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Zulgad: Message received? Anthony Edwards has lots of talent, but also plenty he needs to learn

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Chicago Bulls
Feb 24, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards (1) goes to the basket past Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) during the second half of an NBA game at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Timberwolves were trailing the Rockets by 15 points with 7 minutes, 4 seconds left in the fourth quarter on Friday when Chris Finch substituted veteran Ricky Rubio for rookie Anthony Edwards. Finch said he intended to put Edwards back in but that never happened.

Edwards watched the Wolves score 21 points in a 22-0 run that resulted in a 107-101 victory. It marked the second time in three games that the first pick in the 2020 draft had been on the bench to finish a game.

“It was a lot like the other night,” Finch said afterward. “We took him out at his mid-fourth quarter break. He was going to get a couple minutes, finish the game but the game was in control of the guys who were on the floor. He still played the second most minutes of the night, had plenty of opportunities to impact that game. Listen, we don’t have the luxury of having a closing lineup right now. We’re just going to have to go with guys who played well that night and earned their moments in the last five, six minutes.”

Finch took over a team whose season is a lost cause, at least from a record standpoint, when he replaced Ryan Saunders on Feb. 22. The Wolves were 7-24 at that point and have gone 4-11 since Finch arrived. What can’t be a lost cause for Finch is setting expectations for his players and the 19-year-old Edwards is about as important as they come.

Drafted ahead of James Wiseman and LaMelo Ball, Edwards is the latest high draft pick to join the Wolves with the hope that he can be part of a turn around 17 years in the making. Andrew Wiggins, who was traded to Golden State in a deal that might cost the Wolves their first-round pick in 2021, was once expected to be that player but it didn’t workout. Now, it’s Karl-Anthony Towns, the first pick in the 2015 draft, and D’Angelo Russell, obtained in the Wiggins deal, who are expected to combine with Edwards to finally get this franchise back to relevance.

Russell, however, has been out since since mid-February — before Finch was hired — because of arthroscopic knee surgery. That has given Edwards plenty of opportunities to play a starring role for the Wolves and the reviews have been mixed. Edwards is a sight to behold when he’s flying through the air and toward the rim for another breathtaking dunk.

But what Finch wants to see is more consistency when it comes to the important details that win games. That means Edwards applying himself on defense and finishing every drive to the rim. Edwards already has picked up Towns’ bad habit of complaining when he thinks he has been fouled and not getting back quick enough on defense.

“He’s got to go quicker,” Finch said. “He has to turn corners quicker, he’s got to try to beat the coverage with the dribble. I thought he was aggressive early (in Friday’s game), but just because he’s not been successful getting to the rim for the finish you can’t stop going. We talked to him throughout the game about that.”

Finch’s decision to sit Edwards in the fourth quarter Friday, or to finish the game in the Wolves’ 112-103 loss to Oklahoma City on Monday, wasn’t meant as a punishment but rather a message that he has more to offer and if the Wolves aren’t getting it others will play.

Edwards entered the Wolves’ game Monday night in Brooklyn averaging 17 points (fourth on the team), 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 46 games and 29 starts. If Edwards caught opponents by surprise with his play earlier this season, he no longer is going to be able to do that. Teams are now prepared for what he brings.

“In the beginning of the season, I guarantee at shootaround and game preparation, our opponents were not talking a lot about him,” Finch said. “I guarantee you now they’re spending a significant amount of time (talking) about how to stop him and this is part of his growth period. He has to learn to see what’s in front of him and then make the next adjustment, or figure out how to go quicker before they load up on him.”

Finch’s approach is a wise one and might have been atop the list of to-do items that were discussed between Wolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas and Finch when he was hired. Despite concerns that Edwards wasn’t completely into basketball when he was drafted, he has proven that he loves to compete and certainly has the talent to succeed. Edwards’s style in no way resembles the ambivalent style that Wiggins brought to the floor.

What the Wolves can’t let happen is for Edwards to become enveloped in all of the losing they are doing and develop bad (or selfish) habits that will be difficult to break. Finch made it clear that it’s not just a silent message being sent to Edwards when he doesn’t play. “We’re talking to our players all the time,” he said. “It’s part of coaching them. We’re not coaching basketball players, we’re coaching people.”

The good news is that Finch feels Edwards is receptive to his message.

“He has the same attitude every day. He’s always in a good mood,” Finch said. “He’s always very confident. No matter how he plays, he turns the page and he’s ready to go the next day with the same approach. He’s very coachable. He’s open to learning and doing the things we’re asking him to do. It’s just that the NBA is a very tough place to learn on the fly, without a lot of practice, without a lot of individual player development time.

“You have to learn from video and you have to learn in the game and it’s a tough proving ground sometimes. Therefore, when you add it all up at the end of the season, we’re going to have a great amount of work that we’re going to be able to evaluate and get better from and it’s going to (pay) dividends. But right now there’s going to be some inconsistencies in those performances because we’re learning on the fly.”