Well, well, well…
In one of the most explosive scoring bursts of recent memory, Edwards put up an astonishing 33 points in the second half versus Michigan State to pull his Bulldogs to the brink of victory, though they eventually lost, 93-85.
Edwards’ stretch at the Maui Jim Invitational is certainly indicative of his game as a whole to this point – inconsistent, yet incomprehensible. Let’s not forget, in the opening game of the tournament versus Dayton, Edwards put up a measly 6 points on 2-10 from the field, including missing all five of his threes. To make things worse, he didn’t collect a single assist during his 27 minutes, while turning the ball over 3 times. When Edwards is not scoring, he can become almost invisible – astonishing for a player with his physical stature, but true nonetheless. His game is comparable to a stray landmine planted underground – dormant for the most part, yet utterly destructive when unleashed. This is further backed up by Edwards’ first half versus Michigan State – putting up only four points and allowing his team to fall behind by 21 going into the halftime break.
Edwards is an incredible talent, and is in my humble opinion the clear #1 draft pick in 2020 at this point in time. The shots he was able to make in this game are proof that even at an NBA level, Edwards’ peak is unstoppable. I mean, if you face a guy with that sort of explosion and burst, and he is able to consistently get off those quick step-back 3’s and absolutely drain them, you are simply going to lose. What we have seen so far is that this Georgia team will require performances like this to be competitive against high-level opponents. If Edwards isn’t cooking in a particular game, it is tough to see where the scoring drive comes from on this young Bulldogs’ team. They have a few decent shot makers, and are guard heavy with plenty of ball handling, but there is simply no other impetus for offense on the team outside of Edwards.
An interesting way to frame this discussion is to uproot Edwards from this current class and shoehorn him into recent past drafts. At the time, 2018 appeared to be a bit of an outlier both in terms of depth, but more importantly in star talent at the top – an assumption that has certainly borne out as reality through a season and some change. Instead, let’s imagine if we could take Anthony Edwards and plop him down in the 2017 and 2019 NBA draft classes. Where does he go in those classes?
Since the 2019 draft occurred recently, and we don’t have much of a read on the class, I want to look more at where Edwards would be selected in the draft. To me, he is the clear #3 overall prospect. Zion is in a completely different tier than Edwards – Zion is in rarified air, similar to guys like Ben Simmons, AD, and Oden/KD coming out of college – as a prospect, he has no peers in his class, only throughout history. What is interesting to consider is how he compares to Ja Morant and RJ Barrett. I personally would be hard-pressed to take Edwards over Ja, especially given the breakout performances he has had already as a Grizzly. While Edwards has an extra 50 pounds on his frame that Ja can never put on, I would rather take a surefire lead guard who I am 100% confident I can build around for the next decade, instead of a guy who’s role as a professional is still very much in flux. Edwards over Barrett is another easy choice for me, as an early Barrett skeptic (ever since that godforsaken Gonzaga game in the Maui Jim Invitational). While I am more confident in RJ’s ability to fit into an already established winning organization, there is just so much more upside building around Edwards. Peak R.J. Barrett may be good enough to bring your team to .500, maybe even a competitive first round playoff series. If Anthony Edwards hits – I mean really hits – he could win you titles. If he is able to flesh out all of the skills and abilities he has flashed, and can really maximize both his mind and body, this guy could truly be an all-time great. Nothing Barrett gives you is worth sacrificing that upside.
Next, we will look at 2017. This discussion seems ripe for revisionist history, given that the #1 overall pick Markelle Fultz has underperformed in one of the most perplexing ways we have seen in modern professional sports. It doesn’t help that #2 pick Lonzo Ball and #4 pick Josh Jackson (currently playing with the Grizzlies’ G-League affiliate, the Memphis Hustle) round out a rather disappointing top-5, giving us an easy out where we can simply disregard pre-draft analysis and replace it instead with the current reality of things. So, let’s instead consider two of the top-three prospects to emerge from this class, #5 overall pick De’Aaron Fox and #13 overall pick Donovan Mitchell.
First, Edwards versus Fox. It would be malpractice to start any discussion on these two players without looking first at athleticism. De’Aaron Fox was renowned as a prospect for his game-breaking speed. That has certainly panned out – Fox very well my be the fastest NBA player in a straight line already. However, what has allowed him to truly thrive has been the complementary athletic traits that allow him to capitalize on his speed in a variety of scenarios. His ability to suddenly slow down and speed up allows him to throw off the rhythm of his defender, utilizing elite change of pace to complement his top-end speed. Beyond that, he is quick as a Fox – pun intended. Similar to how a running back in football is able to plant a foot and drive through a tiny crease at the line of scrimmage, Fox is able to burst through the lane when presented the smallest of openings due to his incredible agility. Edwards, in turn, relies more on strength than Fox – and given there is about a 50lb difference, that is not particularly surprising. What is incredible though is that Edwards is able to do the same exact thing as Fox in terms of driving into tight lanes. In terms of being able to get to any given spot on the floor at any given time, Fox and Edwards are two of the best prospects of the past few years. Where Edwards falls behind is in his change of pace and coordination. While Edwards is a powerful driver, he is not crafty or creative with his approach, and a somewhat limited handle causes him to bungle the finish or not even reach the rim quite often. Although I see more potential with Edwards’ slashing ability – again, the dude has an extra fifty pounds and yet has 95% of the speed – but he has a ton of skill development left in the tank before he actualizes that potential.
Comparing Anthony Edwards to Donovan Mitchell is even more enticing, given Mitchell’s vague roll as a scorer, who also handles the ball, but isn’t the point guard, but kinda is, but isn’t really, yada yada yada. Mitchell has clearly taken steps to establish himself as a P&R threat with the ball in his hands, and at this point is eons ahead as a ball-handler and consistent shot creator. Mitchell certainly has high-level athleticism, as evidenced by his Dunk Contest performance, but he has always stuck out to me as a more fluid athlete than an explosive one. Think Paul Pierce, Steph Curry – guys that rock you to sleep before pulling up and sticking a dagger on you. Edwards has a much more herky-jerky style that keeps you on the edge of your seat – not because of its beauty, but its unpredictability.
The one attribute I clearly attribute to both Mitchell and Fox that I struggle to attribute to Edwards is an understanding of oneself that goes beyond identity on the basketball court. I believe both of those players have the utmost confidence in who they are as a person, and that self-awareness almost always translates to the court, as it has with both of them. Both players have made rapid improvements to their game that would have been almost impossible to predict pre-draft because they both have such a sound understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, and what it would take to improve on them. While it is somewhat irresponsible of me to simply conjecture on the inner workings of Edwards’ mind despite never meeting him and only having read and watched a couple of interviews, I have a suspicion that Edwards lacks that level of self-awareness at this age. This isn’t some massive character flaw, mind you – I myself had very little understanding of who I was at that time, and only with time and experience was I able to further identify myself. Perhaps a year as a star at UGA under Tom Crean will be the impetus for Edwards to invest heavily in self-reflection going forward, or perhaps he will be drafted by a stable, structured franchise like Golden State or San Antonio and is able to come in and have his character formed by the incredible influences around him. But if Anthony Edwards ends up on the Knicks?? That scares me. That really scares me. The NBA as a whole has made great strides in setting up the proper infrastructure for young athletes to come in and learn what it means to be a professional, what it takes to be at the top of your craft. But not every franchise knows how to build these young players into good men, let alone good basketball players. If Edwards ends up on some awful team with a bunch of young guys and no real veteran leadership, plays for three coaches and two GM’s in his first three years, and is constantly paired with the wrong players, I could easily see him being labeled as a bust quickly.
When Edwards is on, it is a sight to behold. There isn’t another player in college basketball this year that can put up the types of dynamic performances Anthony has already put on, and though this Georgia team is pretty mediocre, I have no doubts Coach Crean and Edwards will be able to lead this team to the NCAA Tourney, where some poor team is going to be matched up with the sleeping giant that is Anthony Edwards. But unfortunately, talent means nothing in a vacuum. Projecting Anthony forward into the NBA is incredibly tricky, and really needs to be done on a team-by-team basis to determine if the team has the infrastructure and leadership to properly incubate Edwards. Anthony is often compared to current Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo, and I am awfully concerned that the two may end up following a similar career path – drafted in the top-3, assumed to be an instant star and savior of a franchise, (for Oladipo, it was a dismal Orlando Magic franchise still recovering from the Dwight Howard departure a few years prior) and eventually dubbed a “bust” and traded to another team, only for him to burst onto the scene as a superstar five or six years into his career.
I hope for Edwards’ sake this is not the case, and he is able to flourish right away in the NBA. But if he doesn’t, if the Knicks do take him, and three years in he looks like a bust, do not fret! Just remember this article, remember the Oladipo comparison. Some of us are simply late bloomers. Heck, I know I sure am. So what if he doesn’t have the perfect mentality as a freshman in college? I know this piece may come off as somewhat wishy-washy, but that’s just the type of prospect Anthony Edwards is. As Cole Zwicker of The Stephien so succinctly put it – “Edwards is the guy I want to go #1 overall.” There is no player in this draft as uniquely gifted as Anthony Edwards, and while I struggle to project his game forward, I have no trouble rooting for the guy – I mean, c’mon now. Did y’all watch the 33-point half? At his best, Edwards puts stars in your eyes and dreams in your mind. At his worst, Edwards puts a pit in your stomach and doubt in your mind. But when all is said and done, he is what basketball is all about. I cannot wait to keep watching this guy, and I absolutely cannot wait to see where he ends up in the NBA.
Edwards is an enigma, a 5000 piece puzzle with all of the pictures scratched off. Predicting his future correctly is as likely as predicting how many red lights I’ll hit on the way to school – it ain’t happening. But that certainly isn’t gonna stop anyone from trying, and a performance like this against the mighty Michigan State is sure to send imaginations running wild.