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Anthony Edwards must save the Timberwolves' season, but he doesn't have much time

At every step of his journey — from playing pickup against his big brothers in Atlanta to the AAU circuit to the University of Georgia and, eventually, to the NBAAnthony Edwards has always been a quick study.

“That’s the crazy thing about it,” Edwards recently explained to Tom Kludt of Vanity Fair. “Like, it might take me a week [to pick something up]. After a week, I got it. I figured it out. Over with.”

On March 4, Karl-Anthony Towns played 21 minutes during a victory over the dismal Trail Blazers — a reduced minutes load that looks ominous in hindsight, but stemmed largely from Towns picking up his third foul just 14 seconds into the second quarter. That win over Portland marked the last time that Towns will see action for Minnesota for a while, after last Thursday’s grim news that the All-Star big man had suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee, requiring surgery that will put him on the shelf for at least a month with a hoped-for return “early in the Western Conference playoffs.”

Tuesday, then, marks a full week since the Wolves lost Towns — their second-leading scorer and rebounder, the rare 7-footer to splash more than 40% of his 3-pointers and a significantly improved defender whose adjustment to playing power forward played a key role in Minnesota becoming the NBA’s best defense. And heading into a massive Tuesday tilt against the Clippers, who are now just two games behind the Wolves in the standings and need a win to knot the season series between them at two games apiece … well, the Wolves could really use Ant being right about that whole “I only need a week to figure stuff out” thing. Because it’s his time now — perhaps the best season in franchise history resting on the cape tied around his shoulders.

For a second there, it didn’t even look like it’d take a week. After twisting his left ankle early in Minnesota’s first outing without Towns, Edwards not only returned to stabilize the wobbling Wolves; he went nuclear. Ant scored 16 points in the final eight minutes on a House of Highlights-cornucopia of double-tough moves, before sealing a 113-111 win over the Pacers with one of the most explosive, athletic and "Holy s***, did you just see that?" chase-down blocks you’re ever going to see:

"I hit my head, I think, on the rim. It's hurting real bad," Edwards said during a walk-off interview that, I think it’s fair to say, most of us might’ve been unable to give if we’d just smacked our head on the rim and nearly fallen to our death. "I saw [Pacers swingman Aaron Nesmith] with the lane, I knew he was going for a layup, and I was just like, 'I'm finna go get this.' I ain't ever jumped that high in my life."

The scene offered a fairly neat encapsulation of what makes Edwards one of the sport’s most compelling figures, a true superstar in the making. With his team reeling in the aftermath of some brutal news and desperately needing an overwhelming performance, he just … decided to provide one, scoring 29 of his season-high-tying 44 points in the second half. After making the potentially grievous error of missing a free throw that would’ve given Minnesota a three-point lead, he just … decided to correct it, drawing a bead on Nesmith at half-court, launching himself into orbit and saving the day. And then, with the W secured, he had a genial laugh about it all.

There it was, all on display: the gorgeous game and ravenous competitive streak; the infectious irreverence that makes you celebrate his affinity for bank shots and consider investing in digital security solutions and acid orange lows; what the great Britt Robson of MinnPost called a “trampoline in his hamstrings [and a] glint in his grin.”

It was enough to make you believe the Wolves can stay afloat while KAT recovers. After all, Minnesota has outscored opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions this season when Edwards and paint-patrolling center Rudy Gobert play together without Towns, according to Cleaning the Glass.

(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports illustration)

The recipe seems clear. Keep clamping down and hunt opportunities to run. (While the Wolves are 29th in the NBA in transition frequency, they are tops in transition efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass, and have pushed the pace more often and more effectively with Towns off the floor — a pathway to leveraging the athleticism of Edwards and Jaden McDaniels.) Give more minutes to Naz Reid, a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate who can offer a facsimile of Towns’ floor-spacing, off-the-bounce attacking and complementary playmaking; Reid scored 59 points in the Wolves’ two games over the weekend, shooting 54% from the floor and 57% from deep.

And, most importantly, let Edwards cook. Here’s where we note that Ant’s averaging 39.1 points and 6.8 assists per 100 possessions in nearly 750 minutes without Towns this season, according to PBP Stats — a level at which only a couple dozen guys have ever produced for a full season. Season to taste, and wake me up in the playoffs.

“We know that’s how he’s wired,” Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch told reporters after Edwards’ superstar closing act against Indiana. “He likes that. He wants that. He’s not afraid of that.”

The win over the Pacers felt like a declarative statement, punctuated by maybe the most emphatic exclamation point of this season. The Wolves’ next two games, though — losses to the Cavaliers, highlighted by Rudy Gobert loudly insinuating the NBA’s officials are on the take (but hey, what else is new?), and the Lakers, highlighted by Anthony Davis firmly establishing interior dominance against a Wolves team missing Towns and Gobert — introduced some question marks.

It hasn’t exactly been shocking to see the Wolves struggle to get buckets since Towns went down. Minnesota has scored eight fewer points per 100 possessions without him this season, turning in an offensive rating in those minutes (110.8) that would slot in just below the 11-win Pistons (111.1) and 14-win Spurs (111.0) over the course of the full season. The Wolves have shot worse from every part of the floor when KAT’s off it, owing partly to the absence of his elite individual shot-making — 62% at the rim, 48% from midrange, 43% from 3-point range, 87% from the foul line — and partly to the loss of the salutary effects of him drawing defensive attention to create more, and cleaner, looks for his teammates.

Combine that with the challenges of facing two tough defenses — a Cavs team that’s been stingier than everybody but Minnesota since mid-December, and a Lakers team getting Defensive Player of the Year-caliber threat suppression from AD — and some scuffling was predictable. Factor in the additional absences the Wolves have had to deal with — backup point guard Monte Morris (left hamstring) missing the last two games, Gobert (right hamstring) and reserve forward Kyle Anderson (right shoulder) both missing the Lakers game — and the woes were essentially a foregone conclusion.

Even so: It feels notable that the Wolves’ last two games rank among their least efficient offensive performances of the season, and that even their lone post-KAT win (against a bottom-five Pacers defense) was below-average on that end. In the hour of the Wolves’ greatest need, Edwards has responded with maximalism — scaling up his shot creation to try to fill the gap himself. The early results, though, suggest there might be diminishing returns to that approach.

Entering last Thursday, Edwards was averaging 69.7 total touches per game (34th in the NBA), 36.9 frontcourt touches per game (20th) and five minutes of possession per game (26th), finishing 32.4% of Minnesota’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover committed. That’s a hefty workload — commensurate with his status as one of the league’s up-and-coming offensive weapons, and one of just nine players averaging more than 25 points, five rebounds and five assists per game on above-average true shooting. (The rest of the list reads like an All-NBA ballot: Nikola Jokić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell and Kyrie Irving.)

Beginning last Thursday, though — when Edwards tied Towns’ franchise record for field-goal attempts — that workload has skyrocketed. In the three games since Towns’ exit, Ant has averaged 85 total touches and 53.7 frontcourt touches per game (more than anyone but hub centers Jokić, Nikola Vucevic and Domantas Sabonis), spending nearly a half-minute more per game on the ball, with his usage rate ballooning to 35.9% — right on par with Dončić’s league-leading full-season mark.

Edwards has cranked up his north-south attacking in Towns’ absence, averaging 20 drives to the basket per game — nearly six more than before KAT’s injury — and taking 41% of his shots at the rim, which would be a career high. But without Towns pulling a defender out of the paint, Edwards is more frequently having to weave through multiple layers of traffic as he drives into heavily congested lanes — one reason why his field-goal percentage on those drives has dropped by nearly 10 percentage points in the past three games:

Maybe some of those pedal-to-the-metal attacks would prove more fruitful if the officials elected to reward Edwards’ aggression with more trips to the free-throw line. (Ant certainly thinks he should be getting more of that benefit of the doubt.) But maybe the next step in Edwards’ evolution as a superstar will come not by proving he’s strong enough to overpower loaded-up coverages, but by realizing he doesn’t always have to:

Anthony Edwards
Anthony Edwards
Anthony Edwards
Anthony Edwards
Anthony Edwards
Anthony Edwards

Edwards has taken great strides as a playmaker since entering the NBA, posting a career-high assist rate this season while curbing his turnover percentage. But as is often the case with young players trained to shoot first and find teammates later — Ant won’t turn 23 until August — he’s still working on mapping the floor, making the right reads and getting off the ball. Turning a few of these Leeroy Jenkins launches into a-beat-early skip passes would give teammates more chances to participate in their own salvation — a catch-and-shoot 3 for Mike Conley, a closeout-beating floater for recent addition TJ Warren, a baseline drive for McDaniels — and potentially inject more flow into a fits-and-starts Minnesota offense.

“One thing we preach to [Edwards] a lot is, the essence of offense in the league is not how much you score, but when they put two on you and you create an advantage,” Finch told Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer last season. “No matter how they do it — pick-and-roll trap, early gap help, all that stuff — that comes from the gravity he creates, just trying to continue to find the right play and trusting his teammates to score. Keep trusting the right pass.”

You’d understand why Edwards might have a tough time trusting right now. Conley has scored just 23 points on 26 field-goal attempts across three games since Towns’ injury, perhaps owing to the sort of fatigue that has him admitting that he’s “completely running in the mud.” For all his virtues as a versatile high-IQ playmaker, Anderson is scoring less and shooting less efficiently than he has in years; Reid made more 3s this weekend than “SloMo” has all season.

While McDaniels — whom Finch has singled out as a barometer for the health of the Wolves’ attack, noting that he’s most involved when their overall level of ball and body movement is highest — has taken 35 shots in the last three games, he’s also missed 21 of them. And the more he misses, the more emboldened opponents will be to do stuff like cross-matching to stash their centers on him before playing off him — further cramping a half-court offense that tends toward gridlock.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 07: Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves celebrates after beating the Indiana Pacers 113-111 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on March 07, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Anthony Edwards has the strength to overpower opponents, but he must realize he doesn't always have to take that approach. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) (Dylan Buell via Getty Images)

If Edwards can’t quite get there — if one of the most confident beings in creation keeps feeling like calling his own number is the best policy — then he and the Wolves will have to do things the hard way. My former colleague Kelly Dwyer invoked the 2001 Sixers: Allen Iverson, flanked by defenders and rebounders, gobbling up possessions and alchemizing them into a trip to the NBA Finals. But that path required Iverson to average 46 minutes per game; he shot 39% from the floor and had to go seven in the conference semis and conference finals just to make the championship round.

Running that game plan against this West feels like drawing dead. Especially if you’re fighting from underneath.

Both the Thunder and Nuggets nudged ahead of the Wolves in the congested race atop the West over the weekend. After spending so much of the season leading that race, several postseason projection systems — including Inpredictable, Playoff Status, Dunks and Threes and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index — now see the Wolves as most likely to finish third in the West. That would put them in line to face whoever makes it out of the slugfest to avoid the play-in tournament, rather than a team that had to fight its way through the extra games to secure the No. 7 or 8 seed.

Sliding down just one seeding line, then, could make a huge difference in the Wolves’ chances of winning the franchise’s first playoff series in 20 years. Dropping down further than that — unlikely, but not impossible, especially if the Clips can capitalize on Towns’ absence — could prove disastrous. An opening-round matchup against one of the Pelicans, Suns, Kings, Mavericks, Lakers or Warriors can be dangerous even under ideal circumstances; without Towns, it becomes exponentially more hazardous.

All of which makes this moment — smack-dab in the middle of a six-game, 12-day road trip, with injuries and fatigue wearing on the Wolves like a weighted vest — so vital.

This has been, by dint of both numbers and vibes, either the best or second-best season in Timberwolves franchise history. A rocky few weeks while Towns recuperates could capsize it. Edwards knows that and wants to play the hero; as he said last week, “I want every responsibility that comes with winning.”

Playing the hero, however, might mean grasping that great responsibility requires more than just great power.

“It’s not just about being able to do it now and again,” Finch told Fischer earlier this season. “It’s about: How can we find that consistency every night? How do you figure out how to manipulate the whole game, and everything that’s going on in it? I think that’s still the learning curve for him.”

Towns’ injury spiked that learning curve again, putting the season in jeopardy; Edwards doesn’t have much time to find a way to right the ship. Good thing he’s a quick study.