He’s the best player on a team tied for 12th in a 14-team league. He’s also the consensus choice to go No. 1 in the June NBA draft. Our question, then: Is Anthony Edwards overrated?
Short answer: no. Longer answer follows.
A gentle reminder: The NBA doesn’t care what a player’s college team does. We note again that the No. 1 picks in 2016 and 2017 — Ben Simmons of LSU and Markelle Fultz of Washington — didn’t grace the NCAA tournament. (Fultz’s Huskies went 9-22, if you can believe that.) The No. 1 pick in 2018, the massive DeAndre Ayton of Arizona, played on a team that lost its first NCAA game by 21 points to Buffalo.
In this century, here’s the complete list of No. 1 picks who played in that year’s Final Four: Greg Oden in 2007, Anthony Davis in 2012, Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015. All big men.
Edwards is a guard. At his listed 6-foot-5, he’d be the second-shortest No. 1 (after Fultz) since Kyrie Irving in 2011. We note the obvious: Edwards wouldn’t be the presumptive top pick were Zion Williamson in his class, but Zion was the best collegiate player in a generation. We also note that, seeing as how the NBA gets smaller every year, there’s a higher priority on perimeter players in 2020 than there was way back in … oh, 2018.
The first two draftees two years ago were Ayton and Marvin Bagley, both big men. Neither has disappointed — Ayton averages 19 points for the Suns, Bagley 14.2 for the Kings — but if the teams were asked to re-draft today, there’s a chance they’d have taken Luka Doncic No. 1 and Trae Young No. 2. Doncic is 20, Young 21; both are newly minted All-Stars.
We can’t point to one team and say, “Those guys changed pro basketball,” but we’d start with the Suns of Mike D’Antoni/Steve Nash and continue with the title-winning Warriors and move to the Rockets. Using reality, which tells us there are more good little men available than good big men, and analytics, which hold that the only shots worth taking are layups and 3-pointers, the NBA has morphed into something that scarcely resembles the basketball with which we were once familiar.
In olden days, you drafted a center. The Bucks landed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor) in 1969 after an expansion season that saw them win 27 games. Their win totals over the next five years: 56, 66, 63, 60 and 59. If you didn’t have a big-time big man, you didn’t win championships. From 1959 through 1977, every NBA title save one was taken by a team with either Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens or Bill Walton — all of whom were NBA MVPs.
That, however, was then — before Nash won consecutive MVPs; before the Splash Brothers took Golden State to five consecutive NBA finals; before Houston decided to dump Clint Capela, a perfectly serviceable big man, on the Atlanta Hawks because Daryl Morey and D’Antoni determined he was superfluous to requirements, size no longer among them. In such an era, would you rather have Edwards, who can play anywhere, than James Wiseman, the 7-foot-1 center who took and missed his only 3-pointer over three games at Memphis? Yep.
When NBA scouts — 31 were on hand for Georgia’s home game against Kentucky, more than 20 when the Bulldogs met Georgia Tech and Auburn — come to see Edwards, they’re not watching the scoreboard. They’re watching him. They see a player with an ideal NBA body — 6-5, 225 pounds — who can run and jump and who’s fundamentally sound. He can dribble in traffic. He can get where he needs to go. He can make a difficult pass. He can defend on the perimeter. He can shoot from distance without strain.
There are times when you watch Georgia, which is 14-13, and you think Edwards is being too deferential. Stats, as stats often do, tell a different tale. Per KenPom, his usage rate — a measure of possessions ending with a shot, a free throw or a turnover — is the 66th-highest among collegians. His shot percentage — possessions ending with a shot — is the 32nd-highest. That, as they say in show biz, is a star turn, which is OK. He’s the best among Bulldogs by miles. As coach Tom Crean said, archly: “It doesn’t behoove us not to have him on the floor.”
If there has been disappointment with Edwards, it’s of the understandable kind. He has settled too often for a 3-pointer, and he has made only 30.5 percent of his trey tries. In SEC play, he has taken 118 3s (making 29.7 percent) against 103 2s (making 63.1 percent).
If you’re an SEC opponent, you want Ant Man taking 22-footers. (That’s the difference between the pre-conference schedule and league play: When the games start to count, the other team game plans against you.) His capacity to get to the basket is frightening — because then he’s not just scoring; he’s drawing a foul, too. Sometimes, though, he dribbles into trouble. Over 27 games, he has 73 turnovers against 77 assists. That’s a function of youth and newness. He’s 18. He should be a high school senior. He hasn’t played college basketball before.
The NBA can live with a substandard 3-point percentage and a tendency to overdribble. Pretty soon, Edwards won’t be going to classes. He’ll have a job at which he can work 24-7 — or at least 8-7 — to improve himself. The bigger talents always shoot better as pros than collegians, and the instant double-teams Edwards faces when he starts to drive against Kentucky won’t be so instant in the NBA. Even bad pro teams have other good players; Georgia isn’t quite a one-man gang, but it’s close.
NBAdraft.net and ESPN have Edwards going No. 1 in their latest mocks. That’s an indication that scouts have seen what they wanted to see. (Wiseman isn’t playing, having dropped out of Memphis; LaMelo Ball, thanks to his famous dad, was playing for the Illawarra Hawks in Australia before he quit.) That Edwards hasn’t lifted Georgia to great heights marks a missed opportunity for the program, but being part of a disappointing team hasn’t led anyone to stamp him as damaged goods.
He has, in the main, lived up to the hype. He’s a tremendous talent who’s also skilled. According to Crean, he “has a good heart” and “is a very willing learner.” If he doesn’t go No. 1 overall, he won’t be far behind. He should be a fine pro. Maybe not a Zion or a Luka or a Trae, but pretty darn good.
Oh, and one thing more: Listed No. 3 in ESPN’s mock is Isaac Okoro, the Auburn freshman from McEachern. He’s a small forward. Two Georgians in the top three. Sounds about right.
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