In a world of fantasy leagues, Anthony Edwards is an actual fantasy player

This isn’t the way things were supposed to end. When the Denver Nuggets bolted to a 20-point lead over the Minnesota Timberwolves halfway through the deciding game of the Western Conference semi-finals, it seemed as if the final chapter of this engrossing, hectic, epic series was written: the defending champions, stunned and humiliated in Games 1, 2 and 6, had risen off the canvas to deliver the decisive blow at the decisive moment. Then something happened. Anthony Edwards happened.

Edwards, the No 1 pick in the 2020 draft, has long been described as the future face of the NBA. At 22, he’s already the undisputed leader of the Timberwolves – an impressive achievement in itself, given he plays with another former No 1 draft pick (Karl-Anthony Towns), an all-time defensive great (Rudy Gobert), and a wily veteran guard (Mike Conley Jr). Boxed out of Game 7’s opening exchanges by a Nuggets defense happy to give the oft-misfiring Gobert open looks, Edwards scored just four points in the first half, and his third quarter began in inauspicious fashion: a shot from beyond the arc clunked off the lip of the rim, then he airballed another attempt. He shook the failures off, reasserted himself in defense, then ran the length of the court for an easy layup.

A couple of uncontested dunks off loose balls won in defense followed, and the manner in which Edwards made them seemed to act as a signal to his teammates. Edwards is a master posterizer, with the full range of tomahawks, windmills, backscratchers, and self-alley-oops – many of which have been on show in these playoffs, in which the sight of the Ant Man puncturing the rim with bulging authority has been a regular wonder. The dunks on Sunday night were different. There were no theatrics, no flourishes, no screams of conquest under the glass. Edwards simply placed the ball through the net, then turned around to race back up the other end of the court to attend to his defensive duties. These were business dunks, and they woke the Timberwolves up. Having been 20 points down at the start of the third quarter, Minnesota went on a series-defining offensive run that blew the defending champions away. Three-time MVP Nikola Jokic spent the game’s final quarter looking simultaneously rheumatic and apologetic as he attempted a series of desperate three-pointers to close the gap. But not even Jokic, the NBA’s reigning conjurer of the improbable, could undo the inevitable. As the game’s final seconds ticked down, Edwards offered a wave goodbye to the Denver crowd. The only role left for Jokic was to chew his young rival out for disrespect.

With a final tally of 16 points this was not, by a long stretch, Edwards’s best outing. (That came in Game 1 against the Nuggets, when he detonated for 43 points.) But it offered an exhibition of many of the mental gifts that have made him such a magnetic addition to the ranks of the NBA’s superstars, and helped the Timberwolves to victory over the entirety of this past series: nerveless cool at the moment of maximum danger, the freakish ability to forget his misses, an impish gift for winking provocation. Above all Edwards has an unflinching belief in himself, and in those around him. No sooner had the Timberwolves gone down 3-2 in this series than he immediately announced: “See you Game 7.”

The player that Edwards has been most frequently compared to, of course, is Michael Jordan. Plenty of players have been saddled with “the next Jordan” label over the past 30 years – some good (Kobe Bryant, Penny Hardaway), some less good (Jerry Stackhouse, Grant Hill) – but none has offered as rich a visual foundation for the analogy as Edwards. The buttery mid-range game, the dunks, the turnaround fadeaway: Edwards’s stylistic dossier bursts with Jordanesque associations, and this is before we even consider his aerial mastery, the pure body strength that allows Edwards to hang so patiently in the air while his opponents drop like crypto funds around him. But to compare this young calligrapher of the boards, all flicks and luscious energy, to an old master like Jordan is to miss some of what makes Edwards so insistently special, a talent unlike any other. Edwards grew up Anthony with siblings called Antony, Antoine, and Antoinette – an experience that taught him, one imagines, to stand out in a world where outsiders are ready to confuse him for someone else. His defensive intensity, his use of the backboard, his lateral prowess and sheer unpredictability as a body in motion, not to mention his very real appreciation for his teammates and the gift he has for making those around him better: the catalog of Edwards’s greatness is as much about what makes him different from Jordan as what brings them together.

Chin thrust forward, eyes shining with mischief, Edwards never seems entirely satisfied with the serial miracles he produces on court. And what miracles they are: in this series alone the public has been treated to a sequence of moves that no other current player on earth would have been capable of. There was the play in Game 6 when he landed awkwardly on his tailbone, spent a few minutes face down on the floor in apparent agony, then bounced up and promptly nailed two perfect free-throws.

There was the handful of blocks made with his less favored left hand, including a monster stoppage of Michael Porter Jr in Game 1 that recalled the ludicrous rejection with which he won a regular season game in March against the Indiana Pacers. There was the deliciously casual fake late in Game 6, in which Edwards shaped to shoot with his right hand then tapped the ball beyond his marker, vacuumed toward the rim, and finished with a nonchalant double-handed slam.

There were the silky threes knocked down with bureaucratic bloodlessness; the dizzying stops and starts, changes of direction, and side-to-side hops; the many occasions on which he beavered through the paint, drew foul contact, got knocked off balance, then still landed a mid-air shot, an eternity seeming to pass while he solved the problem of how to progress the ball from his contorted airborne body into the net.

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LeBron James, the greatest player of his generation, is Zeus. Steph Curry is the basketballing answer to drone warfare, devastating opponents with his precision from distance. Jokic is a one-man work scheme for fouling defenders. Depending on the day, Edwards can be all three at once. One moment he’s a sprite, vanishing between markers, the next he’s swelling to command on-court space. He’s less an ant than one of those deep-sea jellyfish able to change shape, volume, and appearance at will. His greatest gift, ultimately, may be the gift of spontaneity, of knowing exactly which version of himself the moment demands. In a world of fantasy leagues here is an actual fantasy player, an improvisational genius operating with an extraterrestrial relationship to space and time.

Above all Edwards is fun, a must-see American star in a league where the very best young players – Victor Wembanyama, Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – are often either Canadian or European. After Charles Barkley announced in their post-game interview last night that he has not been to Minnesota in 20 years, Edwards – 39 years Barkley’s junior – immediately shot back: “Bring ya ass!” Even his on-court trash talk has a punkish charm: mic’d up for the first game of this series, Edwards’s first intervention was to offer Porter tips on his shooting action. Opponents seem to relish playing against him: “You got me?” Jamal Murray could be heard asking over Edwards’s audio feed after it became clear who his Game 1 marker was. “Oh, this is going to be fun.” And when they’re not facing him, other players want to be him. In January, while playing the Memphis Grizzlies, Edwards executed an outrageous self-alley-oop off the glass through traffic; the next day, former MVP Joel Embiid went out and did exactly the same thing.

Whether it happens this year or at a later date, the Timberwolves seem certain to claim a first championship under the leadership of their young maestro. The NBA’s American future is already upon us. His name is Anthony Edwards.

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