Monday, May 20, 2024
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Anthony Edwards thanks Team USA for Game 1 explosion, but this summer, they’re going to be thanking him

Anthony Edwards is playing so well right now that it would be easy to forget just how well he’s playing on the biggest stage of his career. Entering this season, he’d played only 11 career playoff games. He never played in the NCAA Tournament. Saturday was his first foray into the second round of the playoffs, and he responded with the best game of his playoff career: 43 points on 17-of-29 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists, stellar defense and, most importantly, a 106-99 road upset victory against the defending champions. Afterward, he credited his success to the way he spent last summer.

“Big shoutout to the USA team, man,” Edwards said in his post-game interview. “They got me ready for this season.” Edwards is of course referring to his time spent playing in the FIBA World Cup, where Team USA failed to medal by finishing in fourth. That was through no fault of Edwards, though, as he led the team in scoring at 18.9 points per game.

The road there wasn’t always easy, though. Head coach Steve Kerr initially planned to bring Edwards off of the bench. He pushed back. “I mean, of course I wasn’t cool with it,” Edwards told Joe Vardon of The Athletic. “If that’s what it takes, I mean, I am willing to do it, but nah, I’m never cool with that. … He said Dwyane Wade came off the bench when Kobe played. I was like, all right, we don’t have a Kobe, but all right.” Edwards claimed a starting role after a single practice.

Fast forward to 2024, and Team USA might have a Kobe this time around… and Edwards might be that player. On Saturday, Edwards became the second player aged-22 or younger to score 40 or more points in consecutive playoff games. The first? Kobe Bryant. That is the sort of company that Edwards is keeping with his recent performances, and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t carry on into the Olympics.

Edwards was one of the 12 players named to Team USA’s final roster, but throughout the process, he wasn’t considered nearly the lock that other players were. In February, for example, The Athletic reported that the team viewed LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker as its core. Though neither Kerr nor Team USA executive director Grant Hill publicly commented, the widespread assumption was that Booker would join Curry, Durant, Embiid and James in the starting five.

Edwards just swept Booker out of the playoffs. More so, given his superior defense, it’s hard to imagine Edwards coming off the bench in favor of Booker in an Olympic setting in which individual scoring isn’t nearly as valued. Starting might not even be a high enough bar for Edwards at this stage.

The narrative surrounding this Olympic Team is that the old guard is coming back for one last moment of glory. James is 39. Curry is 36. Durant is 35. Even Embiid is 30. It is exceedingly rare for American players that old to play for Team USA, but the stars felt they had no choice after last summer’s losses at the World Cup. The international competition is simply too stiff. Nikola Jokic is on his way to this third MVP this season, which would increase the American MVP drought to six years. Four of last season’s five First-Team All-NBA choices were born overseas.

No American-born player has risen up to claim the title of face of the sport from James, Curry and Durant even as they’ve hit the twilight of their careers. That player now very well might be Edwards. Every member of that anticipated Team USA starting lineup is out of the playoffs. Edwards is not only still in it, but may well be having the best postseason of any player in the field. He’s three games away from sending Jokic home, a feat no player domestic or intentional could manage last offseason.

Team USA will have to beat Jokic to win gold this summer. They’ll also have to beat the Rudy Gobert-Victor Wembanyama duo in France, Germany’s defending World Cup championship roster, Canada’s bronze-winning squad with Jamal Murray likely joining them and many other unusually frightening opponents. When those games come, it’s going to be Team USA thanking Edwards for wearing their jersey. He might even be the one leading the charge as Team USA pushes for its fifth-consecutive gold medal.

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