It had been a while since a player wreaked as much havoc in the NCAA tournament as Purdue guard Carsen Edwards did last March. The year was 2008. The player? Davidson guard Stephen Curry.
Not to suggest Edwards, a shooting guard trapped in a small point guard’s body, is going to be the next Curry. Edwards, measured at the NBA’s Chicago Combine at 6-feet in shoes, has a more realistic role model in mind.
“A guy like [Toronto’s] Fred VanVleet,” Edwards says. “A guard that’s on the shorter side, but he’s been able to find his role and his niche. That’s what he’s done so well.”
Edwards isn’t the playmaker VanVleet is, but he’s got the same stocky build (199 pounds) and a plus (6-6) wingspan. And as he proved in the NCAA tournament, he’s a scoring machine. When Edwards gets in a groove, he’s tough to handle.
Edwards was the first player since Curry led his Davidson team to the Elite Eight to score at least 25 points in four straight tournament games. The onslaught began in an opening-round victory over Old Dominion. Still feeling the effects of a seven-game shooting skid, Edwards needed 23 shots to score 26 points.
He was just getting warmed up.
In Purdue’s next game, against defending national champion Villanova, Edwards went off for 42 points, knocking down 12 of 21 shots from the field, 9 of 16 from 3 and 9 of 9 from the free-throw line. Edwards scored 29 against Tennessee, tossing in five more 3s, and he blitzed eventual champion Virginia for another 42 points, this time making 10 of 19 3s.
After that game, won by the Cavaliers in overtime, Virginia coach Tony Bennett wasn’t quite sure what he’d seen, but he knew it was special.
“It was impressive,” Bennett told the media. “I've seen guys -- having played in the NBA -- you see guys that can create separation and bound up at [deep] range. I'll be curious to watch the film. It felt like it was about 27-, 28-footers. Sometimes you can’t get a feel. Am I right on that?”
He was right on that.
Edwards, who in his final season led the Big Ten in scoring (24.3 ppg) and smashed Purdue’s single-season 3-point record with 135—the old mark was 100—has always known the best way to make his mark was putting the ball in the basket.
“When I started playing, my dad preached to me the importance of scoring the ball if I wanted to play in college,” Edwards says. “I listened to him and lived in the gym. I put myself in different scenarios and learned how to make tough shots from all over the floor. My dad and I, we wanted me to separate myself in some way.”
The hard work paid off. Edwards turned himself into a four-star, Top 100 recruit, and he couldn’t have picked a better school to showcase his skills than Purdue, which runs a motion, passing offense that makes liberal use of the 3-pointer. As a freshman, Edwards started 21 games and averaged 10.3 points. The next season, he won the Jerry West Award given to the nation’s top shooting guard, averaging 18.5 points and making 97 3s.
Edwards has never been accused of being one dimensional, but as a senior, he took his multi-faceted game to a higher level. He attempted 380 3-pointers, but he also got to the free-throw line 221 times and shot 84 percent there. He turned the ball over 113 times but compensated with a team-high 48 steals and 104 assists.
“He's got a quick release,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said in describing Edwards’s game during the NCAA tournament. “He's aggressive. So, if you get up into him, he's going to drive the basketball. If you give him space, he's going to shoot. Just a dynamic scorer.
“He's very confident. He's got a short memory. I think that really helps him in situations like this, where he can miss three, four, five, six shots in a row and he's going to keep coming back at you and keep getting there.”
Painter wasn’t kidding about Edwards having a short memory. In seven games before the NCAA tournament, Edwards was 41 of 136 from the field (.301) and 14 of 66 from 3 (.212). How did he break loose from that slump? Simple.
“I just stayed the course,” Edwards said.
For Edwards, that means living in the gym and watching film. But unlike a lot of players, Edwards doesn’t count how many shots he puts up every day. He counts makes.
“I don’t have an exact number, but seeing the ball go in is helpful,” Edwards said. “You always want to see the ball go in.”
Edwards knows his role will change in the NBA. He’s not going to be a team’s primary scoring option. Painter told him when he first set foot on campus that in order to play, he’d have to defend. He knows he’ll have to hold his own on that end of the floor.
“My main emphasis [since his final college game] has been finding whatever it is that will help me stick,” Edwards says. “The pressure and the role I had in college will not be the same. I’m going to have to make people better. I’m going to have to understand pick-and-rolls, spacing, making reads. I need to be as tough as I can possibly be as a defender. But my approach as a point guard will be that, when I need to score, I’ll still be ready.”
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