The pain and promise of top NBA draft prospect Anthony Edwards


IT’S SATURDAY, AND Anthony Edwards’ stomach rumbles with anticipation as the young man climbs into the back of Grandma’s SUV with his older brothers and sister. Mom’s up front with Grandma; they’re mirror images, always smiling and having a good time. Buckled in, they turn onto Lockwood Drive and head out for their weekly supper at the Golden Corral.

Mom sings along as R&B pours from the speakers. Anthony laughs because Grandma doesn’t know the words to any song from this century, but she dances her heart out anyway. The family walks through the doors of the buffet restaurant at their usual full volume. Anthony, growing taller each day, goes straight for his favorites: steak, chicken and rice, and ice cream.

Afterward, they drive back to Grandma’s, which has become home for Mom and the kids after they’ve bounced from place to place. It’s a blessing; Grandma knows all too well how to take care of Mom on the days when the cancer treatments seem to do more harm than good. Grandma has battled the disease for years now, coming and going in various screenings, but her daughter’s ovarian cancer is more aggressive, spreading fast.

The kids retreat to the backyard and play basketball, swatting away mosquitoes and slipping around on a surface that’s more dirt than concrete. Limbs from a cluster of mature oak trees hang low over their heads, creating awkward shooting angles. Anthony never can beat his older brothers, but he no longer runs inside and pitches a fit, slamming the door and bawling his eyes out. The games are getting more competitive. He’s getting better. He has started working with a local AAU coach, who’s teaching him things he didn’t think were possible.

One night, he sits in the bedroom he shares with his siblings and takes out a black Sharpie. Something compels him to write on the walls what’s been bouncing around in his head:

“Future McDonald’s All-American

“Future NBA player

Grandma nearly loses it when she sees what he’s done, but her anger is quickly washed over by pride. “You’re setting goals for yourself, young man. I hope you achieve it.”

She doesn’t order the words to be painted over.

ANTHONY EDWARDS, WHO turned 19 in August, has been considered a likely top-three NBA pick for as long as anyone has been seriously scouting the upcoming draft. The Georgia guard is a pure shooter and a talented finisher, as plug-and-play in today’s game as it gets. Draftniks liken him to a young Victor Oladipo or Donovan Mitchell. Former NBA champion and current ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins believes Edwards has the athleticism of a Russell Westbrook and the scoring ability of a James Harden.

Despite those lofty comparisons, Edwards is no sure thing. In fact, he may be the biggest wild card of the draft. His lone season at Georgia was marked by inconsistency in production and effort. No one who’s watched him play doubts his ability. The question is whether he can put it all together.

How he got here, so close to realizing his dreams, is a story marked by unimaginable loss. That house on Lockwood Drive isn’t the family hub it used to be. Edwards’ mother died when he was 14 years old, and his grandmother died later the same year. His older brother Antoine and sister Antoinette took guardianship of him, but he was never in a stable place after that, moving from home to home.

Soon he’ll hear his name called by Adam Silver and he’ll begin to carry the weight of a franchise’s hopes for the next decade, but on a Sunday in mid-September, Edwards is sitting in a study space on the eighth floor of a fancy high-rise condo in Atlanta, 15 minutes northeast of the Oakland community where he grew up, and he seems distracted.

A group of college-age kids are in an adjoining room, quietly reading textbooks for classes they can no longer attend in person because of a pandemic that shows no signs of stopping. If Edwards hadn’t reclassified in high school from the 2020 class to the 2019 class, he’d be right there with them as a college freshman.

Instead, he’s stuck. COVID-19 tore up the NBA calendar, and rather than being drafted in June, Edwards was placed on a hamster wheel where every day has been the same: work out, go home, play Call of Duty, walk his dogs, maybe binge-watch “Lucifer.” He hasn’t done many in-person interviews since the shutdown, and during the one this afternoon, he’s mercurial, one second laughing and the next falling silent. He opens up a bit and then shuts the door.

He talks about the loss of his mother and grandmother, but he doesn’t go into great detail. Trust, he says, is difficult for him. “There are only two people who are going to get my all, but that’s over with,” Edwards says. “Nobody’s going to get it.”

His eyelids are heavy, and his mind wanders. He says he stayed home and went to Georgia rather than a powerhouse like Duke or North Carolina in order to be closer to his newborn nephew. But later he says, “I’m ready to get out of Atlanta.” (The Hawks hold the sixth pick in Wednesday’s draft.) He says he doesn’t think about being the first player taken. He’ll be ready when the time comes, but “other than that, I don’t even care.”

“To be honest,” he says, “I can’t watch basketball.”

He retells the story about the first time he dunked and how it signaled to him that he was talented and could accomplish something he might not have been able to in football, which was his first love. So that’s the direction he went, simple as that, hanging up his cleats. “That’s all I needed to see,” he says.

So when after that did he get into basketball?

“I’m still not really into it,” he says. “I love basketball, yeah. It’s what I do.”

He’s not entirely convincing. He says if he were drafted by the NFL tomorrow, he’d let basketball go. “Because you can do anything on the field,” he explains. “You can spike the ball. You can dance. You can do all type of disrespectful stuff.” In the NBA, he says, “you can’t do any of that. You’ll get fined.”

He goes on to say that he’s an aspiring rapper. He’s already recorded a few tracks with his older brother Bubba. So, like Damian Lillard? “But I really can rap,” he says. “Dame, talking about — I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’m rapping like Lil Baby.” He says he won’t release any songs until he’s established in the NBA.

An hour passes, and we part ways. He’s upbeat as he looks forward to the prospect of setting up shop in whatever city drafts him, buying a house and bringing his two dogs with him — one a bully he’s named Little Ant. In the meantime, Edwards takes an elevator upstairs to his condo, where he does what he’s done for the past several months: wait.

Justin Holland, who has been Edwards’ trainer since before Edwards entered high school, sat in on the interview and rode up the elevator with him. The two are as close as anyone, and in a phone call a few days later, Holland says he wants to elaborate. He’s protective of Edwards, like an older brother or uncle. He insists that Edwards does love basketball, that he does want to be the No. 1 pick, that he does take this stuff seriously.

It’s obvious he still has some growing up to do, Holland says; he needs structure, which is why he went to Georgia rather than turn pro and chase a paycheck overseas or in the G League. But what Holland didn’t realize — what he says he’d never heard before our interview — was how much the loss of his mother and his grandmother changed Edwards, leading him to build what Holland believes is a shell to keep others out.

“It may be for his own sanity, who knows?” Holland says. “Maybe that’s how he can keep himself so happy. Once you experience trauma and you understand how to deal with the trauma, and the way you’ve been dealing with the trauma has worked for a certain length of time, it might be best to stay that way.”

Bubba would later put it like this: “All our life the most supportive and loving people we had was our mom and grandmother. For them both to end up passing, it was just like a strike to the heart. It turns your heart cold. You don’t have the support you once had. You don’t have the love that you once had. So am I going to ever find that again?”

EDWARDS GOT HIS nickname, Ant Man, from his father. But he grew up hearing about his dad more than he saw him. The old heads around town swore the original Ant Man could’ve been the next Michael Jordan. “You can ask folks in the street,” Edwards says. “They would tell you, ‘If he kept his head on right …'”

Edwards was a star on the rise from an early age — in football, that is. Andrew Banks, a local coach and family friend, remembers the 7-year-old coming out for Pop Warner one day, and he was struck by his build: “Big calves. Big joints. Big fingers. Big wrists.” Edwards was strong and fast — a baby Adrian Peterson running easily through his peers. It was nothing for him to rattle off three rushing touchdowns a game. He was a foot taller than everyone and grew more each year. “When he was 7, his shoes were a size 7,” Banks says. “When he was 8, they were a size 8. His feet and his age stuck together.”

Edwards’ mom, Yvette, and grandma, Shirley, would make it out for every game. Sitting atop a hill at Mozley Park, they’d wear jerseys and wave pompoms. Mom’s voice would cut through the crowd, immediately snapping Edwards’ neck in her direction.

She could be hard on him. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” she snapped at him one game when he was struggling, “but you better pick it up!” Then he got mad. Then he picked himself up and ran into the end zone. “The way she said stuff, it would piss you off to the point that you wanted to do better,” Bubba says. “It hurts, but you know it’s for the best.”

When things were going well, Mom was the ultimate cheerleader. Edwards would blow her kisses during the game. He’d break off a long run down the sideline, and suddenly she’d be off to the races too, sprinting a parallel path down the fence bordering the field. “She had no choice but to yell,” Banks says. “She had the best kid.”

Banks and just about anyone you ask will tell you that Edwards was the No. 1 back in the country at the time — if such a ranking of 9-year-olds were possible. But basketball was slowly starting to pull him away.

One day, Edwards decided he didn’t want to participate in a local football tournament. Mom told him to get dressed anyway. And, three plays in, a defender dived at Edwards’ feet and broke his ankle. He was done with football from then on and missed his eighth-grade basketball season hobbling around on one foot.

But when his cast was removed, his other leg had gotten so much stronger that he could push off it and jump higher than he ever had before. He dunked for the first time. The sensation of grabbing the rim was exhilarating. It was as if a light had been turned on and a path had been revealed. Ant Man the basketball star was born.

He’d develop one of the smoothest shots in the state and hammer home dunks that made spectators scream. He’d dribble through all five defenders and rocket bounce passes through windows barely bigger than a porthole.

But as his popularity grew, his mother’s health was failing, and she went into hospice. She died in January 2015. Bubba says Edwards’ Pop Warner teammates came out for the funeral, standing off to one side. A silent, stone-faced Edwards stood on the other. Not long after, Grandma’s cancer came roaring back, and seven months later, Edwards laid to rest the nicest woman he’d ever know.

It’s like a blur now. Bubba, who is three years older than Anthony, says he doesn’t remember much of what his brother said after — he internalizes so much — but he does remember one conversation clearly. “I’m going to make them proud,” Anthony told him.

LATER THAT SUMMER, Edwards’ uncle introduced him to Holland, a local trainer who had worked with a handful of Division I prospects. Anthony wanted to quit after their first grueling workout, but he went back and slowly became addicted to the grind. He transferred to Holy Spirit Prep, where he scored 22.5 points per game and led the team to a state title.

Ty Anderson, who took over as head coach the following offseason, got a sneak peek at Edwards at a tournament in Virginia and was floored. It took him all of five minutes, he says, to realize that not only would Edwards be the best player he had ever coached, but he also could become the best that anyone in his family had ever worked with — and that family includes two cousins who are Power 5 assistants and a grandfather by the name of Lefty Driesell, the Hall of Famer who helped develop Len Bias at Maryland.

Anderson thought that day that he was seeing in Edwards a young Jrue Holiday, recalling the former first-round pick and NBA All-Star. “And as time went on that became an insult,” he says, “which is f—ing nuts.” Edwards would reclassify and average 25.7 points and 9.6 rebounds during his final season in high school.

By the time Edwards arrived at Georgia, strength coach Sean Hayes had heard stories about the highest-rated prospect ever to come to Athens. When Edwards got in the gym for the first time, Hayes knew the hype was real. Edwards’ initial vertical test measured 39.5 inches, which would have ranked in the top 10 of most drafts. “He took two steps and just kind of floated,” Hayes recalls. All of his teammates were amazed.

Within a month and a half, Edwards was up to 41.5 inches. “And he’s 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds and at 17 he can jump that high,” Hayes says. “Just imagine where he can go.”

Hayes, who has worked in the NFL as well as college, says only two players he’s trained have athleticism that can compare to Edwards’: Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens and future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jason Peters. Edwards would wrap up a three-hour practice by throwing down a 360 dunk.

“That’s something I’ll never understand,” Hayes says. “I’m looking at him doing alley-oops off the backboard, windmills and tomahawk dunks. Most people are dragging themselves off the court after an intense practice, just looking for a drink of water, and he’s over there smiling and having a dunk contest with himself.”

Yet for such a gym rat, his nine months in college were marked by inconsistency, crystallized by last November’s Michigan State game in Maui. On national TV, against a top-five team, it was Edwards’ time to shine. Coach Tom Crean challenged him on the defensive end, and early on Edwards was giving him everything he’d hoped for: He was engaged, deep in his stance, fighting through screens. But then he started lagging on defense. And then he started jacking up 3s and committing careless fouls. He finished the first half 1-for-8 from the field with four turnovers, and Georgia trailed by 21.

A few minutes into the second half, Edwards ran the floor off a rebound and scored on a layup. Then he drained a contested 3. Then he got back on defense, forced his man into traffic and came away with a steal. Then he dropped a dime to a cutting teammate for an easy lay-in. He drilled a long step-back 3 off a pick-and-roll and really got cooking, hitting heat-check jumpers. Edwards dropped 31 points over the final 16 minutes, and Georgia got the lead down to two points before losing 83-75.

There would be nights after that when Edwards scored in the mid-20s and nights when he would disappear and finish in the single digits. Against Missouri, he made a friendly bet that he couldn’t get a double-double, and he ended up with 23 points and 10 boards. He went on to grab 43 rebounds over a four-game stretch. But then, over the next four games, he totaled 17 rebounds.

“He’s the best scorer in the draft and could be an immediate producer in the NBA with his versatility and skill set,” says a pro scout. “Defensively, he has the tools and physical profile to be effective, but he was undisciplined and missed assignments. Edwards showed a lack of commitment at that end of the floor.”

Edwards thinks the answer to this is simple: focus. He points to the Michigan State game. “If I put two halves together, then I’ll be different,” he says. “If I get that, then it’s over with.” And what’s holding him back from doing that? “Nothing,” he says. “I just don’t be prepared.” In the NBA, he promises, that will change.

Crean pushes back against some of these critiques, pointing out Edwards’ youth, due to the reclassification, and saying despite that, he was one of the best teammates he’s ever coached. Crean says Edwards is effervescent and infectious, that he has an aura that draws people in, that he’s empathetic in a way that’s not perfunctory.

The night before his official visit, Edwards called an assistant on staff to ask if he could bring one of his high school teammates with him. The assistant rolled his eyes, thinking Edwards wanted to show one of his friends a good time. But Edwards explained: It was Christmas break, and “this kid is from Eastern Europe and he just doesn’t have anywhere to go, and I don’t want him being by himself.”

Edwards is a lot like Dwyane Wade and Oladipo in that way, Crean says, calling him an “old soul” in demeanor and skill. Crean believes Edwards, if he wants to, could become the youngest player he’s ever coached to make an NBA All-Defensive team.

“I don’t think there’s any question that he can be a perennial All-Star [and] in the right environment be a part of a team that’s competing for championships and be an integral part of it,” Crean says. “I don’t think there’s any limit, I really don’t. But I think because of his age, because of coming a year early and all these different things, these next couple of years are going to be absolutely [important].”

Where Edwards is drafted is crucial, Crean says, because he needs support — he needs hands-on coaching and veteran leadership. “And that scares me, frankly,” Crean says. “It scares me that you’ve got to put some time into him, real time into him.”

Holland is doing his best to prep Edwards for a draft unlike any before it, one that was pushed back twice as the pandemic raged and the monotony of a locked-down summer settled in. They tried to keep things fresh, adding another trainer. Pistons guard Jordan McRae has joined their workouts. They added a “body maintenance” specialist to the mix.

They’d play pingpong after practice just to do something different. Edwards was awful at first. He’d lose to everyone in the building. But then the perfectionist in him took over, and in about a week, he was hitting forehand and backhand shots, putting serious English on the ball. It turns out that in the same way Edwards studies Kyrie Irving’s crossover or James Harden’s one-legged side step, he was hunting down pingpong shots on YouTube.

That’s the way Edwards consumes basketball, Holland says, in short bursts. When Edwards said he wasn’t a fan of basketball, Holland says what he meant is he’s not a fan of watching games like he does football. But make no mistake, Holland says, he’s a student of the sport, breaking down clips of Bradley Beal’s step-back on his iPhone.

Edwards is a tough nut to crack, isn’t he? I ask.

Holland laughs.

“Right,” he says.

TWO WEEKS AFTER our first interview, Edwards’ mood has shifted. He’s no longer brushing off the draft, admitting that he’s eager for it to get here. The Lakers opened up a 2-0 lead on the Heat in the NBA Finals the night before, and he’s hoping for a miracle: a sweep that would prompt the league to move up the draft, something that Edwards would love.

“I pray,” he says of the possibility. “I’m excited. I’m just ready for it to get here, for it to happen, for my family to be happy, and wherever I land I’m just ready to put the work in.”

His enthusiasm for the game comes through in a way it didn’t the last time we spoke. He goes into detail about how he’s studied Chris Paul and how he can learn from his ability to shoot over a defender of any size. He says he can learn from the league’s big men about how to create space in the paint.

“Basketball is my life,” he explains. “I love it, and it’s what I do. Basketball is my heart, but football is where I started, so I’ll never forget about that. But don’t get me wrong, basketball is my No. 1 because I feel like it’s going to get me through a lot of the stuff I need to get through.

“And it’s what I do. It’s a job. I feel like I’m working right now. I love it.”

We talk about what basketball has gotten him through, and he tells me something I’d never heard before: He says he had another sister, Arielle, who died before he was born. And like with his mother and grandmother, Edwards says he would play for her on her birthday.

But he doesn’t want sympathy, and you won’t catch him feeling sorry for himself. Everything he’s done since his mother and grandmother died has been about making them proud. That has always been his purpose.

“Basketball is my focus point,” he says. “I just need it in my life.”

He recalls his grandmother sitting him down when he was 11 or 12. She was sick and had something she wanted to get off her chest. “One day,” she told him, “you’re going to have to take care of the family.”

He was surprised. It was obvious by then how talented Edwards was, but he didn’t understand what that might mean for the rest of his family.

“Nah, Grandma,” he said. “We’re all going to take care of each other.”

It’s what they’d always done. He couldn’t imagine it any other way.

THE YOUNG MAN is grown now, on the verge of realizing a dream that began in a dusty backyard he hasn’t driven by in a long time. His future stretches out before him, a horizon that promises fame and fortune. He hopes to buy that house on Lockwood Drive to protect it and all the memories it holds.

But he’s in a high-rise for the time being. He doesn’t have to share a bedroom with anyone. The walls are clean. There’s a concierge he can call on 24/7 if he could only think of a reason. He drives the streets of Atlanta alone at night, rapping along to whatever’s playing on the radio. If he listens close enough, he can still hear his mother singing when an old love song comes on.

It’s quiet. He opens his phone and searches. He’s done this so many times before, he knows exactly where on YouTube to look for videos that are now 9 and 10 years old. In them, he’s wearing purple and gold — his Pop Warner jersey.

It’s nice to be reminded of the sport he first loved. No one could touch him then. But it’s better to see the faces in the crowd.

He stops one video, right after one of his touchdowns. There’s Grandma, sitting in the stands, smiling as everyone around her celebrates.

He freezes another video about a minute in. There’s his mom, close to the action as always. She’s standing right behind the fence, clapping and shouting something he can’t quite make out.

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