A red-letter day: Anthony Edwards says he’s UGA-bound

Anthony Edwards hold his 4-month-old nephew Jace as he announces his intention to play for Georgia.

Anthony Edwards hold his 4-month-old nephew Jace as he announces his intention to play for Georgia.

What hadn't happened in a long time – for so long that you doubted it would happen again – happened Monday morning in a gymnasium off Northside Drive. The best high school basketball player in Georgia told the world, "I'm going to Georgia."

And wait. If you're a Bulldog, it gets better. Anthony Edwards, known as Ant-Man, isn't just the top-ranked player in this state. He's rated No. 1 from sea to shining sea. He probably won't be in Athens long – NBAdraft.net projects him as the NBA's No. 1 overall pick come 2020 – but even if he's on campus for only six months, those six months will change the dynamics of a program long an abject afterthought.

Tom Crean is his in first season as Georgia’s coach, and it has gone worse than expected. His Bulldogs are 10-13. They lost to Georgia State by 24 points. They’re 1-9 in SEC play, their victory coming against Vanderbilt, which is 0-10. They’re among the worst Power 5 teams in the land. They won’t be next year. They’ll be the team with Ant-Man. They’ll be a team with juice, a program with traction. They’ll be a place that wants the best players available, a place that has no issue if those players hail from Atlanta’s AAU system.

“This changes everything,” said Winfred Jordan, who coached Edwards for the AAU Atlanta Xpress. “This puts Georgia (meaning the Bulldogs) on the map again.”

Said D.A. Layne, the Georgia alum who played at Wheeler High: “This is the game-changer. Even if it’s only for a year, the floodgates will open after this.”

Not to rehash the Mark Fox era, but the former Georgia coach operated as if the Atlanta AAU was beneath him. Not coincidentally, the state’s flagship school had little luck signing the state’s top prospects. Asked how the relationship with Fox had been, Jordan balled up his fists and pressed them together. “Like that,” he said.

Crean has been around long enough to grasp that the great lure of the Georgia job wasn’t – no offense to the Classic City – Athens or UGA itself. It was the proximity to one of the nation’s most fertile crescents of college talent. The reason his first team is awful is that Fox, on the job for nine years, left little of note. Anthony Edwards, a 6-foot-4 guard, is noteworthy.

Said Jordan: “He might be the best player we’ve ever had in Georgia.”

Someone mentioned Dwight Howard and Kwame Brown, No. 1 picks in their respective drafts: They played in Georgia. So did Bill Spivey and Walt Frazier and Dale Ellis and James Banks (the UGA one, not the current Tech one) and Kenny Walker and Terry Fair and Jeff Malone and Cedric Henderson and Pervis Ellison and Brian Oliver and Eric Manuel and Jeff Sheppard and Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Josh Smith and Lou Williams and Javaris Crittenton and Al-Farouq Aminu and Derrick Favors and Jaylen Brown. Wendell Carter of Pace Academy and Collin Sexton of Pebblebrook were lottery picks last June. Ashton Hagans of Newton High is the starting point guard for Kentucky, the nation’s No. 5 team.

Said Jordan, something of an historian on Peach State basketball: “Anthony’s definitely in the top five.”

Edwards can shoot it and handle it. He’s playing at a smallish private school, as opposed to a Wheeler or a Norcross -- and he didn’t become part of the 2019 recruiting class until November, when he reclassified from junior to senior -- but he has dominated his competition the way you’d expect. “He visited Kentucky and Duke and Kansas,” Jordan said. “He could have gone to a blueblood, but he needed this (his year in Athens) as development.”

Did the perception – heck, the longstanding reality – that Georgia isn’t among the upper crust give Edwards pause? “I want to be my own guy,” he said.

Assuming he sticks to his commitment – he can’t sign a letter-of-intent until April – Edwards will be more than that. He’ll be a trailblazer. He’ll be the guy who bucked longstanding reality to play the much-lesser sport at UGA, and his presence alone will make Georgia basketball relevant in a way it hasn’t been since Jim Harrick. (Who, it should be said, had his own issues.) The last NCAA tournament game the Bulldogs won was March 2002, when Edwards was nearing his first birthday.

“He’s good enough he’d leave his mark anywhere he goes,” Holy Spirit coach Tysor Anderson said. “He’s good enough to leave his mark on the sport.”

Just so you know, Anderson is the grandson of Lefty Driesell, the newly minted Hall of Famer who took Georgia State to the Big Dance and brought Mike Maloy to Davidson and Tom McMillen and Len Elmore and Len Bias to Maryland. (Nearly Moses Malone, too.) Anderson isn’t some wild-eyed come-lately who’s overly enthralled by the best player he has coached. He sees the whole floor, as it were, and what he’s saying is no more than most every scout and recruiting analyst has already said: Ant-Man – Edwards himself prefers “Ant,” FYI – is the real deal.

Maybe you have a problem with Georgia taking a player who won’t be in town long. If you do, you might as well go follow Mark Fox’s next team. Crean has made it clear he’s in the market for top-end talent, and if that top-end talent goes the one-and-done route ... well, that’s one season that will have folks talking about Georgia basketball, about which nobody spoken at all for 15 years. If Edwards indeed hits it big both as a collegian and in the draft, he’ll stand as a beacon to the big-timers from this state coming after him.

“This is HUGE for Georgia,” said Anderson, a Georgia Tech alumnus. (He played as a walk-on under Paul Hewitt.) And then: “One of the reasons Anthony hit it off with coach Crean is because he coached two of his favorite players” – meaning Dwyane Wade, who led Crean-coached Marquette to the 2003 Final Four, and Victor Oladipo, who helped Crean’s Indiana Hoosiers reach the Sweet 16 in 2012 and 2013.

That’s the way it works. If players think you can get them to the NBA, they’ll come play for you, and big-timers attract more big-timers, and enough big-timers will make you a serial winner. (There’s the John Calipari Method writ small.) For Tom Crean, this is just a start, but it’s the best start possible.

Crean’s latest signature recruit, it must be said, is dreaming bigger than the Sweet 16 or even the Final Four. Asked for a prediction on Georgia basketball next season, Edwards said: “National championship.”

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