The fire that drives Anthony Edwards' quest to be the next American NBA star (2024)

Anthony Edwards was walking out of the Minnesota Timberwolves practice facility to his car on a chilly January afternoon, less than 24 hours after one of the most disappointing losses of the season.

Several team executives and coaches were lingering on the practice court, trying to figure out how the Wolves lost at home to the lowly Charlotte Hornets even with Karl-Anthony Towns scoring a franchise-record 62 points.

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One of the many reasons they landed on was a 3-of-11 shooting night by Edwards, the 22-year-old breakout star of this NBA season. Edwards was uncharacteristically passive in the game, sitting back and mostly watching as Towns filled it up. So as the guard exited after the day’s practice, director of player personnel Jon Wallace turned in his direction.

“Where you from again?” Wallace asked with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Marietta?”

It stopped Edwards in his tracks. He hails from a tough, gritty section of inner-city Atlanta known as Oakland City, another world away from the cushy suburb Wallace referenced. Wallace is from the South himself, a product of Huntsville, Ala. He knew exactly what he was doing. It wasn’t a question. It was an accusation. Edwards glared at him and then smiled.

“Remember who you are, man,” Wallace told him. “Don’t lose track of that.”

The next night, Edwards scored 38 points in a win over Washington. Wallace did not play that night, but he still should’ve been credited with an assist. He was suggesting that Edwards had gone suburb-soft, and it ignited a competitive fire that snapped him out of that mini-January malaise and got the Wolves back on track after two straight losses.

His shoes are cool. His dunks drop jaws. His interviews turn into comedy routines. But what has gotten him this far, pushing him to the forefront of the NBA’s marketing machine as one of the up-and-coming faces of the league and bringing the Timberwolves to their first Western Conference finals in 20 years, is a taste for the jugular that never stops.

“I think the biggest thing that sparks him … is when his back is against the wall,” said Timberwolves assistant coach Chris Hines, who has worked closely with Edwards for all four years of his NBA career. “Like, ‘I’ve gotta turn up’ or ‘I saw a chink in your armor.’ ”

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The Timberwolves have seen it since he was drafted No. 1 four years ago. Steve Kerr saw it last summer with Team USA. The rest of the country is now seeing it as the Timberwolves face off against the Dallas Mavericks with a trip to the NBA Finals awaiting the winner.

He is stepping out of the shadows that have long enveloped one of the league’s long-overlooked teams, and America is loving it. The Wolves’ Game 7 victory over Denver on Sunday averaged 8.41 million viewers across TNT, Max and truTV, the most-watched first- or second-round playoff game in TNT Sports history.

As the NBA looks for the next great American star, Edwards is banging on the door of the exclusive club and demanding to be let in. He averaged a career-high 25.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists in the regular season, and those numbers have leaped in the postseason (28.1/6.5/6.1), even after a 19-point outing in Minnesota’s loss to Dallas in Game 1 on Wednesday night.

LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are all watching from home and getting closer to retirement. Injuries and controversy have slowed Ja Morant’s ascent in Memphis. Zion Williamson has not been able to stay on the court in New Orleans. Jayson Tatum has won a lot of games in Boston but has yet to truly captivate the larger NBA audience.

In an era in which foreign players Nikola Jokić, Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo have been at the top of the league’s food chain, a new predator is joining the hunt.

“When you look at the top NBA players under 31, you can make the argument that all of them are international,” said a prominent basketball executive who was granted anonymity in exchange for candor.“I’m curious with the American television audience, do they translate? Tatum is a great player. The Celtics are a great brand. Ja and Zion haven’t been able to figure it out for a variety of reasons.

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“We need Edwards.”

His Timberwolves have already taken down Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Jokić in these playoffs. But to make it to their first NBA Finals in the franchise’s 35-year history, they have to go through Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Edwards wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I don’t know how long ago I said I want to be the best player on both sides of the ball in the NBA,” Edwards said last week. “I think it was probably two years ago. It’s something that I’ve been working on.”

His game has evolved, but the drive has been there for years.

The fire that drives Anthony Edwards' quest to be the next American NBA star (1)

Anthony Edwards’ athleticism and skill set have been on display all season for the Timberwolves. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

The Timberwolves held the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, but at the time it wasn’t believed to be the prize that it looks to be now. Edwards, James Wiseman and LaMelo Ball were the consensus top three prospects, but there was considerable debate about who should go first.

The knock on Edwards was a perceived lack of love for the game. He was late to the sport after focusing more on football in his younger days in Oakland City. Scouts questioned his drive to improve and his acumen for the game.

Many of those fears were laid to rest during an individual workout for the Wolves before the draft. Team executives wanted to challenge Edwards in the session, seeing how far they could push him.

They put him through the paces for 45 minutes, 10 minutes longer than their average predraft workout, to tire him out and see how hard he would push to make it through. Gersson Rosas, the team president, and Ryan Saunders, the head coach at the time, led the interview portion, and Dr. Robby Sikka, former vice president of player health and operations, was involved in the workout portion.

By the end of it, Edwards lay on the floor exhausted, but the Timberwolves wanted to see how far he would go. They asked him to get on the baseline and sprint to the free-throw line on the opposite end of the court, the league’s equivalent to the 40-yard dash. Edwards did not hesitate.

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For context, Providence guard Devin Carter set the NBA Draft Combine record in Chicago last week when he finished it in 2.87 seconds. While not divulging the specific time, Sikka said that Edwards ran it so fast the first time that he asked him to run it again. The second time was even faster than Carter’s. The third time matched the second.

The speed from someone who is 6 foot 4 and 225 pounds was impressive in its own right. That he kept digging deep to run it over and over again at the team’s behest gave them a glimpse into his competitive nature.

“He looked like Sean Taylor and ran like Randy Moss,” Sikka said.

About a month after that workout, the Timberwolves made Edwards the pick.

When Edwards showed up to Team USA training camp last summer in preparation for the FIBA World Cup, Kerr initially planned to use him as a scorer off the bench.

The Golden State Warriors coach had called Edwards before the start of training camp to lay the groundwork for such a move.

“He said Dwyane Wade came off the bench when Kobe played. I was like, ‘All right, we don’t have a Kobe, but all right,’ ” Edwards said.

Kerr had his assistants pick the lineups for the first team scrimmage in camp, and, as planned, Edwards was with the second unit. It lasted all of one scrimmage.

“You go into these things with thoughts and ideas and you always have to play around with different lineup combinations and different roles,” Kerr said. “But he made it abundantly clear that he was ‘The Man’ on that team.”

During one workout, Edwards took the ball to the basket as Memphis big man Jaren Jackson Jr. lurked near the rim. Edwards exploded for the dunk and was never challenged by Jackson, one of the league’s best shot blockers.

“Ay, jump!” Edwards barked at Jackson. “Ain’t you defensive player of the year?”

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The tone was set.

“When he came into the gym, the first day of practice, he let everybody know that he was the alpha,” said Clippers coach Ty Lue, an assistant on Kerr’s staff. “He was a dog and he was going to attack guys and he was going to be great defensively. That’s what won him over with our staff.”

The fire that drives Anthony Edwards' quest to be the next American NBA star (2)

Grant Hill on Edwards: “He was making great plays last year, now he is making winning plays.” (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

The second leg of Team USA’s tour was in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and the team practiced at New York University’s sparkling new gym on its campus situated on the Persian Gulf.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few, an assistant on the Team USA staff, was working with Edwards on some post-practice shooting, and it wasn’t going particularly well. Edwards kept misfiring and then he stepped back to the half-court line and started launching. Clank. Clank. Air ball. Boing. Clank. Zero of five.

It was at this point when Few suggested Edwards might attempt a shot he could make.

“Let’s put some money on it,” Edwards suggested, according to Few.

“You’ve missed five in a row, so, sure, I’ll bet you that you don’t make the next one,” Few countered. “It wasn’t a small amount of money. I’ll say a significant enough amount for a college coach with four kids. He got a big smile on his face, takes the ball, swish. It wasn’t even close.”

Edwards was the Americans’ leading scorer all summer. But there was a point in the Philippines during the World Cup when the other 11 players sat him down and implored him to pass.

In what has been described by the players involved as somewhere between a gentle urging and downright intervention, teammates spoke to him about using the attention he draws as a dominant scorer to get them involved in the offense, too. The next game, against Italy in a World Cup quarterfinal, Edwards took just six shots and finished with three points after scoring 35 the game before.

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“We talked to him and tried to help him out just to find guys, and that’s what he did — and he’s probably the happiest dude in the locker room right now,” Mikal Bridges said after the win over Italy.

Grant Hill, managing director for USA Basketball and an NBA broadcaster, can trace what he sees in Edwards on the court back to last summer and that meeting with his Team USA teammates.

“Hey, it took MJ (Michael Jordan) seven years to figure it out,” Hill said. “I’ve been impressed with Ant’s playmaking and decision-making this season, that balance. If a double-team is coming, rather than say, ‘I can beat the double-team,’ move the ball. That’s where I have seen an improvement. He was making great plays last year, now he is making winning plays.”

None of this comes as a surprise to Timberwolves assistant coach Elston Turner. Not the tales of Edwards’ quick takeover of Team USA, not his ability to make a shot with some money on the line, not even the frequent comparisons to the legend of all legends — Jordan.

Despite Edwards’ resistance, his performance in these playoffs is making it hard for him to escape it. There is a thirst for the next great American star, and with every fadeaway jumper and soaring dunk, Edwards comes closer to filling that void.

Turner feels uniquely qualified to weigh in on the discussion. He was a teammate of Jordan’s in Chicago from 1985-87, Jordan’s third and fourth seasons in the league and now he is coaching Edwards in his fourth season. As a defensive specialist, Turner was often charged with guarding Jordan in practice and he finds the similarities to Ant hard to ignore.

“The competitive part, Ant has it just like MJ had it,” Turner said. “I’m the first to say he reminds me of Michael Jordan. I can say that. You know, I practiced with him. I played against him, and I’m coaching this guy. So there is a legit comparison.”

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It is not just in practice that Turner sees the glimmers of Air Jordan. Edwards had one of the most thrilling highlights of the NBA season, elevating and dunking on Utah forward John Collins.

But the roar in Target Center quickly grew silent as Edwards appeared to dislocate a finger on the play. It was a gruesome-looking injury that caused several teammates to recoil when they saw it. After getting some attention from the athletic training staff, Edwards returned and finished the game with 32 points.

Æ5. GOODNESS. 🐜 pic.twitter.com/7qtk0Cm6tg

— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) March 19, 2024

It follows a pattern that has developed this season: Edwards suffers a minor injury, retreats to the locker room to address it and comes back ready to play.

“I don’t know what you do in the back, but you come back out before the game is over,” Turner said. “Yeah, that’s competitive. He’s not throwing in the towel.”

Hines sees a different Mike in Edwards. The relentless drives to the rim, the sudden explosion as his body hurtles toward the net, the fear he strikes in an opponent. It all screams Mike Tyson to Hines.

“He’s one of those kids that if he walks in and if he smells fear, it’s hard to beat him,” Hines said. “And so once he smells that fear, that’s kind of where he gets amped up.”

Hines sees it when Edwards tries to race him to the bathroom at the practice facility, when he is playing cards on the team plane and when an opponent starts to talk a little trash.

Tatum discovered this the hard way when he went at Edwards in November and made sure he heard it. Edwards devoured him in overtime, stifling him at the top of the key for a turnover.

Denver’s Jamal Murray felt Ant’s wrath in the last series. The Timberwolves took the first two games of the series in Denver and then the Nuggets responded with consecutive wins at Target Center. As Murray had some words for the Wolves crowd at the end of Game 4, Edwards clapped his hands as if to say, “This is by no means over.”

After falling behind 3-2 in the series, the Wolves beat the Nuggets by 45 in Game 6 and then had the biggest comeback in a Game 7 in NBA history, overcoming a 20-point third-quarter deficit. Edwards helped with two huge 3-pointers, including the dagger.

MASSIVE SEQUENCE. pic.twitter.com/YK0FEQqKr6

— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) May 20, 2024

It does not take much for Hines to see when it’s coming. The two have been together long enough that all the coach needs to see is a little look in Edwards’ eye to know what’s coming.

“And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, they f—-d up. It’s over,’ ” Hines said. “Doesn’t matter who’s in front of him. He’s going to figure out how to lock you the f–k up or score on you every time and annihilate your whole team.”

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This moment in the West finals represents the high watermark for this beleaguered franchise. The Timberwolves are championship contenders, which has pushed Edwards into another stratosphere among the game’s greats.

After the Timberwolves eliminated the reigning champions on Sunday, TNT’s Charles Barkley told Edwards that it had been a long time since he had been in Minnesota.

“Bring ya ass,”Edwards told him.

It has become a rallying cry around the Twin Cities. The state’s tourism bureau procured bringyaass.com so that it relocates to its website. It is plastered on T-shirts, the world-famous music venue First Avenue, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz cleverly hid it in an official document proclaiming Wednesday as “Wolves Back Day.”

The magnetism extends far beyond the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Edwards is the most-viewed player on the NBA’s social and digital platforms since the start of the playoffs, the league said. His 414 million video views at the start of the conference finals were 132 million more than second-place Kyrie Irving. Edwards has added almost 900,000 Instagram followers.

With all of those eyeballs come expectations. Edwards was underwhelming in the opener against Dallas, hitting just 6 of 16 shots. He was 2 of 9 in the second half, expending much of his energy checking Irving on defense.

“We were a step behind, everybody, especially myself,” he said. “Kyrie got a transition layup from when I think we scored, and he just outran me. I was just exhausted.”

Edwards grabbed the bridge of his nose as he spoke. It seemingly pained him to admit he came up short in such a big moment.

“He just wants to win,” Hines said. “He doesn’t really care about scoring and doesn’t care about the accolades. He wants to actually beat the person in front of him. If you say you’re better than me, I’m going to show you why you’re wrong.”

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His Timberwolves are down 0-1 in the best-of-seven series against Dallas. They have lost home-court advantage. He is backed up against the wall again. It is time for Edwards to remind everyone where he comes from.

(Photo illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photo: David Berding / NBAE via Getty Images)

The fire that drives Anthony Edwards' quest to be the next American NBA star (2024)
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