In an odd NBA draft, Anthony Edwards of UGA goes No. 1

Georgia guard Anthony Edwards drives past Florida forward Keyontae Johnson Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Athens. One of his final games with the Bulldogs. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia guard Anthony Edwards drives past Florida forward Keyontae Johnson Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Athens. One of his final games with the Bulldogs. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

In this strangest of all years, the strangest of all NBA drafts finally arrived. It was held eight months and six days after the last college basketball game of 2020 was played, and that last game — Creighton vs. St. John’s in the Big East quarterfinals — ended at halftime. (St. John’s led 38-35.) This draft was staged in November, as opposed to June, and it came in a week slotted between the Masters and Thanksgiving.

Ahead of most NBA drafts, we have a working knowledge of the players apt to go first. (There have been exceptions. The legendary Andrea Bargnani was No. 1 in 2006.) Last year’s overall No. 1 was Zion Williamson, world-famous wrecker of shoes. This year’s No. 1 wasn’t exactly a no-name — in these parts, Anthony Edwards of Georgia by way of Holy Spirit Prep was a pretty big deal — but Ant Man, as he’s known, remains a bit of a riddle even to those who’ve seen him.

Now he’s an employee of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who’ve made the playoffs once since 2004. They’re sort of the NBA equivalent of UGA, where Edwards arrived as the nation’s No. 1 recruit but didn’t quite have the desired effect. His one season in Athens wasn’t a dud — he averaged 19.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists — but it wasn’t a success, either.

The Bulldogs went 16-16. They finished 13th in a 14-team conference. In a victory over Ole Miss in Round 1 of the SEC tournament on March 11, the night the sports world began to shut down, Edwards matched his season low with six points. Had there been no pandemic and had Georgia failed to win a non-aborted SEC tournament, he’d have exited as the third overall No. 1 of the past five years, joining Ben Simmons of LSU and Markelle Fultz of Washington, to have missed the Big Dance as a one-and-done

Georgia coach Tom Crean hasn’t and won’t say a negative word about Edwards, describing him as “one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever been around.” The other Bulldogs recognized his talent but didn’t seem to begrudge it. On the March day when Edwards announced he’d indeed be leaving after one season, Crean pronounced him “one of the most improved-from-beginning-of-June-to-end-of-season players I’ve been around in all my years of coaching.” (Note: Crean coached Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo.)

Crean also said: “Sometimes it showed up statistically, and sometimes it didn’t.”

Had Edwards come of draft age in 2019, he might not have been among the top five picks. His draft class is among the least imposing ever. As skimpy as Edwards’ body of work is, it dwarfs those of the two players most mentioned as alternative No. 1s. Edwards played 32 college games. James Wiseman, briefly of Memphis, played three. LaMelo Ball has played 30 games over the past three years – eight for Prienai in Lithuania, 10 for the Los Angeles Ballers in a league his dad created and 12 for the Illawarra Hawks in Australia.

ESPN Sports Analytics rated Edwards as this year’s No. 1 prospect. That data, writes Paul Sabin, “also views Edwards as the weakest top prospect in the model’s data set since 2001.” (We around here might label him the Aundray Bruce of basketballers, minus the machete.) Consensus held that this was a good year not to have the No. 1 pick — or, if you were Minnesota, to trade it. The T-Wolves kept it.

Edwards shoots a lot, which isn’t to say he’s a great shooter. He took a slew of 3-pointers last season — of his 505 shots, 48.6 were trey tries — and made but 29.4 percent of them. He settled for jump shots too often; he’s quick enough and strong enough to drive the lane whenever he has the urge. He’s a willing passer. He’s a powerful rebounder. He had moments of defensive excellence. For all that, there were only a few games — and in the case of his most famous Georgia performance, a stunning second half against Michigan State — when we saw the player he’s capable of being.

In an ESPN profile written by Alex Scarborough, Edwards was quoted as saying: “To be honest, I can’t watch basketball.” He said he prefers football because “you can spike the ball. You can dance. You can do all kinds of disrespectful stuff.”

Scarborough asked when Edwards got into basketball. The response: “I’m still not really into it.”

In a subsequent interview two weeks later, Edwards sought to recant. He told Scarborough: “Basketball is my life. I love it, and it’s what I do.” And maybe that’s true. Still, if you’re the team holding the No. 1 pick and you’re set to invest millions in a teenager, the not-really-into-it line surely gave you pause.

Then again, who else should Minnesota have taken? Wiseman, a 7-footer in a time of small ball? Ball, with his chatty daddy as a package deal? The guy who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit just became the NBA’s No. 1 draftee, so this shouldn’t have been a surprise. And now we wait to see if Edwards’ time with the T-Wolves will be more fulfilling than his five months as a Bulldog.

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