Ant Man, we hardly knew ye. Thirty-two collegiate games, half of them losses. A 13th-in-the-SEC finish for his Georgia Bulldogs, exactly where they’d been the season before his ballyhooed arrival. Some big games for the heralded freshman, some not as big, a few where you almost forgot he was on the court. In sum, a mixed bag – and a mixed bag wasn’t what anyone had in mind.
Anthony Edwards was billed as Tom Crean’s breakthrough recruit. Over 32 games, what exactly was broken? Georgia went 16-16, an upgrade over the 11-21 of Crean’s Year 1, but the excitement attached to Edwards receded into the grim reality that he was the only reason to mention Georgia. Go back and watch a late-season telecast – that’s why there’s ESPN Plus – and you’ll hear little about any Bulldog save the one who just made official what we’d known all along: He’s NBA-bound.
Was Edwards a disappointment? As a player, not really. He shot poorly. (His percentages: 29.4 on 3-pointers, 40.2 on everything.) Still, he finished third in SEC scoring, leading the nation’s freshmen by some distance. He showed more than enough to cement his status as the presumptive No. 1 pick whenever the NBA gets around to drafting. Without him, the Bulldogs would have gone 11-21 again. With him, they were intriguing to watch.
Intriguing, yes. Fulfilling, no. Maybe it was too much to ask of a perimeter player to change the dynamics of a program that has won one NCAA tournament game this century. Edwards isn’t a big man, not that there are many big men in college basketball, and he’s not a point guard, meaning he didn’t always have the ball. He had it a lot, though.
In a teleconference Friday, Crean called Edwards “one of the most improved-from-beginning-of-June-to-end-of-season players I’ve been around in all my years of coaching.” Then he said: “Sometimes it showed up statistically, and sometimes it didn’t.”
The season in Athens did Edwards no harm. Now, as he takes his inevitable leave, we ask: What did it do for Georgia?
On one hand, Georgia figures to be known soon as the program that produced the No. 1 pick. That’s a major plus. On the other, it’s also the program that had the No. 1 pick and would have missed the NCAA tournament had one been played. That’s a significant minus. Rival recruiters will lap it up. The next potential one-and-done Crean recruits will have to decide, “Do I want to spend seven college months at a place where March Madness isn’t a given?”
Asked about this, Crean said: “They probably will use it against us, just as they would use anything else against us. Recruiting is a very tough business. If you don’t have a really strong stomach, it’s awfully hard to be successful in it. People are always using different things, but your ability to come back and counter that in other areas is what’s important. I’m not really too concerned about that. It’s all part of the game.”
Earlier, Crean had voiced his boilerplate pitch: “Your dreams can come true at Georgia just as well as anyplace else.” Was Edwards’ dream to finish next-to-last in a league that wouldn’t have sent more than four teams to the Big Dance? (Asked about his college aspirations on the day he announced he’d become a Bulldog, he said: “National championship.”)
Yes, Georgia set a record in home attendance. “There was an intrigue, an excitement,” Crean said. Will that excitement transfer to next season? Will the same folks who showed up at Stegeman Coliseum to watch Ant Man return for Sahvir Wheeler, Rayshaun Hammonds and Toumani Camara?
As we know, Georgia basketball is a tough sell. Crean’s a fine salesman, but he just missed the chance to skip several rungs on the ladder to credibility. Given time, he’s a good-enough coach to make the climb. That said, he could coach many more years before having a talent like Edwards. (Crean coached Dwyane Wade at Marquette and Victor Oladipo at Indiana; Wade was the No. 5 pick in 2003, Oladipo No. 2 a decade later.)
Crean on Edwards: “One of the greatest teammates I’ve ever been around.” The clock, however, was ticking from the moment he declared himself Georgia-bound. Edwards was never going to be a Bulldog long. It didn’t help Crean had no incumbent nucleus, unless you count the wax-and-wane Hammonds. The nucleus was a recruiting class ranked 11th nationally by 247Sports, Edwards being the centerpiece.
Using Ken Pomeroy’s data, this team ranked 313th (of 353) in experience. Said Crean: “Do I want to be that young again? Not preferably.”
From that recruiting class, Edwards is gone. Wheeler and Camara started as freshmen. Mike Peake and Christian Brown became rotational subs. Jaykwon Walton, a top-100 prospect, played in seven games, none after Jan. 18. Rodney Howard has entered his name into the transfer portal.
Next year’s class is ranked 25th, two of the four signees hailing from Eastern Florida, a junior college. The top high schooler is point guard K.D. Johnson of Hargrave Academy. He’s rated the nation’s 87th-best prospect. Assuming Hammonds returns for his senior year, maybe all the above constitutes a nucleus. It might not constitute an NCAA tournament team.
For every program, that’s the aim. Georgia took its biggest talent since Dominique Wilkins and did little with him, though the ’Nique parallel could be instructive. In 2 ½ seasons with him – he broke his leg as a freshman – the Bulldogs didn’t reach the NCAA. (Wilkins’ collegiate career ended with teammate Eric Marbury, known as Sky Dog, dribbling out the clock in an NIT semi against Purdue. Trouble was, Georgia was behind.) The next year, with Wilkins in the NBA, Georgia made the Final Four.
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