards without having Summer League or a full training camp and preseason. He had even more responsibility thrust upon him when Josh Okogie and Karl-Anthony Towns each went down with injuries.

But the most frustrating part is that he’ll tease you with flashes of what he could be defensively when he locks in, which is primarily on the ball.

He gets a bit of help from D’Angelo Russell at the end, but this was really good from Edwards. He keeps Hunter in front of him, slides his feet, doesn’t get out-muscled, and forces a bad shot at the end of the shot clock.

The Spurs went after Edwards a lot in overtime, specifically with DeRozan, and he did a relatively good job. The possession didn’t end the way you’d want if you’re Minnesota but Edwards gets in his stance (something he still doesn’t do consistently enough), keeps his feet active, and smothers the shot attempt to force the pass.

The small steps are encouraging and the off-ball mistakes are becoming fewer and far between.

While the overall defensive numbers don’t look great for Edwards, there are improvements being made. He’s clearly not a finished product and is extremely raw at both ends of the floor.

When asked to guard one of an opposing team’s better players, he gets up for the challenge. Whether that’s guarding DeRozan in overtime, guarding Aaron Gordon against the Orlando Magic, or being switched on to Trae Young or Nikola Vucevic, those are the moments where Edwards has shined.

Edwards was always going to need time to adjust, that’s why rookies aren’t great defenders right away. But if he can lock in at the defensive end more consistently, it will make that transition a lot easier.