The Curious Case Of Potential No. 1 Overall Draft Pick Anthony Edwards

Fans were spoiled by the last two NBA Drafts. Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic were easy prospects to rank first overall — both generational prospects with MVP-level potential, Doncic is already a superstar, and while Williamson’s greatness is on hiatus, it still exists in spades. This year’s draft, however, is less appealing. Among some crowds, Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards is the frontrunner to be the No. 1 pick. He carries significant intrigue but his pre-draft flaws certainly outweigh those of his five predecessors: Williamson, Deandre Ayton (and, in the same draft, Doncic), Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Much of the allure with Edwards revolves around his versatile and functional athleticism, which primarily manifests itself offensively. His horizontal space creation to produce open pull-up jumpers is a special talent for a guard so young; Edwards doesn’t turn 19 until Aug. 5, 2020. Whether it’s crossovers or in-and-out dribbles, Edwards’ East-West ball-handling provides him real estate to fire away without much pressure crowding his airspace. Couple that with his start-stop ability, through which he seamlessly controls his forward momentum, and he has little issue manufacturing separation.

Edwards has refined his footwork off the bounce since high school and his capacity for maintaining balance on those hop-back jumpers makes it difficult to deter him. His high release point and concise gather phase after dribble sequences mean smaller guards, like Michigan State’s Cassius Winston in one of the clips above, can rarely contest his shot. If the pull-up becomes a consistent threat in the pros (he’s just 15-for-50 on half-court attempts this season, which ranks in the 48th percentile), undersized backcourt foes won’t suffice. If that’s the case, bigger defenders will have to find ways to contain his explosiveness when he opts to attack the rim because he’s far and away the best overall athlete among candidates for the top pick next June.

In the event Edwards reaches his ceiling, smaller defenders cannot challenge his off-the-bounce jumper while bigger wings cannot stonewall his drives. Someone with dribble-drive and pull-up shooting equity, along with his athletic gifts, becomes one of the toughest scorers to cover in the league. “Match-up nightmare” is thrown around hyperbolically with guys but there’s a genuine chance it’s suitable here.

A rare and valuable blend of body control, contortion, ability to hang in the air, and downhill burst suggest he has the requisite physical tools to be a devastating individual creator; help defenders do not always pose a threat to him because he possesses the athleticism to glide around them and still attempt moderately efficient shots inside. Ball-handlers with the size to regularly apply pressure at the rim and occupy defenses 27 feet from the hoop are commodities in which teams should invest. There are few players in this class who can generate offense from a standstill without relying on a ball screen to establish an advantage. Edwards is one of them.

The next step in Edwards’ maturation is to leverage that rim pressure into elevating an entire offense, not just his own. Throughout collegiate and AAU play, he intermittently parlayed his talents into drop-off feeds to bigs inside or corner threes to shooters, but he’s often plagued by tunnel vision, forcing up floaters or contested layups among the trees instead of finding open teammates. That tendency partially explains his underwhelming half-court rim efficiency (13-for-28, 46.4 percent, 48th percentile).

But that is not the sole factor. Despite flashing elite vertical bounce and playing bigger than his 6’4 fame, Edwards often curtails drives a stride short of where he needs to. Some of that stems from an inability to effectively dribble while moving North-South, but it’s also just a poor approach to offense. In each of the clips below, he both fails to see open passing reads and embrace controlled physicality to harness his strength for a bucket or foul.

Most concerning among the vast data embedded into Edwards’ collegiate numbers thus far is the fact that only 20.7 percent of shots in the half-court are coming at the rim. He is not a nuclear shooter (32.5 percent from three, 75 percent at the line) but has displayed the requisite traits to at least get inside more than once out of every five shots; this also manifests in ball-screen actions, where Edwards’ preference is to duck behind picks and fire away rather than evolve that advantage into a drive toward the rim.

Improving his pick-and-roll habits are another area of emphasis for his ceiling as a lead guard. A shift in mindset can be promoted by whichever franchise drafts him, though it’s yet another “if” attached to his resume as a prospect. When 67.4 percent of your half-court attempts are classified as jumpers and you’re not a Cole Anthony- or Nico Mannion-level shooter, there are issues.

This clip illuminates his problems.

Edwards pulls out a frequented of move of his — the jab step — to rock his defender off balance and forge a driving lane. Yet rather than exploding to the rim to further compromise the defense, he settles for a mid-range pull-up jumper. There are a host of other options available and all would convey a better feel for the game. He could hit the shooter out top for a three, fling a skip pass to the corner for a three, or bolt to the lane for a look of his own (or leave it for his teammate stationed at the block). Because of poor decision-making and a lack of comfort maneuvering North-South with the ball in his hands, he settles for the lowest value proposition presented to him.

Contested mid-range jumpers can cripple one’s scoring efficiency and a heavy dose of them — instead of choosing one of the aforementioned available options — are not conducive to being a high-level initiator. Edward is still quite young and decision-making can improve, especially since he projects to be given a large share of on-ball reps; but the passing vision and shot selection aren’t at the necessary level to drive an imposing NBA offense. Working in his favor, however, is the significant attention he’s likely to garner, given his dribble penetration talents. That’ll mean defenders shade off shooters or concern themselves more with his presence than necessary at times, simplifying some of the reads Edwards will have to make. Put succinctly, his scoring gravity lessens the complexity of his play-making role.

A list of negatives regarding Edwards have been laid out and while they’re all valid, he remains the best prospect in this draft. That’s largely an indictment of this class, but I also have faith in his role as an ancillary offensive talent, another outlet to effect the game. I’ve previously articulated how I believe in his potential as a legitimate match-up nightmare if things bounce right and that extends off the ball as well. Assuming he’s too powerful and explosive as a driver for like-sized wings, he’ll enjoy the luxury of optionality against guards assigned to him in the hopes their quickness quells downhill attacks. He can shoot over the top or target them in the post. We haven’t seen much of the latter this season but I’m optimistic about its development based on flashes.

Operating off the catch is another avenue to extrapolating value from Edwards’ athleticism. At worst — whether it’s volume or efficiency, or both — he will surface as a viable shooter worthy of moderate attention. Pairing him with a creator who can stress the defense is going to broaden his offensive utility. Such players are tough to come by, but any action that stresses the defense (pick-and-rolls, dribble handoffs, etc.) will work. Edwards’ burst and driving shine in these moments. Forcing any sort of closeout from the opposition permits him to flourish. Even more salivating are his instincts as a cutter.

Like the majority of high-level athletes, Edwards looks most at home on the break. He ranks in the 82nd percentile in transition and it’s where he makes his best passes. His brawny, quick vertical leaping fuel his rebounding prowess and give him upside as a legitimate fire starter in the open floor. Athletes of his caliber are at their best when defenses are stretched thin and scattered, which is often the case in transition.

While there are many nuances to Edwards’ offensive projection, his defense is a little more cut and dry. On the ball, he’s flashed shifty lateral movement and locked-in engagement to hint at wing stopper potential. But he’s overwhelmingly a lackluster defender, particularly off the ball, where his blase motor and awareness can be debilitating. He lollygags around screens, trails shooters with lethargy, and fails to execute important rotations. In many ways, it’s a “how to” of inattentive off-ball defense.

Much of Edwards’ skill set is tough to parse out from an NBA point of view but his defense might serve as most challenging. The effort and commitment are wholly underwhelming but the occasions he does buckle down are rather noteworthy. He short circuits driving lanes, blows up plays off the ball (2.6 steals per 40 minutes) and utilizes his general athleticism to emerge as a terrifying playmaker. But if those continue to merely serve as flashes rather than the norm, Edwards will almost assuredly be a detrimental — at best, neutral — defender at the next level.

In fairness, the complementary talent at Georgia and the team’s overall ceiling is not conducive to him investing all his energy into both ends of the floor each outing and apathy seems to rear its head in most facets of his game; higher-leverage situations in the NBA might bring about consistency (emphasis on might). Nonetheless, it might just be something that prevents him from ascending to the tier he’s capable of reaching as a player.

Deciphering how many of these problems are inherent and how many can be massaged away with proper coaching/guidance feels like a futile exercise. That is what makes Edwards such a fascinating and difficult evaluation. He is flawed, and most years, these drawbacks would be too prevalent to peg him as the top prospect in the class. This season, however, is different.

While I do worry about the many “ifs” attached to his game — shot selection, passing consistency, and defensive engagement, etc. — his metamorphosis into a three-level scorer with serviceable distributing and pestering defense is too much to ignore in a class loaded with imperfect prospects. Edwards is imperfect as well, but those imperfections might fade into oblivion and pave the way for a legitimate star guard. Whichever team drafts No. 1 shouldn’t pass on that opportunity.


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