Minnesota Timberwolves: How defenses slow down Anthony Edwards

Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards has had many truly memorable and impressive moments throughout his first season in the league, and all signs point to a strong finish — especially given the benefit of playing alongside a healthy Karl-Anthony Towns.

But Edwards has struggled in the wake of his 42-point explosion in Phoenix just over two weeks ago.

Even with a 9-for-16 shooting performance in the win over the New York Knicks on Wednesday, Edwards has shot only 38.8 percent from the field in the seven games since he led the win over the Suns.

What have teams been doing to slow Edwards down, and what does the Wolves rookie need to do to turn the tide back the other way?

How defenses are slowing down Minnesota Timberowlves’ Anthony Edwards

At the risk of simultaneously oversimplifying things and playing the obvious card, guarding Anthony Edwards is both extremely easy and nearly impossible at the same time.

Let’s start with why it’s difficult. Edwards is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. He’s essentially a fullback, and when barrelling downhill at the rim, it’s a dangerous proposition to get in his way. There are several potential outcomes that end not only in failure but embarrassment for individual defenders.

But that’s the key: individual defenders. A true team defense can force Edwards into a bad shooting night by frustrating him and making him take sub-optimal shots — which is why good defenses can force him into an inefficient night relatively easily.

The name of the game against Edwards is collapsing the defense. According to BBall Index (subscription required), Edwards only passes out to a teammate on 26.7 percent of his drives, which is 37th percentile league-wide and graded out by Bball Index as a ‘D’. Similarly, his assist rate on drives is only 6.3 percent, also a ‘D’.

Opposing teams know that Edwards is not looking to pass unless it’s as a last resort.

Here’s what the Rockets did to him:

Notice how two Rockets defenders, including Naz Reid’s man, simply left their covers and walled up. Reid’s spacing isn’t quite ideal; if he had waited a split second longer to start diving to the rim the passing lane would have been better and it would have been tougher for Houston to double, but he’s still mostly open for a shovel pass and a dunk.

Instead, Edwards took on a triple-team instead of finding an open teammate, and that’s exactly what the Rockets wanted.

The above play was early in the game. Edwards finished the night shooting 2-for-6 from in the paint and 0-for-4 on non-paint 2-point tries. He also attempted seven threes, only making two, and ultimately shot just 4-for-17.

The Rockets, who actually have a decent defense despite their terrible record, frustrated him early and caused him to settle for difficult pull-up jumpers and flat-footed 3-point attempts.

Also, for as good as Edwards has been in isolation (0.95 points per possession, 87th percentile, per BBall Index) and getting to the rim (85th percentile in shots at the rim per 75 possessions), he hasn’t been all that successful making shots once he’s there.

BBall-Index has Edwards’ adjusted rim field goal percentage at just 56.8 percent, which is 51st percentile, and grades out as a ‘C’. It’s well below league-average, the league’s worst team shooting percentage in the restricted area is the Knicks, and they’re making 59.5 percent of their shots at the rim.

Why Anthony Edwards is still having some level of offensive success

Still, Edwards is averaging 17.3 points per game despite not becoming a starter until Game No. 18.

For one, his free throw rate should come up eventually. It’s finally starting to climb but remains at just 0.19, meaning that he only attempts 0.19 free throws for every shot attempt. It’s partially a function of shooting so many perimeter jumpers and partially that he simply isn’t getting the same whistle as other players do around the rim.

Given the aforementioned numbers that prove his success in getting to the rim, Edwards should see his free throw rate continue to creep upwards, provided he doesn’t settle for too many long jumpers.

Edwards’ points per possession (PPP) in isolation, as a cutter, and in handoff situations are all well above league-average and grade out as A-minuses or better according to BBall Index. He’s also been great in the post but has only had a handful of post-up opportunities this season.

Unfortunately, Edwards has struggled in transition to the tune of 1.03 PPP, which is 27th percentile league-wide. According to stats.NBA.com, 15.6 percent of Edwards’ possessions have come in transition. Then, consider that his pick-and-roll numbers are equally as disappointing: 0.71 PPP and 21st percentile and that he’s used a whopping 33.7 percent of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ballhandler.

That’s 49.3 percent of Edwards’ possessions that he’s using at a ‘D’ or ‘D-minus’ level, according to BBall Index. If you’re wondering why advanced metrics hate Edwards’ offensive season so far, well, that’s it. And, frankly, it shouldn’t be a surprise, given that he’s shooting only 39 percent from the field and 30.8 percent on 3-point attempts so far this season.

Still, it’s telling that defenses are legitimately being forced into game-planning for a 19-year-old. Teams know that if they stick with single coverage on Edwards and don’t collapse on him in the paint, they don’t have a prayer of slowing him down.

Now, Edwards simply needs to expand his game as a playmaker, and the Wolves need to surround both Karl-Anthony Towns and Edwards with shooters who can make defenses pay for keying in on and overcommitting to defending Minnesota’s star duo.

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The future should be bright for Edwards, Towns, and the Timberwolves. Here’s hoping for clear progress over the final 24 games of the season.