In Team USA’s most important FIBA game, which Anthony Edwards will emerge?

MANILA, Philippines – Anthony Edwards has done what has asked of him by Team USA all summer, and Thursday was no different.

As Edwards and teammates strode through the lobby and into the hotel gym where they practice, there were dozens of media, armed with TV cameras and cell phones, assembled along a rope line, all waiting to shout questions at him over the din of basketballs bouncing.

It’s unsavory. Edwards would prefer the old setup from the earlier days of the Americans’ world tour, when the players would peacefully put their shoes on at a chair, and if a reporter wanted a word, he or she could simply approach. But USA Basketball’s media-relations chief asked Edwards to come and fulfill the interview requests from the huddled masses, and he obliged.

In another example of Edwards stepping up in an uncomfortable spot — and if you’ve been following along, you know there are many — the Americans turned to Edwards against Germany last month, first when they dug themselves a 16-point hole against Germany, then again when they needed to hang on in a tight game in the closing minutes. He responded with 34 points.

When they fell behind by 21 to Lithuania Sunday, they seemingly, to the naked eye, turned to Edwards to lead the way. He answered with 35 points.

But what we thought we saw that night against the Lithuanians, in what would have been a historic game had USA won, was not the reality. In the day between games, going into the quarterfinals against Italy, Team USA coaches and players talked to Edwards about passing the ball, getting teammates involved and moving it up the court to catch the defense off guard instead of duplicating his approach against Lithuania.

Edwards, as he’s done it all summer, responded. He took only six shots in Tuesday’s blowout quarterfinal win over the Italians and recorded three assists, but he was otherwise moving the ball and making sure it found the open man.

Going from 35 points on 26 shots to three on six can be dismissed as a simple anomaly for Edwards, but the other Americans explicitly said they asked him to diversify his approach.



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Now, there’s a bit of a mystery as to what’s next. The Germans are on the schedule again, and this time it counts – a FIBA World Cup semifinal Friday (8:40 a.m. ET on ESPN 2) with a spot in the championship game on the line.

In the Aug. 20 exhibition in Abu Dhabi, Edwards torched Germany with 21 shots, four made 3s and eight-of-eight shooting at the foul line. USA head coach Steve Kerr said after that game that Edwards had “become the guy.” But his teammates and coaches have mostly asked him to play a more team-centric game of late.

This is a U.S. team that has not allowed the few small pieces of adversity it’s faced (moving Brandon Ingram out of the starting lineup, Jaren Jackson’s foul trouble, losing to Lithuania) to mushroom. So, the Edwards conundrum is by no means a controversy, unless the Americans look clunky against Germany and everyone is staring at each other because Edwards won’t shoot as teammates’ shots aren’t falling.

And yet, after what’s transpired this week, the question remains for the team’s leading scorer as USA heads into its most important game of the summer. Will he pass or shoot? Or is what will Team USA ask him to do next the bigger question?

“He’s one of the most talented players on earth and still very young,” Kerr said. “So, the challenge — and I’ve talked to him about this — the challenge is to figure out when to attack and when to make the pass. And we’re gonna need both. The last time we played Germany, he completely took over the game. But, as you saw the other night, when we throw the ball ahead, um, whether it’s him or anybody else, we’re really lethal.”

Yes, of course the answer is both for Edwards. For what’s worth, he shrugged off the whole thing at practice Thursday.

“It’s the same thing with the Timberwolves,” he offered. “I’ve gotta look to score, look to pass. It’s not that hard.”

Edwards said that, against Germany, “we was down, and I play my best basketball when the competition is high. I feel like that’s what brought it out.”

And of his performance against Italy, which, to be fair to him, was not a highly competitive game as far as 37-point blowouts go, Edwards said, “the game plan was to move the ball. That’s what I did.”



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The narrative around Edwards, both here in Manila and back home, is that he is a star on the rise, headed toward adding a “super” next to that label. If there is no limit to how good he can get, great. But the issue at present is whether a player who, as Kerr alluded to, is only 22, learn how to strike the right balance in the pressure-packed environment of the FIBA World Cup final four?

It is a little more complicated than he or USA fans might think. For instance, in another recent, tight game, Edwards went scoreless in the first half against Montenegro, but finished with a team-high 17 points in a narrow win.

“I felt like I let my team down in the first half, like, not being aggressive, stopped shooting after I went 0-for-5,” he said afterwards. “So just things that I don’t normally do.”

A game later, while Edwards was dominating the ball and the scoreboard in the Lithuania comeback, there were wide-open teammates on the perimeter. Their shoulders slumped on the possessions where he’d pound, pound, pound, shoot, miss.

“We talked to him and tried to help him out just to find guys, and that’s what he did,” Mikal Bridges said after the Italy game. “And he’s probably the happiest dude in the locker room right now.”

Edwards has led the USA in scoring in seven of the 10 games. The ball has had no problem finding him within the flow of Kerr’s offense, and the only glaring instance of isolation play from Edwards was against Lithuania. The Americans are better when the ball finds him for scoring opportunities or if he finds players like Bridges (24 points against Italy), Jalen Brunson or Tyrese Haliburton.

“I just know every team’s game plan is to make me get off the ball,” Edwards admitted. “You gonna put two on me in a short crowd, I’m just gonna get off of it.” He said that’s what Italy did, and “I had no problem moving it.”

The Germans are undefeated at the World Cup, led by three NBA bigs and Toronto Raptors guard Dennis Schröder, who went 4-of-26 in his team’s quarterfinal win, but is dangerous nonetheless. Kerr said the Americans are “ready” for the rematch. Part of that is making sure Edwards is both at the center of the offense and a working cog toward a greater good.

“You just gotta find that balance, like all great players at a young age have to do,” Kerr said. “Understand when to attack and when to get off the ball. And, and finding that balance is really one of the keys to our offensive attack.”

(Top photo: Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images) 

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