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The Rapid Improvements and Early Contributions of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels
Few rookies had a more impressive finish to last season than Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels for the Minnesota Timberwolves. There is a lot to be excited about, but also some meaningful concerns.
Tyler Metcalf: For me, the 2020 draft will likely go down as the one where I overthought it the most, and Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are prime examples of that. As someone who covers the Minnesota Timberwolves, both of these guys have been not only a surprise but an extreme delight to watch. Before we dive into the finer details, what has been your overarching view of these guys as an "outsider"?
Nathan Grubel: Heading into 2020, I wasn't completely on board the "Ant Edwards" hype train. Edwards may not have won over the public consensus with LaMelo Ball in the same draft class, but he at least won over the people who mattered most: the Timberwolves' front office. And quite frankly, I no longer have any quarrels with the Edwards draft choice. He's been one of the quickest improving prospects I've ever seen. Sure he still has his flaws that we'll get to here in a bit, but his attentiveness to detail on defense, his jumps in efficiency on his outside shot, and his overall attitude have made a legitimate impact on Minnesota this year.
As for McDaniels, I never let him drop out of lottery range for me on my board, and while he hasn't been close to the offensive dynamo he was initially projected to be, his defensive prowess has made up for it in the starting lineup. And that's what made me so enthused about him at Washington. He was always playing hard, helping protect the rim when he could, playing passing lanes, and just making things happen when the Huskies needed it. McDaniels was an exciting defensive playmaker to watch, and he still is in the NBA.
I actually want to kick this back over to you on McDaniels first because he's been a fantastic story to watch so far in the league. Despite still coming around offensively, he's found joy in helping his team on the other end and has carved out significant minutes with effort and grit that combo well with his size and length. Do you think McDaniels has laid out a blueprint for other prospects moving forward to earn significant minutes within their first two years in the NBA?
Tyler: That's tough because there are two very different sides to that coin. The vast majority of players in the league earn their minutes through defense because they just can't keep up with the few offensive supernovas each team has. So, in that regard, I think he absolutely sets an example for guys looking to elevate their role.
However, most young players, and especially rookies, aren't good defenders. It takes some time to adapt to the NBA's speed, strength, and schemes. Additionally, McDaniels seems to have done a complete personality makeover from his time at Washington, where he earned a tremendous amount of technical fouls. With the Timberwolves, McDaniels has shown almost no emotion to the point where it's scary. It may be a Face/Off situation, but McDaniels quickly turned into that quiet, confident guy that is always the most dangerous in fights.
To answer your question after sufficient rambling, I think McDaniels is a perfect example to young players on how to earn minutes. However, I also think he is closer to the outlier than the norm because of his physical attributes and mental makeup. It is currently at a point where I expect McDaniels to make an All-NBA Defense team sooner rather than later, and there are so few young players that you can say that about every season.
Oddly enough, McDaniels was pegged as this dynamic scoring option when he was a prospect. There were flashes of that at Washington, but he hasn't shown much in the NBA. Part of that is because of who he plays with, but his entire offensive role has been condensed to spotting up, offensive rebounding, and cutting. His start to the season on offense has been underwhelming (despite an incredible start on defense), but do you anticipate him growing in role or effectiveness on that end in a significant way?
Nathan: If you go back and look at the high school tape, obviously, he was once pegged by ESPN as the no. 1 player in his class for a reason. At his size, the pull-up shooting and creation ability reminded everyone of Kevin Durant, but I would never venture to use that name with any young player. And eventually, he failed to live up to a lofty ceiling because he never quite showed the willingness to put together complete games at that level offensively, let alone in college.
While he struggled at Washington with his efficiency offensively, he still showed flashes of the same creativity in half court sets, and he's always a threat in transition, either filling the lane or sprinting to the corner where he's been an effective shooter both in college and in the pros.
Do I think he's capable of making a leap so long as the assertiveness is there? Yes, however you already alluded to it, there are too many mouths to feed offensively on Minnesota. McDaniels can share the floor with Karl-Anthony Towns, Edwards, D'Angelo Russell, and Malik Beasley at any given time. All four are shot hungry, which has been the case at the start of this season just looking at their shot attempts alone compared to McDaniels.
That being said, I don't think he has to take major steps beyond being a reliable fourth option in the starting lineup and maybe showing a little more as a third/second option when he's mixed in with the bench talent. All you really need from him to keep defenses honest is to continue to make timely cuts, convert from the corners/wings when he's open from 3 and limit committing unnecessary turnovers when he does have the ball in his hands. He's on the floor to make plays defensively, and I agree with your All-Defense projection within the next couple of years, especially if the Wolves continue to win games.
Let's move on to Edwards, given that he has taken a leap as many expected this year. By the numbers, he hasn't improved YET from inside the arc. However, he is positioned as one of the league's best young two-way wings, given his efficiency from deep on volume and improved defense attentiveness. With a few more improvements to his overall game, he could insert himself into conversations amongst the best two-way wings in the NBA regardless of age. Whether he can become an All-Star this year or not, that's clearly where he's headed. What are your thoughts on Edwards to start the year, and how has he really impressed you with his growth going back to post All-Star break last year?
Tyler: Unfortunately, he's looked more like he did at the start of his rookie year to start this season, at least offensively. He's settling for a lot of jumpers, and when his shot isn't falling, he is just a much less effective player. He becomes more passive and gives in to his stubborn nature of "I'm going to make you pay for daring me to shoot." Edwards has said a few times that he knows he has to use the outside shot to create space for his drives, but I'd rather him do the inverse. If he attacked downhill early and often, it would help him get in a better rhythm and generate more opportunities behind the arc.
Last season, Edwards essentially flipped a switch with his interior scoring as his at-rim field goal percentage went up about 12% on higher volume. He improved at initiating contact at the rim, creating space with change-of-pace dribbling, and showed a really impressive understanding of how to run the pick-and-roll. A lot of those habits, in terms of at-rim finishing, have carried over to this season as well. Unfortunately, the consistency and intensity with which he attacks have wavered.
Defensively, Edwards has been substantially better than last season. He's playing above-average low man defense, jumping passing lanes, avoiding screens, and maximizing his athleticism. My fundamental belief with Edwards is that he doesn't need to be a defensive stopper (although it'd be great if he was); he just can't be the massive negative he was to start last season. Worst case scenario, all he has to do is maximize his athleticism as a defensive playmaker. So far this season, he's done that and more. Do you think what Edwards has shown defensively so far is sustainable, or is it just an example of early-season-small-sample-size?
Nathan: As we know, Tyler, a lot of playing good defense starts with being willing to do so. I thought Edwards put his best foot forward during the preseason regarding maintaining his engagement every possession he was on the floor. With his athleticism, there's no reason why he can't average at least a steal per game and cause opposing offenses to think twice before challenging him on that end. Obviously, he's still young and has to continue to improve his awareness off the ball as a whole, but as long as he's willing to try and gamble, he can continue to carry over his impact as the season progresses.
I'm entirely with you on his offensive mentality or lack thereof at times. The best play I saw him make last season was his infamous poster dunk along the baseline, but it wasn't because of the actual dunk itself. That whole play was created off a pump fake and drive to the rim. He didn't sidestep and settle for a long jumper. That's where he's going to truly increase his scoring average and maintain consistency. I'd personally love to see him get to the line more. So far this year, he's averaging fewer free throw attempts per game than last season. Unless you come into the league with that level of craft drawing fouls, that's something that usually takes a bit to learn as well as develop the right mindset for. I think even more than taking more two-point shots in general, that's his biggest need for development other than practicing better shot selection as a whole.
What stands out to me statistically is that he ranks in the 9th percentile on shots around the basket so far. This feeds directly into his inability to draw fouls and take advantage of when he gets two feet in the paint. He should be finishing better than 40.6% of those shots for how powerful an athlete he is at the guard spot.
What's stood out to you the most about his scoring at the rim, and how can he take steps this season to better correct those numbers? In my opinion, if he does, then he's surely an All-Star caliber wing as soon as this season. But if he relies on heavy volume from the perimeter without balancing out his attack inside the arc, he's doomed to repeat a lot of his bad habits from last year, as you pointed out earlier.
Tyler: When you break down Edwards's at-rim scoring by pre-All Star break and post-All Star break, the numbers are complete inverses, and the tape backs it up. He attacked the rim more, finished at a significantly higher rate, and drew more fouls. The start of this season feels like he has reverted to his old habits we saw at the beginning of last season, but the numbers tell a different story. Per Cleaning the Glass, Edwards is taking the exact same percent of his shots at the rim this year as he did last year (39%, which ranks in the 84th percentile of wings). Unfortunately, Edwards is shooting only 56% at the rim (38th percentile). Edwards needs to be better at asserting himself, but there are external factors at play here as well. As a team, the Timberwolves currently rank 23rd in three-point percentage at 31.8%. With no one on this team currently capable of making shots, defenses have collapsed on him more aggressively.
Additionally, Edwards simply isn't getting calls at the rim. Last season, Edwards was fouled on 10.4% of his shots, but this season that number has dropped to 6.1% despite the same at-rim volume. Edwards is currently getting the raw end of the deal in terms of whistles, but the bigger issue is the team's current lack of shooting. Edwards has grown into a deft pick-and-roll operator and is one of the most explosive players in the league, so getting to the rim isn't an issue for him. The problem, therefore, seems to be the lack of outside shooting success the entire team is experiencing. Until the Timberwolves can keep defenders honest, defenses will be able to more aggressively collapse and bother Edwards at the rim. I know that was a lot, and I don't love complaining about calls because it always feels like a homer complaining about things that aren't actually real, but does that reasoning make sense, or are you seeing something different?
Nathan: No, that reasoning on Edwards definitely makes sense and paints a clearer picture for those who maybe aren't watching the Timberwolves as closely game by game as you have been, Tyler. So to wrap this conversation up, any other thoughts on the Timberwolves as a collective and what we may be able to expect from them the rest of the season?
Tyler: It's tough because we're only six games in, and we've already experienced essentially every end of the spectrum in terms of fandom. The debacle against the Magic was really concerning because it felt like a reversion to the teams of the past. The point of attack defense was horrid, which allowed the Magic to get to the lane with ease, where they either scored or kicked out and attacked. The defensive failings were a direct symptom of the panic the team was showing on offense. The ball stopped moving, and lousy shots were regularly taken.
When juxtaposed with the Milwaukee game, it is night and day. I want to believe that the Magic game was an outlier and just a lousy night exacerbated by injuries, but it felt too close to previous seasons to completely discount it.
The defensive improvement feels legitimate. Maybe not top-five legitimate, but at least top-15 legitimate. The offensive failings are the most puzzling aspect of this team. The ball movement does become stagnant, but the real issue is this team is simply not making shots. I know that sounds like a platitude, but it adds up when you look at the numbers and pair them with the film.
At this point, I honestly wouldn't be surprised at any outcome. If this is just a low-point for the offense and the defense is legitimate, the Timberwolves have the build to be a playoff team. Unfortunately, they've proved time and time again that they can't live up to expectations. Despite their history and the recent omens, I'm still optimistic about this team and think they'll be firmly in the playoff conversation at the end of the season.