Anthony Edwards and the importance of context

Anthony Edwards not only has the potential to be the best scorer coming out of the 2020 NBA Draft, but in theory, he has the physical tools to be one of the better defenders as well.

On the surface, he is everything that any NBA team could want out of guard prospect. At 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he is an explosive athlete with the ability to completely take over games offensively. He went for 32 points at Florida. He had 36 points at South Carolina. In the single-most impressive individual performance I saw this past season, Edwards scored 33 of his 37 points in the second half of a second round loss to Michigan State in the Maui Invitational.

When he got it rolling, he was unstoppable. It’s easy to watch him play and see why he draws comparisons to Donovan Mitchell. It makes perfect sense that he opted to play for Tom Crean, the same man that coached both Victor Oladipo and Dwyane Wade during their college days.

What doesn’t make sense, however, is that Edwards shot under 30 percent from three last year. What makes even less sense is that a player as talented as he is has never finished a season — high school, AAU or college — with a record above .500. There are reasons why some NBA evaluators view Edwards not as the next great NBA scoring guard but, instead, as the next Dion Waiters.

Where you fall likely depends entirely on how you interpret the context of Edwards’ one season at Georgia.

To put it another way, was Georgia a bad team because Edwards is an inefficient gunner and lackadaisical defender with no concept of shot selection? Was he a star on a bad team forced into carrying a heavier load than he was ready to?

We’ll dive into all of that, and as always, we start with the good.

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When discussing Edwards, the first thing that needs to be mentioned is the power with which he plays. He is incredibly explosive, and not just as a finisher around the basket. The key to Edwards’ game is his first step, which is as quick and strong as anyone you’ll find in the college game. It’s not hard to find clips of him blowing by good defenders with straight line drives. This sets up the rest of his game as well. His jab series is lethal due to the fact that defenders have to respect him blow-by-ability.

This is also evident in Edwards’ step-back package. He has quick feet and impressive balance, showing the ability to create space for himself to get clean looks at the rim. Even when he doesn’t create space, Edwards has the leaping ability to shoot over defenders. He can make tough shots, but he also takes quite a few shots that may be too tough. More on that in a minute.

Edwards is at his best at this point in isolation, but he’s shown glimpses of being able to score out of ball-screens, too. He’s a nightmare in transition because of that athleticism. While his passing in the halfcourt is certainly something that needs to continue to be developed, Edwards did prove to be a solid facilitator in transition. I can talk myself into the idea that he can be an average-to-above average ball-screen passer with time and coaching at the next level. Remember, Edwards reclassified in high school to get to college a year earlier than he was supposed to. He turns 19 years old on August 5th. He’s young on the development curve, and that’s before you consider that he was more focused on football than basketball when he was younger.

No, the concerns with Edwards have nothing to do with potential or ability.

Where NBA teams are going to be worried is about is approach to the game.

And this is where context enters the chat.

Edwards shot 29.7 percent from three this past season, but he still shot nearly eight threes per game. He made 42 off-the-dribble jumpers in 32 games, according to Synergy, which is a massive number. But he attempted 147 off-the-dribble jumpers, hitting just 28.5 percent of them. I mentioned that he was a tough-shot maker — that’s because he spent the entirety of his freshman season taking really tough shots.

In simpler terms, Edwards’ shot selection is a major concern.


But it is also, in some ways, understandable. During SEC play, Edwards’ teammates shot under 29 percent from beyond the arc. Defenses knew that Edwards was really the only player on the Georgia roster that they needed to be concerned about, and they knew that they could collapse around him whenever he put the ball on the floor. He was more likely to take a tough shot than he was to make a pass to an open “shooter”.

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The result? Edwards often had to take contested pull-ups because there was no way for him to get to the rim. In the NBA, spacing will be significantly less of an issue. He’ll have driving lanes, and if there is one thing that he is capable of doing, it is taking advantage of driving lanes thanks to his first step.

There are two ways to read this. On the one hand, Edwards was asked to carry a major offensive load for a bad team. He didn’t have help. If he believed he needed to get 30 every night just to give Georgia a chance to win, his shot selection is understandable. But there is also a concern that he’ll have trouble adjusting to a league where he doesn’t have the freedom to do whatever he wants on a given possession. Throw in that he hit just seven of his 32 unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers — and shot just 28.9 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers on the season — and there’s a real concern over his ability to play off the ball.

These contextual question marks carry over to the defensive side of the ball as well.

His physical tools are everything you want out of a wing defender in the NBA. He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s explosive and he has long arms. He has the tools to guard multiple positions. When he decided that he wanted to get a stop, he got a stop. There are plenty of clips of late-game possessions where Edwards locked in, sat in a stance and made it really difficult for opponents to get around him. When he’s flying around, when his motor is running hot, he can block shots from the weak side and jump passing lanes. In turn, that creates more opportunities for him to get out in transition.

But those moments where he was locked in were few and far between. Is this because he doesn’t care about that end of the floor? Is this because he was asked to save his energy for offense? Is it simply a result of what turned into a dead-end season for the Bulldogs? Remember, we had serious concerns about Ben Simmons’ defense during his one season at LSU, and he’s become one of the very best defenders in the NBA. Turns out, as soon as Simmons cared, he tried. That may be the same situation with Edwards.

The truth is this: Edwards does not have the same potential as a typical No. 1 pick. He likely won’t develop into the kind of franchise-altering talent that a player like Zion Williamson is. But he does have the potential to be an All-Star guard, a player that can average 20 points while playing elite, multi-positional defense.

But whoever drafts him is going to have to decide whether or not Edwards’ red flags are a result of a player in a bad situation at Georgia, or if they are an indicator that he’ll never be anything other than a gunner more interested in the highlights that come with the tough shots that he makes than being an efficient scorer and consistent defender.

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