Mike Conley passed up on a potential triple to tie the game late Saturday night, instead taking a few dribbles to the free-throw line before hoisting up a lob to Rudy Gobert for a likely easy bucket down low.
Only one problem: Anthony Edwards was in between Conley and Gobert. The rookie leapt up, intercepted the pass, all but sealing Minnesota’s upset victory in Utah.
That was Edwards’ fifth steal of the game, and an example of exactly what he likes to do on the defensive end of the floor.
“Ant was joking around in practice (Saturday) that he was a defensive back,” Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch said after the game. “He used those anticipation skills very well tonight.”
Joking. … Right.
Edwards is the same guy who’s confident he could be playing pro baseball right now. He certainly could be in the NFL should he have chosen that route. After all, football was his first love. It’s part of the reason he loves his role in Minnesota’s defense. Rarely is Edwards on the ball, guarding the other team’s best player. He’s usually off the ball, playing help defense, looking to shoot a gap to intercept a pass.
You know, much like a safety.
“I tell Coach Finch all the time, when I’m in gaps don’t be telling me do this, do that,” Edwards said. “I play safety. I play cornerback. I know what I’m doing. If I bite a little bit and they make a pass, it’s a steal.”
Certainly, there are other times where Edwards is entirely out of position, and it does not end in a steal, rather an easy bucket for the opponent. But the benefits of his approach were on full display Saturday.
“A couple times today I was acting like I was going to go for one play and he’ll throw it, and I just shoot the gap and it’s a steal,” Edwards said. “Football definitely helps me with picking the pass off all the time.”
The field translates to the court, Edwards said.
“If you go take a football player, like a running back, somebody with great footwork, right? And you put him on defense, it’s very hard to score on them,” Edwards said. “I will tell you that. It’s very hard.”
One example of that was when Edwards was in high school, and Kansas City Chiefs star wide receiver Tyreek Hill walked into the gym and played.
“Sometimes he ended up on me, and I’d try to go and there’d be nowhere to go,” Edwards said. “They just move their feet so good and they’re so strong, so it’s very hard to score on them.
If Edwards played in the NFL, he said he’d be a Kam Chancellor-type safety. Chancellor, a 6-foot-4 defensive back, was part of Seattle’s famed “Legion of Boom,” though Edwards said the comparison is more size-based.
“I wouldn’t be that hard of a hitter,” he said. “I wouldn’t be too much of the boom part.”
More of a field patrol, then. Edwards said his defense can spark his offense, much as it did in Saturday’s victory.
“Not even like getting steals on defense, me just being active, like being in a stance, getting a rebound, boxing out,” Edwards said. “Anything I do defensively, it’s going to translate on the offensive end. If I get a steal, I might not touch the ball. But when I touch it, it feels good because I got a steal, so I might make a shot. If I play pretty good defense, I might play good offense.”
Edwards is averaging 1.7 steals a game since Feb. 24 — tied for the seventh-best mark in the NBA.
“Ant definitely plays the gaps well,” Josh Okogie said. “Obviously, he’s in support when his man doesn’t have the ball, and his anticipation for that skip pass is obviously pretty good.”
Okogie said Edwards was bragging about his five-steal performance from the moment he stepped into the locker room after Saturday’s game. It’s never a bad thing to take pride on that end of the floor. But onto more important subjects. Who would be the better defensive back: Edwards, who has a football pedigree, or Okogie, who is a significantly better NBA defender?
“Obviously me,” Okogie said. “No question.”
There you have it. Josh would be better than Anthony.
“Josh who? JO?” Edwards said. “Oh hell nah. Me and JO can go to the football field in the offseason and we can see who got better footwork on defense. He thinks because he play great defense on the court, he can play great defense on the field. Nah. Nah. Not at all.”