The Timberwolves’ Monday performance—a rousing overtime victory over the previously unbeaten Celtics—was exactly the sort of showing Minnesota expected to be able to piece together after orchestrating last year’s blockbuster deal for elite rim protector Rudy Gobert.
It was a total 180 from what we generally saw last season, when Karl-Anthony Towns missed the majority of the campaign due to injury, on-again, off-again floor general D’Angelo Russell got dealt and stud rookie center Walker Kessler—dealt to Utah as part of the enormous deal for Gobert—was brought up in daily conversation by T-Wolves fans who were beside themselves in watching what, at the time, looked like a shallow return for so many outgoing assets.
Of course it’s early yet, but Minnesota, 4–2 thus far, is showing legitimate promise. The defense—good last season, but rarely more than the sum of its excellent parts—has been superb two weeks in. And 22-year-old Anthony Edwards, fresh off his experience serving as “the guy” for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup this summer, looks like he’s taken another step toward superstardom. In fact, he may already be there. Monday suggested as much.
Edwards absolutely dazzled in overtime, not only hitting four straight highly difficult shot attempts in the closing moments, but also assisting on a go-ahead triple by Mike Conley. He also poked the ball away from perennial MVP candidate Jayson Tatum, then tying him up to force a pivotal jump ball scenario. In a way, his two-way flurry of late-game dominance was reminiscent of a Kawhi Leonard sequence from March 2017, when Leonard—still a highly impressive wing player, but not necessarily a true franchise player yet—took over for the Spurs in the closing stages of a contest in which he was head-to-head with Houston’s James Harden.
It would be wrong to reduce Edwards’s performance down to just the overtime. He had a whopping 38 points, nine boards and seven assists, the latter of which has been a steady area of offensive growth for him in the same way it’s been for players like Tatum and Leonard. Much like a veteran quarterback, he’s learning to throw off defenders with his eyes and dumping passes into the opposing club’s back line. The added passing ability has the potential to make him an even more devastating scorer—scary considering he’s already averaging career highs of 28.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists and an effective field-goal rate of 58.9%.
But the biggest realization in the Timberwolves’ solid start is that Edwards isn’t the only thing going well. The defense, led by Gobert and stifling wing Jaden McDaniels, is surrendering a league-low 83.1 points per 100 possessions in half-court scenarios, according to Synergy Sports. Even when the Wolves are in the midst of chaos, following a live-ball turnover they’ve committed, they’re still good on the defensive end, and tied for third in defensive efficiency in those situations, per data site Inpredictable. At the moment, Minnesota—which boasts the top-ranked defense overall—ranks in the league’s top five in limiting opponent’s two-point percentage, three-point percentage, free throw rate and second-chance opportunities.
There are things that could fall by the wayside over time, namely that opponents are bricking their wide-open three-point looks against Minnesota to this point in the campaign. On the flip side, though, the Wolves have to be optimistic about the likelihood that Towns has far more to give. Whereas Edwards has career highs across the board, Towns is putting up career-worst shooting and scoring numbers to this point, averaging just 16.7 points on 16.2 shots per game. (As Towns has struggled, backup Naz Reid has been fantastic, averaging 15.7 points and even besting the prior career-high numbers he’d posted last season.)
Whether things will continue on this plane for the Wolves remains to be seen. But between Edwards’s superstar turn and the sudden emergence of Minnesota’s defense, we may finally be seeing what Tim Connelly hoped for when he made the gamble for Gobert in the first place.