The making of an NBA All-Star: Anthony Edwards’ step-by-step path to Salt Lake City

Becoming an All-Star is about more than putting numbers on a stat sheet.

From his very first days as a Minnesota Timberwolf, Anthony Edwards has piled up counting stats, particularly as a scorer, in a way that few players his age have. What separates a walking highlight reel from an All-Star is the way that player takes hold of a franchise, how he understands the way teammates look to him to lead the way.

It has been a process this season for Edwards, 21, to arrive at the point he is now, as not just a star player who can score, defend and take over a game, but a leader who can take over a locker room. He has always been one of the more popular players in that setting due to his child-like enthusiasm and disarming charisma. But he came into his third season determined to join the league’s elite in Salt Lake City for the All-Star game. Even though he did so as an injury replacement after being passed over by the fans as a starter and the coaches as a reserve, the Timberwolves understand that the honor marked the next step in his ascension.

“He wanted that All-Star so bad and he worked so hard for it and played so well. After a little bit of a slow start, he really came on strong,” guard Austin Rivers said before the players departed for a week-long break. “For him to get it … I think he can take a deep breath and sit back and be proud of himself these next couple of days.”

When Edwards stepped onto the court on Sunday in the first quarter for Team LeBron, it marked an arrival that was preceded by his gradual progression from promising youngster to bona-fide star. If you have been watching closely all season, you have seen him get there one step at a time.

Oct. 24: Spurs 115, Timberwolves 106

On the first back-to-back of the season for the Timberwolves, Edwards delivered a real clunker: nine points on 3-for-15 shooting, including 1-for-8 from 3-point range in an ugly loss to a team headed to the lottery this season.

Afterward, Edwards owned it. He said Wolves player development coach Chris Hines told him that he had a reputation around the league for not showing up on the second night of a back-to-back.

“It’s just normal for me to be bad on back-to-backs throughout my three years I’ve been in the league,” Edwards said. “Every time I have a back-to-back, I do bad in the second game. I gotta figure out whatever that strategy is. I’ve gotta get that together.”

The self-awareness is a hallmark of Edwards’ game. When he is asked about his shortcomings, he doesn’t run from it. He acknowledges it and usually responds with a self-assured, “I’ll figure it out.”

He appears to have figured this one out. Since that stinker against San Antonio, he has averaged 27.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists while making 48.3 percent of his field goals and 43.1 percent of his 3s in the nine games he’s played on the second night of a back-to-back. Most importantly, the Wolves are 6-3 in those games.

Nov. 30: Timberwolves 109, Grizzlies 101

The Timberwolves had lost three straight games heading into Target Center against one of the top teams in the West. Even worse, they had just lost franchise player Karl-Anthony Towns to a calf strain that has kept him out of action through the All-Star break, and likely longer.

The Wolves, also missing Jaden McDaniels, Jordan McLaughlin and Taurean Prince, were badly in need of a breakthrough performance. Edwards came through with 29 points, five assists, five steals and three blocks, showing a sign that he could shoulder the burden the Timberwolves were placing on him. Seventeen of those points came in the fourth quarter to seal the win against the team that knocked the Timberwolves out of the playoffs last season.

Edwards had not really asserted himself before this game, as he was trying to work his way through the early acclimation of Rudy Gobert in a starting lineup that also had Towns and D’Angelo Russell. But in desperate times, Edwards grabbed control.

“I’ve been waiting on that Ant all year,” Kyle Anderson said after the game. “I saw it in the playoffs first-hand, and I’ve been waiting on it. It’s here. I know he’s going to sustain it. I know he’s going to keep it going. We ride behind him.”

Anderson, who joined Minnesota in July after four seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, has joined Rivers in urging Edwards to start to make his voice heard and his presence felt in a way that will get his teammates to follow him. That game against the Grizzlies was the first sign of Edwards figuring out how to do it.

“Ant’s voice is growing more, which is exactly what we want and need right now,” coach Chris Finch said after the game. “He’s learning how to do that. It’s something that we’re really encouraging, trying to help him.”

Anthony Edwards celebrates with D'Angelo Russell

Anthony Edwards celebrates with D’Angelo Russell. (Matt Krohn / USA Today)

Dec. 16: Timberwolves 112, Thunder 110
Dec. 18: Timberwolves 150, Bulls 126

These two games mark the arrival of Playmaker Ant. In Oklahoma City, the Wolves were missing Russell, Gobert, Towns, McLaughlin and Prince, leaving Edwards to essentially go it alone against the feisty Thunder. But rather than try to outscore OKC all by himself, Edwards delivered one of the most mature performances of his career with 19 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.

With Russell out, Edwards shifted into the role of lead ball-handler. Up until then he had struggled at times handling double teams and had been resistant to taking on playmaking duties. But he looked much more comfortable doing so against the Thunder, who threw doubles at him over and over again. Edwards got off the ball quickly, moving it to the open man and creating scoring chances for others. He took only 16 shots, but still found a way to control the game.

“We’ve been trying to preach to Ant, it’s not how much you score, it’s how much you create,” Finch said at the time.

In the next game, Edwards’ scoring and passing both erupted. He lit up the Bulls with 37 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in a romp that showed him how to get his own scoring while still setting up his teammates. The two games would signal a new structure in the Timberwolves offense, with Edwards on the trigger.

“A while back, I’m in the corner, I come off, I’m just thinking, like, shoot,” Edwards said of his previous role off the ball. “But now I’m on the ball every time, so I get to see everything. So it’s pretty dope. It’s actually fun, like I’m having the most fun I ever had playing basketball.”

Dec. 30: Bucks 123, Timberwolves 114

The Timberwolves were down nine points with just over four minutes to go in Milwaukee when Edwards drove to the basket and was fouled by Brook Lopez. He landed hard on his hip and lay on the court for several minutes as the team gathered around him.

After an extended break, he walked back down the court and hit both of his free throws. He would score eight points down the stretch after the nasty fall and did not miss a game because of the injury. In a league when players are often held out as a precaution in an attempt to avoid more serious injuries, Edwards plowed right through the pain.

That level of toughness has endeared him even further to his teammates, who see the punishment he takes on a nightly basis as he steamrolls to the rim. Edwards would cycle in and out of games over the next week as he battled the soreness in his hip and tailbone, but he showed up every night he played trying to help his team win.

The Wolves went 4-1 in the first five games after the injury, including a win in Houston in which Edwards decided to suit up after initially saying he needed a night off.

“If there’s anything I could change about the league to make it better, probably just all the guys sitting and resting,” Edwards said at All-Star weekend. “That’s the one thing I don’t like. Just play, man. If you’re 80 percent, 70, you gotta play. I don’t like all the sitting and missing games.

“These people might have enough money to come to one game, know what I’m saying? That might be the game they come to and you sitting out. I take pride in trying to play every game. There might be one fan who has never seen me play and I’m trying to play.”

Jan. 16: Jazz 126, Timberwolves 125

The Timberwolves had the ball and a chance to win in the closing moments. Edwards, already with 29 points, had the ball in his hands and a chance to save the Wolves in a tough home game. As he drove to the rim, the Jazz defense collapsed on him, including rookie shot-blocker Walker Kessler, who came off Jaden McDaniels in the corner to try to thwart Edwards’ drive.

Rather than taking the shot himself, Edwards passed it to McDaniels for an open look from 3. But McDaniels’ shot was just off the mark, preserving the win for Utah.

In the locker room after the game, Edwards sat next to his locker mate, Rivers, looping replays of the last play on his phone. Each time, Rivers told him he made the right play, to not beat himself up for it.

But that was not why Edwards is crestfallen. He was confident he made the right play. He knew McDaniels could make that 3. The decision, the missed shot, the loss, none of those things bothered him. He was thinking of McDaniels, his friend who was heartbroken after not coming through in the moment.

If I miss the shot, that’s fine. Everyone knows I’m taking it again,” Edwards says to Rivers as he stood up from his locker.

But McDaniels is a role player who is not often put in that position. He will face scrutiny for the miss, and Edwards hated that for him. The only reason Edwards questioned his decision is not because he thinks he would have made the shot. It is because if he missed it instead, his friend wouldn’t feel as badly as he does in the moment.

The confidence Edwards instilled in McDaniels to shoot the shot when open would pay dividends down the road.

Jan. 18: Nuggets 122, Timberwolves 118

Edwards didn’t play particularly well in this game, putting up 16 points and nine rebounds, but the Wolves very much believed they let a win slip away after losing a lead in the fourth quarter.

As the Timberwolves failed to close it out, Naz Reid tried to sling a pass from the top of the 3-point arc to a cutting teammate under the basket, but threw it out of bounds. Edwards was open to Reid’s right for a good look, but Reid missed him.

In a quiet locker room after the game, Edwards finally hollered across the room to Reid.

“Hey Naz, I want you to look a the video of that pass and see how wide open I am,” he said. “Don’t let that happen again.”

Tone is important in these exchanges. The way Edwards said it was not disrespectful. It wasn’t meant to blow Reid up or blame him for the defeat. Instead, it came off as a young player starting to identify when it is time to be friends with his teammates and when it is time to let them know who runs the house.

Reid did not argue with Edwards. He knew he made a mistake. But he also didn’t begrudge Edwards for setting him straight. In a long season, the players have to hold each other accountable, and that’s exactly what Edwards was doing. The criticism landed with Reid because Edwards has built up the equity to be able to call a teammate out with the way he supports them throughout the season. No one hypes up Reid or McDaniels or Prince or any number of Wolves like Edwards does.

“He’s so young, but yet he knows how to lead a team,” Reid said. “That’s big. Just having guys follow suit in the right direction. He just wants to work and he makes everybody else want to work.”

And it also isn’t lost on them when Edwards quietly pulled seldom-used Nathan Knight aside after a big game against the Raptors and told him, “We needed you. Keep that sh-t up, bruh.”

“One thing we love about Anthony is he really does root for his teammates’ success. He really does,” Finch said. “It’s pure. A lot of times guys in the league are competitive or could be jealous of other teammates’ success, but that’s not Ant. He’s very, very pure and hopes for the best for all of his teammates. Everybody loves him. His personality is very magnetic. everyone was extremely happy when he was given the nod and extremely disappointed when he didn’t get the vote the first time around.”

Feb. 19: Team Giannis 184, Team LeBron 175

Despite being a last-minute addition to the All-Star Game, Edwards was LeBron James’ first selection when he and Giannis Antetokounmpo drafted teams just before the game on Sunday night. Edwards scored 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting in 12 minutes. As an injury replacement and a newbie, it is understandable that he wasn’t featured more. There is a pecking order involved. But this was a good first step for the youngest player in the game.

And in keeping with the theme, it was about more than just Edwards’ performance on the court that leads the Timberwolves to believe they have a great one. The All-Star game offers players the chance to put on a fashion show upon their arrival, even more so than the average regular season game. Edwards knew there would be eyes on him.

What did he wear? A Kevin Garnett t-shirt under a vintage Timberwolves cardigan. Representing to the fullest.

“This wasn’t even the outfit when I first came, but I got this jacket when I was here and I already had this shirt, and I was like, I might as well represent the city,” Edwards said after the game. “They showed me love, so I gotta show them love.”

Garnett always stood tall for Minnesota on nights like this. Towns routinely is decked out in Wolves gear at national events. Edwards doing it will only further endear himself in a market that is often looked down upon leaguewide.

That’s what All-Stars do.

(Top photo: Pool / Getty Images) The making of an NBA All-Star: Anthony Edwards’ step-by-step path to Salt Lake City

Russell Falcon

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