What Made Anthony Edwards a Better NBA Draft Bet over LaMelo Ball

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor INovember 18, 2020

Georgia guard Anthony Edwards, right, and forward Mike Peake celebrate after an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 65-55. (AP Photo/John Amis)
John Amis/Associated Press

When polling draft evaluators across the league, Georgia guard Anthony Edwards emerged as the closest to a consensus best prospect in this 2020 NBA draft class. The Minnesota Timberwolves agreed, taking Edwards No. 1 overall in Wednesday's NBA draft.

And he wanted this, pitching himself in the weeks leading up to the draft as wanting to go No. 1, hoping to be selected first by Minnesota. "I just feel like I'm the best option, the best off-the-court player, the best person," Edwards told Bleacher Report last week.

The Timberwolves come away from the draft with a playmaker who can help push them into next season's playoff picture.  

"It's a tough juxtaposition when you take a guy top-one, two or three, because the expectations are high," says a top team executive. "You're not expected to come in and just be a seventh, eighth guy."

Today's most prolific offenses are predicated on leaving the middle of the floor open for dribble penetration and off-ball cutting.

And unless you roster LeBron James and Anthony Davis, coaches across the playoff bracket were throwing together any five-man lineup that could juice as much skill onto the floor as possible, regardless of those players' positions.

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"I don't think it's the concept of being small. I think it's about having space," says another team exec.

Which brings us back to Edwards, the 6'5", multi-talented freshman guard who just turned 19 on Aug. 5. 

Talk to any scout, and they will point to Edwards' tape against No. 3 Michigan State in the Maui Invitational, in which he scored 33 of his 37 points in the second half. He cashed jumper after jumper off the dribble—including 4-of-10 from deep—many of which were tightly contested. He danced around Spartans defenders, and then the help defenders, with a slippery dribble.

On one defensive sequence, he flew across the baseline, soared above the rim to reject a layup and then steamrolled all the way down the floor to draw two free throws. "There's really no facet of scoring that he doesn't have a handle on," says Edwards' college coach at Georgia, Tom Crean.

Crean believes Edwards has the length and other physical tools to guard 1-3 in the NBA, while even being able to use his 6'10" wingspan to bother hybrid 4s—a necessity as the game has migrated out to the perimeter. Crunch-time playoff possessions often boil down to high-screen action, where teams' best players hunt for opponents they believe can't guard them.

"When you switch, you take a lot of actions away and it just comes down to one guy beating the other," says another top executive. The ability to guard across multiple positions and switch the bevy of picks has grown ever more important.

Marco Garcia/Associated Press

Crean's staff emphasizes recruiting and then training players with nimble feet. Georgia's basketball practices, strength training routines and physical rehab processes all place particular importance on improving players' ankle stability, mobility, foot strength and hand speed.

"It gives him great balance defensively," Crean says of Edwards. "The last two guys I've coached that had that level of force in their feet were bigger guys: OG Anunoby and Nic Claxton. But [Victor] Oladipo has that, Dwyane Wade has that, Wesley Matthews has that. They not only have great ankle stability, but strong feet. They don't hop around. It's such a huge thing."

There was much speculation about whether Timberwolves brass were leaning in favor of LaMelo Ball. At 6'7", the point guard pulls up from 30 feet with regularity and slings passes that would make the Harlem Globetrotters blush. At his idealized peak, Ball projects as a taller, longer version of Stephen Curry. That kind of player would terrorize opposing defenses in the stretched-out offenses of the modern NBA.

Scouts questioned both Edwards' and Ball's basketball IQ. For his reputation as a flamethrower, Ball shot just 25 percent from deep for The Hawks in Australia's National Basketball League, turning the ball over 2.5 times per game.

Scouts have always questioned Ball's shot selection. For all of his dazzling numbers in the box score, Ball's team was just 5-23 on the season and only 3-9 in the 12 games he played. There are legitimate questions as to whether he can succeed in a winning, team environment.

Edwards himself connected on only 29.4 percent of his three-point tries. Some talent evaluators have criticized him for having tunnel vision, failing to spy open teammates while settling instead for a tough jumper. He's been criticized for being too eager to settle for step-back jumpers, rather than use his athleticism to explode toward the rim.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Neither prospect has shown great engagement when guarding off the ball. Both have the tendency to stand and watch the action unfold. But while Ball relies on his size to bother opponents, Edwards has compiled some tape to suggest he can guard dynamic perimeter players when he is engaged.

Late in Georgia's Feb. 8 overtime battle with Alabama, Edwards switched onto Crimson Tide point guard Kira Lewis Jr., a fellow lottery-level talent. As one team executive noted, Edwards hounded Lewis with the game on the line. He shuffled his feet to force the speedy Lewis—whom many scouts have deemed the fastest player in this draft class—to change direction, diverting him away from the rim and forcing Alabama's ball-handler into contested shots and tough passes.

Crean believes Edwards could have already been a defensive asset for coaches in the Orlando bubble.

"I think he'd have been able to hold his own defensively, because he would have known what's at stake," Crean says. "When young players don't have that consistent level of concentration and focus yet, they do know how to win. They know how to be competitive and bear down when it's winning time. Anthony Edwards has a good feel for when it's winning time."

While he only connected on 28.6 percent of his jumpers off the dribble, per Synergy Sports, talent evaluators across the league are encouraged by the fluidity of his mechanics. Throughout this elongated predraft process, Edwards has fine-tuned that stroke.

"Just getting a lot of repetition in, keeping my form the same on every shot," he says. Minnesota, Golden State and Charlotte officials all provided positive feedback on his jumper following his workouts, league sources say.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Ball clearly poses as the great playmaker. He dropped 6.8 assists per game compared to Edwards' 2.8. But scouts were nonetheless impressed by Edwards' passing at Georgia, especially his ability to find teammates on the move with his weaker left hand.

While not as towering as Ball, Edwards is big enough to see over the top of defenses. "I think he's going to surprise people with his vision," Crean says. "He's just always been in an environment where he's been asked to score."

Scouts are quick to value Edwards' athletic profile over Ball's, whose foot speed has always left scouts wanting more.

Edwards was a one-man wrecking ball in transition at Georgia. "He can absolutely dunk on people," says one scout. "And he should honestly drop the hammer more often." His body is already rippling with muscle, and Edwards will only stack more weight onto his solid frame. 

He's taken up boxing during the pandemic as another way to mix up his conditioning. After first seeing Damian Lillard put on gloves on Instagram, Edwards now spars regularly with a trainer. 

He's added muscle mass and even seen his improved fitness catapult his vertical upward a few inches, to 41.5 inches. "I feel like I'm jumping a lot higher now," Edwards says.

This has been far from a normal draft process, especially with a class that, for years, has been considered to lack bona fide star talent at the top. Amid the uncertainty and the changing landscape throughout this pandemic, one thing has remained constant: Anthony Edwards is the best prospect in the 2020 NBA draft, the surest bet of an All-Star, the youngster with the clearest path toward averaging 25 points per game and spearheading an offensive attack.

"I wouldn't want to have to answer for not taking him a couple years down the road," Crean says.