Discover more from Steve’s Newsletter
In Defeat, Edwards Continues To Make Case To Nets He Isn’t Merely Injury Filler
Here’s something I never thought I’d be muttering to myself during a close Nets game this season: “Boy, the Nets need to bring Kessler Edwards back into this thing--ASAP.”
The rookie wing was a rare earnest defender in the Nets’ 114-107 defeat in Cleveland on Monday afternoon, the first game of many that Brooklyn will be forced to play without superstar forward Kevin Durant, who suffered an MCL sprain in his left knee during Saturday’s 120-105 victory over visiting New Orleans.
The entire league is on the lookout for “3-and-D” wings”, those rare players who can not only guard all positions one-through-five but are also efficient scorers from behind the three-point line. It’s why the Nets gave such a long look to Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot the last couple of seasons.
It’s silly to pigeonhole KD as a 3-and-D wing because of his supreme abilities on both ends of the floor but he had been drawing most of Brooklyn’s toughest frontcourt assignments in addition to filling up the scoresheet. As fellow Big 3 member Kyrie Irving noted after Monday’s loss, he cannot be replaced. The Nets may have gone 19-4 during a similarly lengthy stretch last season where Durant was shelved due to a hamstring strain, but this isn’t the same team. Back then, James Harden was in peak form, Irving was a full-time player (more on that in a separate post), and, most relevant to this analysis, the Nets employed versatile forward Jeff Green, a switchy forward who shot over 40% from deep.
The depleted Nets are now forced to rely heavily on Edwards, a second-round pick (No. 44 overall) out of Pepperdine in last July’s NBA Draft who was then signed to a two-way contract. Not because Edwards is any kind of facsimile of Durant, but because he’s the only one left at the position.
Fortunately, Edwards has been a bright spot during this season of chaos. As I wrote in my mid-term report card column (Mostly Solid Grades On Nets Mid-Term Report Card, With Some Weak Links (substack.com)), Edwards emits some of the same vibes felt when Rodions Kurucs was a rookie back in 2018-19. Kurucs was selected just four slots earlier in his Draft and drew outsized (though not entirely irrational) exuberance from fans who were pining for an energy source with size who could also make an occasional three-point shot. Those feelings persisted into this season after Green wasn’t replaced.
Edwards just may be a 2.0 version, since his Basketball IQ already seems to exceed that of Kurucs and TLC by miles despite a mere 12 games of NBA experience. For one thing, he doesn’t take strolls like Kurucs routinely did before driving closeouts, nor does he carelessly foul three-point shooters like TLC. To the contrary, Edwards appears to have an impressive ability to activate an advanced learning mechanism that has enabled him to adjust on the fly. An opponent might get him up in the air prematurely on head fakes early in a game, but in general he will then stay down before contesting subsequent shots. Per NBA.com’s tracking, he held Cleveland’s highly-regarded rookie Evan Mobley, who was drafted third overall, to three-for-seven shooting without fouling him once despite the four-inch and 12-pound disparities.
Edwards is spry enough to switch onto lead guards, too, though Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander torched him (and the rest of the Nets) last Thursday. Edwards pretty much contained Cleveland’s rising star Darius Garland as well as anyone in his limited opportunities on Monday--Garland may or may not have dragged his back pivot foot on the one time he was able to step through to the basket on Edwards.
Most of the Nets’ defensive issues in Cleveland were related to poor communications, with Patty Mills looking like he was on a freelancing assignment and Harden too often offering indifferent resistance. It was frustrating watching the Nets defend properly for 15-20 seconds of the shot clock before suffering a head-scratching breakdown that yielded a layup or a wide-open three-pointer. Edwards, though, was seldom the culprit.
Unlike the Nets’ expected defensive stoppers, like Bruce Brown and the scratched DeAndre’ Bembry and James Johnson, Edwards hasn’t been a dead end offensively. After making 4-of-8 (including 3-of-6 from downtown) on Monday, his shooting split is 45.5/42.9/100. With reigning three-point king Joe Harris out since November 14 while recovering from ankle surgery, the floor spacing that Edwards has been able to provide over this last month has been immeasurably crucial.
You can also see Edwards gain confidence attacking the basket, with both a pull-up and a floater in his arsenal. Per NBA.com, he is 5-for-7 from mid-range areas.
Barring TLC-esque shooting malfunctions in the months ahead, it’s hard to see the Nets demoting Edwards completely out of the rotation, even when (if?) they ever get whole. Fellow rookie Cam Thomas can be a walking bucket-getter, but he is way behind on the other end of the floor, often losing track of his man when he relocates off the ball. Will Head Coach Steve Nash accommodate those type of mistakes in the postseason if he has all his stars and bench scoring isn’t the priority? It’s not a clear-cut call anymore.
Brooklyn would be required to convert Edwards’ two-way contract into a standard one, with an existing roster member traded or cut, to make him eligible for the playoffs. I can think of several candidates for the chopping block, though everything this franchise does going forward will be prohibitively expensive thanks to the luxury tax penalties. Still, it’s easier to replace a Paul Millsap, who has missed quite a few games due to “personal reasons” of late, than it is to find a competent 3-and-D wing.
Edwards’ position—and his athletic measurables--intrigued me and many other Nets fans since the Draft. I intently watched him play in the NBA Summer League and the preseason but then concluded he just wasn’t ready. I felt he wasn’t strong enough or quick enough on his shot release and in general. The two-way deal seemed appropriate so he could get reps in the G League for Long Island.
Development, though, can progress at different speeds. The Nets are supposedly ecstatic with how Edwards has picked up the nuances of the pro game so fast and they are starting to reap the benefits on the court.
Edwards won’t have a KD-level impact on outcomes (Brooklyn is 2-3 in his five starts and 5-4 in games he’s played meaningful minutes) as the Nets head into a difficult stretch without their MVP candidate, but having Edwards and his skillset in their bag can only help the Nets achieve their more long-term goals.