ATHENS — Players of Anthony Edwards’ rank and fleeting collegiate shelf life just don’t come to Georgia to play basketball. That was the narrative until it wasn’t, until that day in February at Holy Spirit Preparatory School when Edwards announced his intentions. That’s when he unzipped the hoodie around his 4-month-old nephew and revealed a cute little Bulldogs T-shirt.
The best from Atlanta — and hence the best anywhere — always took their talents to one of those programs far away, where Jay Bilas has an endowed chair at courtside and where basketball refuses to be football’s stepchild. Until the day one didn’t. For when he committed to the G, Edwards, a big guard that the NBA just can’t wait to draft come 2020, rewrote the preconceptions.
There are a couple of solid explanations as to why the much-heralded “Ant Man” Edwards made his debut Tuesday night at Stegeman Coliseum, going for 24 points in a victory over Western Carolina. That was, by the way, the most scored by a Georgia freshman in his first game since some fellow with the lyrical name of Dominique Wilkins scored 26 against Troy in 1979.
“After God, family is the most important thing to me. If they’re not happy, I’m not happy. We’re real, real tight because we’ve gone through a lot of stuff. Nobody can break our bonds.”
That was Edwards speaking earlier this week, hinting at one of the reasons Georgia was a fit for him: Simple proximity to home. Geography was one of the Bulldogs’ biggest allies.
As Edwards showed off his abilities in fits and starts Tuesday, much of his family, both of the genetic and the AAU variety, were witnesses. With two poignant exceptions.
“It felt kind of weird my mom and grandma not there,” said Edwards’ older brother, Antoine.
“Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes. I feel a little heartbroken that they can’t see it. Over time you get used to it, but it’s hard.”
Edwards’ mother, Yvette Edwards, and grandmother Shirley Edwards were the twin suns around which this family revolved. They were the constants, present at every game, and the bonding agents to every family gathering. His father lives in metro Atlanta but is not a part of his children’s day-to-day life, Antoine said.
Then in a seven-month period in 2015-16, both Yvette and Shirley succumbed to ovarian cancer. It was a one-two punch of grief that could really knock the breath out of those left behind. And suddenly the older brother with whom Anthony used to play 1-on-1 on a rim behind his grandmother’s house was the young man’s guardian, along with older sister Antoinette.
Those close to Anthony, just 14 at the time, the youngest in the house, saw a boy grow up in a hurry.
“When I say amazing young man, I mean amazing,” said Winfred Jordan, the founder of the AAU team for which the young Edwards starred, the Atlanta Xpress. “His siblings were thrown into something that was hard to deal with, and that young man maneuvered his own way around.”
Antoine also sees that as the time his young brother really locked onto basketball and took to the gym as a second home. The family recalls the brothers going to the nearby YMCA and shooting for hours on the day their grandmother died because when the ground is shifting beneath your feet, a hardwood floor can be just the stability a baller requires.
The fact that Anthony first dunked shortly after the death of his mother may have been a pure coincidence, the inevitable result of growing older and more physically mature. But his brother recognizes something deeper than that.
“He took (the deaths of his mother and grandmother) and started excelling in basketball afterward. It took a toll on him, but it didn’t take the kind of toll that it broke him down. It made him stronger. It made him push harder. It turned his game to a whole different level,” Antoine said.
Also, such a loss seemed to make him appreciate all the more those still there around him. Because of that, the Bulldogs had very much a home-court advantage.
“I always told the staff if he didn’t want to stay in state, we had no chance,” Bulldogs coach Tom Crean said. “There were too many high-powered blue-blood-type programs recruiting him. At the end of the day we needed to sell everything that’s here with the fact that his life didn’t have to change right now in that he was away from his family and the people who support him. They could stay involved in his life, and I think that’s really, really important.
“I think he’s got real values. He’s not had an easy life. A tremendous talent but he has not had an easy life.”
“I don’t like being around people who are constantly telling me how good I am.”
That was another Edwards utterance from earlier in the week, and another indication of why he’s at Georgia.
From an early age, Edwards seemed to appreciate the fact that he was good, but he would always seek to be better. He worked long and hard on correcting flaws in his jump shot, a necessary compliment to his athletic, get-to-the-rim game. You almost had to take a broom and sweep him out of the gym.
“We’d be off playing tournaments,” said Jordan, the AAU connection, “and he’s always asking us, Coach, can I get in the gym and get some shots up?”
When he first showed up in Athens, Edwards was drawn into a pick-up game with a few of his new teammates. The report is that nobody could stop him. And pretty much from that moment, senior guard Tyree Crump said he started filling the kid’s ear with what a great player he is.
“And he’s like, ‘Don’t be saying that; don’t be saying that.’ And I’m just being honest with him,” Crump said.
“My teammates always tell me I’m probably one of the best players that they’ve seen, or I’m a great player,” Edwards said. “But I don’t really like stuff like that. That’s just not me. I like to come out and play the game, don’t do too much talking, listen to what coach says, do what he says and try to get a win.”
So Crean’s approach of challenging Edwards rather than appealing to ego was pitch perfect.
“The first time we ever met on campus I really tried to pick apart his game,” the Bulldogs coach said. “That’s what I would do with anybody. I wasn’t going to do it any differently with him.
“We told him you’re going to improve, you’re going to be told the truth and we’re really going to push it.”
Thus, the coach pushes him, with so little time to reap the results. “The bottom line is building his versatility, being to do more without the ball,” Crean said. “He can be a tremendous defensive player. My hope is that at some point you see that. Right now, he has to learn to put more and more effort into it after that first or second effort.
“We have to teach him how dominant he can be.”
By the time the Bulldogs first real game on the schedule rolled around Tuesday, the “Ant-ticipation” was high. The packed student sections on a weekday night had Crean almost giddy. The season-ticket allotment had been sold out for the first time in history. Making the rounds before the game, Bulldogs athletic director Greg McGarity was a man on a mission, saying he felt as compelled as ever to hit every basketball game because Edwards wasn’t going to be here long. All hail the Ant Man.
Edwards is far from a finished product. The overheated star-making machinery spits them out young, before their time, really. And Edwards turned 18 only three months ago.
He started slowly against Western Carolina, making one of his first six shots. He had two steals before the second half was 30 seconds old, but converted on neither, a spinning layup attempt that would have been “SportsCenter” gold falling off the rim.
To go with that were spans of basketball that were revelations. In a bit more than three minutes’ time, from 8:50 left in the game to the 5:38 mark, Edwards managed to cram in three 3-pointers, two assists, two rebounds and a steal. He concluded the evening shooting 7-of-16 from the field (4-of-7 from beyond the arc). He had 24 points, nine rebounds, four steals, three assists and four turnovers.
When Edwards fouled out with just more than two minutes left, the audience rewarded him with a standing ovation. “That’s definitely a moment I’ll remember,” he said. “It brought joy to my heart. It’s something that’ll always stay with me.”
There exists now something more rare on the Georgia campus than a Nick Saban Fan Club: The one-and-done basketball player. Those who foretell the future see Edwards as a top one or two pick in the next NBA draft.
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These Bulldogs have a comet by the tail. It will streak across the horizon and be gone too soon. In four months or so, how many games can Edwards and his impossibly young team — count them, nine freshmen — win? How many perceptions can he alter?
Jordan, the Atlanta Xpress founder, said the way Crean recruited Edwards and established contacts in an important AAU hotbed, has been already significant. “I think (Edwards) has had a great impact so far, in terms of kids that UGA has recruited recently compared to last 15-20 years. The UGA fans realize we have basketball back again,” Jordan added.
To Edwards, Crean gets across the message that whatever he does here in a few short months can ripple for a generation. “We keep talking about the fact that no matter how long you’re here, there’s going to be an institutional memory that follows you the rest of your life,” the coach said.
When you are the most coveted of players and you come to Georgia to play basketball, they talk about your legacy even before you’ve played your first game.
Edwards’ plans for legacy-building are far more down to earth.
“I just want people to be like he was a great kid, humble, listens, and everywhere he goes he has a smile on his face,” he said.