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For Anthony Edwards, the leap could come with no limits in his third season in the NBA. Maybe it’s more like a triple jump with a series of smaller jumps that eventually add up to a giant vault forward.

What Edwards did in the Timberwolves’ win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night came after a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers two days earlier. After D’Angelo Russell’s injury, Edwards is quickly learning how to fight off aggressive double teams, get his teammates open looks and control the game without big scoring nights.

In one of his biggest performances of the season, Edwards had 19 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and just two turnovers in a 112-110 victory. For a young player who is usually at his best when he’s unleashing a wave of emotion on big dunks and 3-pointers, it was a game marked by discipline, poise and an understanding of how the game is and what it is. The Timberwolves needed him.

The Wolves were without Russell and Jordan McLaughlin (calf), both of their point guards. Rudy Gobert (ankle), Karl-Anthony Towns (calf) and Taurin Prince (shoulder) were also out, leaving Edwards to shoulder more of the responsibility. But instead of forcing the play or baiting himself into a toe-to-toe scoring battle with Thunder star Shai Gilges-Alexander, Edwards took the ball into his own hands and defended the Wolves offense with patience and precision.

“WI’ve tried to preach to Ant, it’s not how much you score, it’s how much you create,” coach Chris Finch said.

Lessons start to sink in. Wednesday night’s loss to the Clippers might have been just a fluke, the kind a struggling and injury-plagued team is expected to lose against one of the deepest teams in the Western Conference. But the Wolves got something out of it by putting Edwards in that lead scorer role and throwing him at a Clippers loaded with wing defenders.

With so much firepower in Minnesota, the Clippers sent the kitchen sink to Edwards, trapping and doubling him as soon as he touched the ball. It forced him to make quick decisions, recognize holes in the defense and move the ball. He had just three assists and five turnovers in the game, but the Wolves’ 99-88 loss gave them an open look.

Managing a team is the toughest job in the NBA, especially for a 21-year-old who has made his mark as a scorer in this league. In a season that has gotten off to such a rocky start, the crash courses Edwards is now receiving may be starting to pay off. Those tough moments against the Clippers helped build the building blocks Edwards stood on in Oklahoma City.

It’s amazing for him and I think it’s a credit to who he is as a player when they bring in a second guy to make you get off the ball,” Gobert said after the Clippers’ loss. “It’s a great compliment to a player to be recognized. When that happens, it’s a good thing for us as a team.”

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The Thunder watched video of the Clippers defending Edwards and used many of the same principles. They threw pitbull quarterback Lou Dort at him, then provided timely and frequent help trying to get the ball out of his hands and into a group that was missing five of its top eight players.

To make matters worse, Wolves were heavy-footed on the final night of a 10-day, five-game road trip. Edwards started with Austin Rivers, Naz Reid, Kyle Anderson and Jaden McDaniels, a different atmosphere than when Russell, Gobert and Towns surrounded him. But instead of coming out of the gates firing against OKC to make up for the loss of scoring from injuries, Edwards tried to get his teammates going.

Edwards had three assists and five rebounds in the first quarter alone. Reid was the main beneficiary, scoring seven of his team-high 28 points in the opening period. Edwards had five shots himself, but the game wore on and players like Reed, Rivers and Nathan Knight tempered his aggressiveness.

“If he can do that every time we need him to do what he’s capable of and what we need him to do, it’s big time, real big time for us,” Reed said. “I believe he can and we all believe he can. It’s a special ability, to be able to lead a team like that, and it’s a big deal.”

Edwards’ numbers are high across the board this season in points, rebounds, steals, assists, 3-pointers and field goal percentage. But the tantalizing signs Edwards gave fans in his first two seasons, most notably in the debut playoff series against Memphis last spring, set the bar higher for Year 3.

The third season is often when superstar players really assert themselves, with Ja Morant and Luka Doncic being two of the most recent examples. Edwards hasn’t been as prominent in the first two months of his third season, but there are good reasons for that. The Timberwolves offense doesn’t revolve around one person the way the Mavericks revolve around Luka or the Grizzlies revolve around Morant. Edwards is surrounded by famous teammates. This early in the season, the team is struggling to establish a flow and a pecking order that is clearly evident in many other franchises that have a clear No. 1 star.

“Our system is also one that relies on a lot of people trying to make plays, so sometimes we have a lot of turnovers,” Finch said. “But yeah, we need more guys making more plays for more people.”

Edwards has also shown at times that he still has a lot to learn, playing the second night of back-to-backs or afternoons or against teams that don’t have a star opponent to command his attention.

With so many players out with injuries at the moment, it allows Wolves to be more ant-centric. He shows that it doesn’t mean he has to do 25 shots to fulfill that role.

The gravitational pull Edwards creates with his drives draws defenders into his space, opening up outside teammates. Rivers had his best game as a Timberwolf, scoring 20 points, going 4-for-5 on 3-pointers and grabbing five of Minnesota’s 16 steals. McDaniels had 14 points, Jalen Nowell had 13 and Knight finished with 10 in his first overtime off the bench.

Edwards also shows he understands when to look for his own shot or dunk. When the Wolves stagnate or miss a few shots, Edwards can still put his head down and score with the best of them.

He was just 6-for-16 from the field against the Clippers on Wednesday, but his ability to finish at the rim while the entire defense collapsed on him was stunning.

The Timberwolves led Oklahoma City by 14 points in the third quarter, but a meltdown over the final four minutes essentially put them behind by three points in the fourth. Edwards only scored four points in the final quarter, but he blocked a Gilges-Alexander shot late and then started the game when the Thunder appeared to trap him at the half-court line.

Instead of panicking, Edwards did his best scanning the floor with Jaylen Williams and Aaron Wiggins in his face. He then threw a perfect pass to Rivers for a 3-pointer.

“The nature of the offense in the league is that they put two on you, you create an advantage no matter how you do it, pick and roll, trap, help the early release, it’s all a gravity that he creates ,” Finch said. “Just trying to keep finding the right play.”

In other words, don’t try to win the game alone. Edwards is starting to realize how useful his teammates can be when he gets them involved. That should help the Wolves immensely once Russell, Gobert and Towns return. There they will find a more controlled young star waiting for their help.

“You’ve got to keep trusting the right play, keep trusting the open pass and keep trusting your teammates,” Finch said. “He’s doing a great job, he loves playing with those guys, and his voice is getting louder as well.”

(Top photo by Zach Beeker/Getty Images)


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