Despite UGA’s struggles, Anthony Edwards’ stock remains high

Move over Jumaine Jones because Anthony Edwards is coming through.

Despite all the criticism and microscopic-level scrutiny the freshman known as “Ant Man” has received in this tumultuous season, Edwards mostly has done what was expected of him. Primarily, that is to be the best player on the floor for every game he plays and score the basketball.

As Georgia prepares for what appears another impossibly difficult road challenge at South Carolina on Wednesday night in Columbia (6:30 p.m., SEC Network), Edwards is poised to become the Bulldogs’ second-highest scoring freshman of all time. He’s currently third with 511 points, or just four shy of the aforementioned Jones.

“Really? How many (points) does he have? I didn’t even know that,” coach Tom Crean said before the Bulldogs’ practice Tuesday, and he seemed sincere in his oblivion.

Jones averaged 14.8 points per game on his way to SEC newcomer-of-the-year honors in 1998. He would return to play another year for the Bulldogs before becoming an NBA first-round draft pick in 1999 (No. 27, Hawks).

As has become increasingly clear, Edwards won’t have wait another year to realize his NBA dream. He projects as the No. 1 pick in the most recent mock drafts produced by ESPN and NBA At worst, he’s expected to be snatched up second or third.

Not bad considering Edwards hasn’t lifted Georgia to greatness in his one and only season. That was predicted, perhaps unreasonably, in some corners of the college basketball world.

Whether Edwards is worthy of being the No. 1 pick certainly can be debated. At the same time, the 6-foot-5 guard has neither proved himself to be grossly overrated nor to be unworthy of his stature. Not only has his stock has not been diminished, if the mocks are to be believed, Edwards has increased his value during his brief time at Georgia.

Heading to Columbia, Edwards continues to lead the nation’s freshmen in scoring at 18.9 points per game. Meanwhile, he’s making significant strides in other areas of his game, namely defense and rebounding. He leads the Bulldogs in steals (35) and blocked shots (18) and is second in rebounds (144, or 5.3 per game).

Such in-game improvements – not draft status -- are all Crean was interested in seeing from Edwards.

“I’ll tell you what – and this is way different than what I used to be – but I don’t really even know what is said (regarding Edwards’ pro stock),” Crean said. “I’m serious. I read so little on it. I’m trying to coach him every day just like every one of those other guys.

“We said this summer: When you come in with the expectation level, when you come in with the ranking he has, there is nowhere to go but down from that. It wasn’t like he was going up.”

Probably the biggest surprise is Edwards and his ballyhooed freshman classmates haven’t been able to lift Georgia higher. The Bulldogs (14-13, 4-10 SEC) are coming off their first back-to-back wins in SEC play this season -- they lost eight of nine before that -- and it took a miraculous buzzer-beating shot and some poor officiating against the worst team in the league for it to happen.

Senior Tyree Crump made a running, 30-foot 3-pointer as time expired as Georgia wiped out a five-point deficit in the final 22 seconds to beat Vanderbilt 80-78 in Nashville. The comeback was facilitated by an end-line turnover call on the Commodores that video indicates was wrong. The play was not reviewed.

Edwards – who had two thunderous, one-handed dunks in that game – led the Bulldogs with 18 points.

Edwards also led the Bulldogs in their last meeting against South Carolina. But that didn’t go so well for the star freshman or his team. He finished with 16 points, but he scored only four in the first half, all on free throws, and missed nine of his 13 shots, including all seven from 3-point range.

Not coincidentally, Georgia fell behind by 22 points in the first half and was outscored 25-4 on points off turnovers in a humiliating 75-59 loss at home.

But that was four games ago. The Bulldogs are eager for a do-over.

“Definitely excited to get back on the court against South Carolina -- at least I know I am -- because we have to play a lot better than what we did,” Crean said. “I know it will be a tough environment, a tough atmosphere. … It's always tough when you play South Carolina, but it’s what we want to go get measured against right now, because we're improving.”

Georgia will encounter a game bunch of Gamecocks (16-11, 8-6) with a lot for which to play. They’re currently in a three-team tie for fifth in the league, four games behind Kentucky (12-2) with four games to play. They should be in position to win all four.

But as has been the case all season, Georgia will have the best player on the floor Wednesday night at Colonial Life Arena. As Edwards has demonstrated at various times this season, he is capable of completely taking over a game. During non-conference play, he almost single-handedly lifted the Bulldogs to victory with 37 points against Michigan State. He’s had only one other 30-point game in SEC play, with 32 on the road against Florida.

At this point, Edwards seems a shoo-in for SEC freshman of the year. More than likely, he’ll become Georgia’s first Freshman All-American since Carlos Strong in 1993. Vern Fleming (1981) and Litterial Green (1989) are the only other Bulldogs to earn such a distinction.

Still 135 points behind Jacky Dorsey (1975), Edwards likely won’t leave as Georgia’s greatest scoring freshman scorer ever. But there stands a good chance he could become the Bulldogs’ earliest NBA draft pick ever. That distinction belongs to the one still known as the “Human Highlight Film,” Dominique Wilkins, who was picked third in 1982.

Beating that mark was never a goal, Crean insisted.

“We were never going to base his season or career on (his NBA draft stock),” Crean said of Edwards. “We were going to base it on how much better he could get. And he’s gotten a lot better. There’s a lot for him to get better at, too. We have a very short window in his life to help him do that.”

About two weeks, to be exact -- unless something crazy happens. And that happens sometimes.