In a year where not much has gone right for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the development of rookie Anthony Edwards stands as a major bright spot for one of the saddest franchises in sports.
The 19-year-old phenom is having a fantastic season for the lowly 20-45 Timberwolves. He’s in contention to win the Rookie of the Year award, averaging 18.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game while playing in all 65 games.
From the start of his career, it was apparent that Edwards’ biggest attribute would be his scoring. Edwards scored 15 points in 25 minutes in his first career game in a win against the Utah Jazz. It only took until his eighth pro contest before he broke out with a 26-point game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Throughout the draft process, he was frequently pegged as a potential 25-point-per-game scorer, and those projections seemed to be right on track from the get-go.
But what can Edwards bring to the table in terms of playmaking?
Minnesota Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards’s improvement as a playmaker under Chris Finch
His biggest strength was also a cause for worry among many draft evaluators who were skeptical of the Timberwolves taking Edwards with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft: what if he was just a volume scorer who doesn’t do much else, just like … *whispers* Andrew Wiggins.
Those fears began to manifest early in the season. Through 16 games Anthony Edwards was averaging just 2.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. While he showed flashes of a higher lever of playmaking ability, his playmaking highlights were few and far between before Ryan Saunders was fired in February to make way for new head coach Chris Finch.
In his first 31 games under Saunders, Edwards averaged 2.5 assists per game with a 13.3 percent assist rate, which ranked 195th in the NBA during that span — only two spots higher than teammate Jarred Vanderbilt.
But when Finch came to Minnesota, he totally revamped the offense. Finch added more off-ball movement, put a premium on 3-point shooting, and encouraged everyone to move the ball as opposed to Saunders’ more stagnant offense that was focused heavily on pick-and-roll action.
Under Finch’s tutelage, Edwards is blossoming as an overall playmaker. In 34 games since his new head coach took the reigns, Edwards is averaging three assists per game with a 13.9 percent assist rate.
His playmaking statistics improve even more over the last nine games, during which the Timberwolves are 6-3. Edwards is dishing out 3.6 assists per game with an assist rate of 16.6 percent.
Aside from Finch’s offensive tweaks, Edwards’ playmaking renaissance is partly a result of sharing the court with better players. Karl-Anthony Towns missed 20 games between Dec. 27 and Feb. 8 with a sprained wrist, followed by a bout with COVID-19.
Just as Towns was returning to the team, D’Angelo Russell missed 26 straight games recovering from knee surgery.
Suffice it to say, missing Minnesota’s two best players for a third of the season was tough on a 19-year-old who never had a proper summer league or preseason to warm up to the rigors of life in the NBA.
Edwards was forced to put the team on his back and score, score, score as much as possible to keep the team afloat. He was forced to pass to non-shooters including Josh Okogie, Ricky Rubio, and Jarrett Culver. The results were not pretty.
Now, with Towns and Russell back in the fold, the pressure to score is at least partially taken off Edwards and he can now fit smoothly into a well-oiled offense built around two dynamic 3-point shooters.
Minnesota is 10-7 in games in which all three stars share the court. In their last nine games, Russell is knocking down 50 percent of his shots off passes from Edwards and 58.3 percent of his 3-point attempts in such situations.
For anyone still worried about his progression as a playmaker, remember that Edwards has a higher assist rate than Kobe Bryant and Reggie Miller did as rookies and is level with rookie Ray Allen. Granted, the latter two Hall of Fame guards weren’t known for their playmaking ability as much as their shooting. Additionally, Bryant only played 15 minutes per game. Still, it goes to show that patience is a virtue when talking about teenagers.
Court vision, playmaking, and overall feel for the game tend to be traits that are slower to develop than others. Edwards is right where he needs to be considering what he’s had to deal with this season.
With Finch installing his offense, Towns and Russell in the mix more consistently, a full offseason ahead of him, and 93 days until his 20th birthday, Anthony Edwards is in prime position to keep improving and become an above-average playmaker in the NBA in the next few years.