- Covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for ESPN.com
ANTHONY EDWARDS SAT in his living room in Atlanta, waiting for his life to change. It was Nov. 18 — NBA draft night — and with colorful, beautiful murals of his late grandmother and mother on each side of him, Edwards became the No. 1 overall pick and prepared to join the Minnesota Timberwolves’ young, talented core.
Wolves co-stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell each sent Edwards a text. The message was simple: “Congratulations, young’un. Let’s get to work.”
Edwards realized there wasn’t much time before the real work began. The season was coming — quickly.
“That’s the first thing me and my trainer thought about was, ‘We gotta get in better shape,'” Edwards said. “‘We’re fixing to play.'”
Edwards’ official NBA debut will come tonight, just 33 days after hearing his name called by commissioner Adam Silver.
The last time Edwards played 5-on-5 in a real basketball game with referees and coaches and a scoreboard was 10 months ago. His Georgia Bulldogs beat Ole Miss to advance in the SEC tournament. Edwards had just six points on 2-of-13 shooting in 40 minutes. His college career ended there, as the coronavirus pandemic shut down the college basketball season.
He spent the nine months before draft night living basketball Groundhog Day: working out, playing video games, working out, binge-watching shows, working out, walking his dogs, working out, playing more video games, working out.
After such a long layoff, transitioning into hyperdrive hurtling toward the NBA season has been a foreign experience.
“No,” he admitted when asked if he felt ready for his first game. Edwards is adjusting to a new kind of role with the Wolves, playing with the ball in his hands less and spacing the floor as a catch-and-shoot and catch-and-slash option alongside Russell.
“It’s harder to knock the rust off because I don’t got the ball,” Edwards said. “For me, it’s probably going to take me a minute.”
Summer league would have helped. It might seem procedural and rote, but the weeks in Orlando or Las Vegas have developmental value to rookies and their teams. Instead, there was an expedited training camp and more learning on the fly than ever before.
“I feel like we did need summer league,” Edwards said. “We ain’t played in like 10 months.”
Being an NBA rookie this season is akin to showing up to class and finding out there’s a test you didn’t study for. The last few weeks for Edwards have been about making the mistakes every rookie does and trying to learn from them before games start counting.
“You don’t have seven to 10 summer league games to work some of those mistakes out. You don’t have two to three months in August and September and October to get repetition,” Wolves GM Gersson Rosas said. “So we’re having to live through that now.”
Edwards isn’t alone. It’s the same for every rookie, with some — like the Golden State Warriors’ James Wiseman, who missed all but the first three games at Memphis, and the Charlotte Hornets’ LaMelo Ball, whose season in Australia’s NBL was cut short due to a foot injury in January — having spent most of 2020 away from meaningful basketball.
Whether it’s the No. 1 pick, an undrafted free agent or the teams trying to properly evaluate them, the 2020-21 season will be an NBA crash course like no other.
AS 60 NAMES were called on draft night, Nate Hinton thought he would hear his. But after 60 picks came and went, he and his agent quickly started to explore options.
Right now, there aren’t as many. Overseas isn’t a viable path with many leagues unable to start amid travel restrictions. Neither is the G League, though NBA sources said it’s still working toward having a season.
Hinton was somewhat of a surprise to go undrafted — he was an all-conference selection at Houston and No. 56 in ESPN’s top 100 — but the circumstances of his sophomore season likely played a part.
“We didn’t have a chance to showcase in the NCAA tournament like we usually would,” Hinton said. “We didn’t have a chance to have the combine or workouts competitively so they could see some guys like me to showcase that.”
But Hinton was one of the lucky ones. A couple of hours after striking out on draft night, he landed a two-way contract with the Dallas Mavericks. With protocols, quarantines and likely positive tests ahead for every NBA roster, two-way players could have a uniquely important role this season.
“Every day I look at the gear that’s got those three letters [NBA] on it,” Hinton said. “I’m appreciative of this opportunity. It’s just a part of my story.
“I can’t go into [the season] with the mindset of ‘Oh, I’m just happy to be here.’ Because I haven’t played or practiced since March. So the first couple days of training camp that adrenaline was running. And then all of a sudden my body was like, ‘Boom, I’ve got to get used to practicing again.'”
For undrafted rookies who didn’t find an Exhibit 10 deal, there’s nothing but uncertainty. There was no summer league to shine in. Fred VanVleet signed an $85 million contract this offseason, but his story started by going undrafted and turning down G League offers from teams interested in drafting him in the second round. He bet on earning a contract with his performance in summer league — which he did.
There will be no Fred VanVleet from the Class of 2020.
“I think it’s a killer. It makes it very difficult,” trainer Joe Abunassar said of the lack of summer league. “Because you have guys that could’ve earned roster spots. You have guys every year, from Kendrick Nunn to Christian Wood to Terence Davis that didn’t get drafted but ended up playing major minutes. I think that those kind of guys are being left out a little bit. It almost feels like a year delay.”
Abunassar is known for helping Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry transform his body and emerge as an All-Star, with former clients like Kevin Garnett, Kawhi Leonard and Chauncey Billups. He’s been working with NBA players for more than 20 years and worked with a handful of rookies in the 2020 draft, including first-round picks Tyrese Haliburton, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji.
But for the players who remained unsigned, as Abunassar said, the coming year will be full of unknowns. Not just in finding a league to play in but in some cases, with state restrictions, just a gym to play pickup.
“They’re kind of floating in limbo,” Abunassar added. “It’s tough for the teams because they don’t know what to do with the guys. For these players that are second-round picks and undrafted guys, we kind of had to mentally look at and think, ‘OK, this is a redshirt year.'”
On the team side, it complicates roster decisions. The Wolves have taken an approach of trying to deepen their bench, with a plan to extend their playing rotation because of the fluidity of availability. If someone goes down with an injury or has to sit because of COVID protocols, right now there’s no one to call up from the G League.
“It’s an area of uncertainty that affects all of us — the league, teams, players,” Rosas said. “Because things are going to happen. Injuries, guys not playing as well, trades.
“The structure is going to change at any moment, and it’s not like there are guys in your system playing that you can pull from. It’s just gonna be guys that are home, for the most part.”
EDWARDS’ FIRST SHOT in 10 months came on Dec. 12, six minutes into the first quarter of the Timberwolves’ preseason opener. He’d been on the floor a little more than a minute and had the ball iso’d on the right wing against Memphis Grizzlies second-year guard Ja Morant.
Edwards sized up Morant, crossing right to left, left to right. He jabbed, rocking Morant back, creating just enough space to rise and fire from 25 feet.
His shot went 24 feet. In 26 minutes, Edwards recorded five points on 2-of-9 shooting.
“We’ve only been playing for four or five days. It’s hard to get the rust off in four or five games,” Edwards said. “I feel like every game I’m going to get better and better. I just gotta get more comfortable.”
It’s the battle all rookies are facing. They all spent the summer training and preparing but couldn’t replicate game action. After sitting out the Warriors’ three preseason games, Wiseman — the No. 2 overall pick — stepped onto a basketball court for a real game for the first time in more than a year. And he did it in trial-by-fire fashion — as an opening-night starter against a title contender in the Brooklyn Nets.
He played well — 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting in 25 minutes, though much of it was in garbage time as the Nets smoked the Warriors. But minutes are minutes, and that’s what Wiseman needs.
“I felt a lot of jitters,” Wiseman said after the game. “But as soon as I took my first attempt, then everything just went out the window. I just started playing hard.
“I think I did really well for not playing [in] a year.”
Coaching staffs and front offices are keenly aware of the challenges this rookie class faces. As one Western Conference assistant coach put it: “Imagine the feeling of showing up to your first day of work and you don’t know where the coffee maker is.”
And while getting up to the game speed of the NBA is a key challenge, getting familiar with the ins and outs of a new city presents another. Or in the case of international draft picks, a new country.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick, Aleksej Pokusevski, was the youngest player selected in the draft. Not only is he an 18-year-old making the transition to the NBA, but he’s also moving from Greece to … Oklahoma.
“I don’t remember when I played the last time,” Pokusevski said before his first preseason game with the Thunder. “It’s gotta be a year, or something like that.”
Pokusevski’s transition hasn’t been too difficult because of the assist he’s gotten from the Thunder, from helping him find an apartment to transportation to where to buy groceries.
“I think it’s going to be a rough transition for a lot of young players, there’s no question about it,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said on media day. “But that’s for everybody. I think there will be a transition for all the international guys especially; culturally there always is.”
It’s why there’s a directive from front offices across the league to their coaching staffs with rookies this season: Set reasonable expectations.
“There’s nothing you can do to really replicate the speed of the NBA for a young player,” Rosas said. “That’s the biggest process of understanding — just how fast the game is and how much bigger, quicker, longer, more athletic and more talented the players are.”
A ROOKIE’S TRANSITION to the NBA takes place as much off the court as on it. In the case of this season, the off-the-court part is almost entirely eliminated. With protocols keeping players in their rooms, road trips won’t include a stop at the club or a dinner out.
For a young player it means fewer distractions, more hoops. If you can’t go to the club, might as well go to the gym. It could also do a number on a rookie’s mental health.
“Maybe the negative outweighs the positive because they’re going to go crazy mentally,” Abunassar said. “I think the mental load of the amount of travel on a rookie is different. So where you could go out to a dinner in Miami, now you’re going to be sitting in your room. I think that could be tough.”
The night scene isn’t typically that big of an issue for players until a few seasons in anyway — the vast majority of rookies are under 21 — but not having some kind of casual free time away from basketball is a concern. There are only so many video games to play or shows to watch.
“I feel like most basketball players would say they need those kinds of nights sometimes,” Edwards said. “You don’t want it on your mind all day if you have a bad game, or even a great game, you need those kinds of nights. Because there’s so many games. This season is so condensed.”
The next two preseason games showed signs of progress for Edwards. He had 12 points in the second game and 17 in his third game — plus he impressively locked up Luka Doncic on a possession. Some of that 10-month-off rust was coming off. The Wolves are getting beyond the orientation phase now with Edwards and moving toward more pointed developmental things, like focusing on efficiency and shot selection.
“Anthony is such a special talent that we don’t want to skip any steps. We’ve been very mindful with Coach, with the staff, with our players to make sure that he learns every step of the way,” Rosas said. “I’ve told him, ‘You’ve got the stuff we can’t coach.’
“Now it’s just about understanding the technique of being an NBA player and the importance of efficiency, and he’s figuring that out. But that’s not something that happens overnight.”
That mindset informed some of the Wolves’ offseason decisions, like adding veteran leaders Ricky Rubio and Ed Davis to help shepherd their young group. In the same way Rubio was influential in the young career of Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell — a player Edwards has been compared with — the Wolves hope the veteran can make an impact with the No. 1 pick.
“Not only [Edwards],” Rosas said, “but the whole league is going at a hundred miles an hour as we get ready for this season.”
This rookie class is opening careers in empty buildings — most without fans — with only a month between putting on a team-licensed hat and wearing an actual uniform on opening night.
It’s a head-spinning experience, the kind of thing that can overwhelm a young player trying to figure out where his parking spot is at the facility, much less what kind of pick-and-roll coverage he’s running against Doncic or Steph Curry.
But there’s a clear and simple upside too.
“It’s fun for me,” Edwards said. “We get to play again.”
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