Before Anthony Edwards began what would be his only season at Georgia, coach Tom Crean had a goal in mind for the young man who had only recently turned 18 yet was considered by many NBA scouts and draft analysts as a potential No. 1 overall pick. Edwards’ 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and unique skillset belied his age, but Crean, who had coached Dwyane Wade (Marquette) and Victor Oladipo (Indiana) in his career, nevertheless had a gold standard by which he would measure the freshman.
Crean knew Edwards had work to do.
“He’s very smart,” Crean said last September. “Physically, there’s no question he’s got it all. But we don’t want him playing the whole year on potential. Kids come in from high school where they were able to do pretty much everything they wanted. They did it in volume. We want Anthony to be efficient. Efficient and consistent. That’s my job.”
So, did he get there? Edwards left behind a large sample size of his work. At times he was great, and at times, in part because of the defensive attention he attracted, he struggled. Scouts would have loved to get more of a look at Edwards in do-or-die situations, but like hundreds of other college players who earlier this month had just begun postseason play, he was sidelined prematurely. Edwards’ final game didn’t produce eye-popping numbers—he scored six points on 2-for-13 shooting, including 1-for-9 from beyond the arc -- but he played all 40 minutes and helped engineer an 81-63 victory over Ole Miss in the only other game played in the Southeastern Conference tournament before league officials shut it down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Edwards’ final game was an interesting case study, because his plus/minus was 18. Over the years, analytics experts have debated the usefulness of that stat, but of course they would -- it’s based more on intangible factors than numbers. On a night when Edwards’ shot wasn’t falling, Crean didn’t think about taking him out of the game, and Edwards helped his team win any way he could.
“If you just judge him by his shooting numbers or his stats, you’re going to miss a lot,” Crean says. “He can really guard. He creates a ton of [defensive] attention for the opponent, which creates opportunities for other people. And he got so much better defensively. We were asking him to guard the other team’s best player and to do it frequently.”
As proof of that latter point, Crean offers up some clips of Georgia’s Feb. 29 game against Arkansas, during which Edwards was paired against the Razorbacks’ Mason Jones, who led the SEC in scoring. “He went into full lockdown mode,” Crean says. “He wants those challenges. And he’ll want them in the NBA.”
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman came away impressed with Edwards after having finally seen him in person and not just on film.
“His combination of strength, speed, his pull-up jumper off the bounce -- he can just rise over people,” Eric Musselman, a two-time former NBA head coach, told the media after Edwards delivered 26 points, seven rebounds and 3-for-6 3-point shooting in addition to suffocating defense on Jones. “He's an incredible player with an incredibly bright future. Having coached in that league, he's got an NBA body right now. He can dribble drive in traffic at the next level, take contact, finish through contact.
“You watch a guy on film and he's really good and then you watch him live, just his explosiveness. He's got NBA athleticism and NBA strength."
Another SEC coach who’s more than qualified to talk about Edwards is Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams, who lists Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Wes Matthews among the players he’s sent to the NBA.
He's an incredible player with an incredibly bright future
"I don't study it a lot, relative to if he's the first pick or the second pick,” Williams said when Georgia beat the Aggies in January. “I've heard all of those things, but based on his performance today [29 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and two steals] I thought he was just incredible. I've studied his game and his numbers. But I thought his impact on winning may have been as good as it has been all year, particularly his job on the glass.
“His physicality -- not just when he had the ball, but also when he was chasing after the ball. … Defensively, I thought he was engaged ball-pressure wise. I thought he did a lot of things to impact the game. I thought he was dominant in every category."
Draft analysts and NBA front offices will have plenty of time before June to break down Edwards’ freshman season. Two numbers that will jump out: 50.5 field-goal attempts and 245 3-point attempts in 32 games. Did his percentages (40.2% from the field and 29.4% from 3) warrant that high a volume? Edwards was simply doing what he was told.
“Would I have liked to have gotten him more catch-and-shoot 3s and had him trust the catch-and-shoot rather than put it on the ground?” Crean says. “Absolutely. But he never had to take catch-and-shoot 3s in high school, because his ability to get downhill, get to the rim and create contact is really extraordinary.”
Crean thinks the next two years of Edwards’ development will be critical and doesn’t hesitate to list the facets of Edwards’ game that can improve.
“I would hope he’d continue to trust his jump shot without the dribble,” Crean says. “He can get better at reading ball-screen situations and making plays for himself and others. He needs to continue to be held to a high standard as a rebounder. And I would hope someone would continue to implore him how good he can be defensively. Because he can be elite defensively.”
So, if Crean were an NBA general manager with the No. 1 pick in the Draft, would he take Edwards?
“You’ve got to remember he’s very young,” Crean says. “He should still be in high school. But yes, absolutely I would. He’s got so much upside. There’s not a doubt in my mind. If you gamble against him now, you’re doing so at your own peril.”
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