Anthony Edwards is mastering the mid-range game
Though much has been made about the de-emphasis of the mid-range space in the modern NBA, it remains a crucial battleground for today's primary ball-handlers.
It's one thing to trim the mid-range fat from your shot diet as a complementary player, because you have the luxury of simply spotting up or using off-ball screens above the 3-point line, or getting directly to the rim by cutting or slicing into gaps off the catch. When you're a lead creator tasked with running pick-and-rolls, breaking defenses down off the bounce, and generating advantages for yourself and your teammates, you're inevitably going to find yourself boxed into that in-between zone; squeezed between an on-ball chaser and a rim-protector playing drop coverage or a one-man zone.
Sometimes you have to be able to take what the defense gives you. That's why, after a long period of decline, mid-range frequency hit a stabilization point about four years ago. The shot may have been marginalized, but it was never going to disappear.
Anthony Edwards brought many obvious superstar skills to the table throughout his first three NBA seasons, but mid-range scoring wasn't one of them. Even as he developed from a bulldozing rim marauder into a smooth and controlled self-creator, even as he tightened his handle and sharpened his long-range aim, he remained a two-level scorer. Coming into 2023-24, he'd made 32% of his long 2-pointers for his career. He shot 37% on all non-rim twos last season (29th percentile), and that was his high-water mark.
He still has basically no floater game to speak of, but when it comes to long mid-range proficiency, Edwards appears to have turned a glaring weakness into a herculean strength. He's hit 55% of those long twos this season, miles ahead of the 42% league average. And the benefits of that leap go well beyond the simple fact he's making more jumpers.
Edwards' explosive speed, agility, and vertical athleticism allow him to live at the rim, but he hadn't actually made the most of that natural habitat until this season, despite what his myriad poster dunks may have led to believe. He shot 64% at the rim last season and 63% the year prior, which was right around league average for a wing, per Cleaning the Glass. There's nothing wrong with that conversion rate in a vacuum, especially considering how often Edwards gets to the hoop, but it certainly felt like someone with his combination of strength and leaping ability should've been better than an average interior finisher.
Part of the reason was he didn't feel comfortable falling back on his mid-ranger as a counter, so he had a tendency to force the issue and bang his head against a wall of back-line defenders instead:
This season, Edwards is attempting more pull-up middies per game than all but four players: Brandon Ingram, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Jalen Brunson. And the fact he's hitting them at such a high clip is allowing him to be a lot more selective on his drives. His rim frequency is down significantly this season, but he's now shooting 73% (85th percentile) on shots he takes there.
When the path is blocked, he's stepping into the in-between space and rising and firing with no hesitation, unbothered by rearview pressure. He's even showcasing an uncanny knack for using the window:
Edwards was also a limited playmaker prone to tunnel vision early in his career, and despite some improvement in that department, he still has a ways to go. He's not as quick a floor-mapper as you want your primary creator to be and he lets plenty of passing windows close as a result. But that's less of an issue this season, in large part because of the simplified reads his newfound mid-range prowess affords him.
You can see how differently defenses now react to the threat of him pulling up inside the arc. Whether he's coming off a ball screen or a wide pindown or simply beats his man off the bounce, rim-protectors have to account for him further from the basket than they used to. If a screen defender is determined to stay in a deep drop, or is occupied by an action elsewhere, helpers pull over aggressively from the wing to try and prevent Edwards from getting a shot off.
In the still below, look at all the attention he garners without even breaking the paint, and look at all the profitable passing options available to him as a result:
Edwards wound up taking (and making) the free-throw line jumper on that play, but there have been plenty of other occasions in which he's drawn mid-floor help and used it to create premium looks for teammates:
His assist rate has climbed from 19.3% to 24.8% and, importantly, he's made that ascension while reducing his turnover rate. Over the two seasons before this one, Edwards registered 113 total assists and 134 turnovers on his drives, which was just about the worst ratio in the league among high-volume drivers, per NBA Advanced Stats. When the defense could afford to collapse on him late, he was often forced to try to find emergency kickouts as a last resort. Now that more passing avenues are branching out in front of him from the middle of the floor, his playmaking smacks of proactivity rather than desperation.
When it comes to spearheading the pick-and-roll game, the Timberwolves' trade for Rudy Gobert two offseasons ago presented Edwards with a challenge and an opportunity. He'd never played with a screen-and-dive man anywhere near Gobert's caliber before. With Gobert carving out acres of space as a screener and either dragging opposing bigs to the rim or drawing in weak-side help with his roll gravity, Edwards would have no choice but to workshop his live-dribble playmaking and mid-range scoring. That process is very much ongoing (the Edwards-Gobert pick-and-roll is actually producing fewer points per possession than it did last season, with Gobert's end of it taking the biggest hit), but Edwards is ticking off a very important box.
Becoming a legitimate three-level scorer has led to Edwards' most efficient season (58.3% true shooting) on his highest usage (31.9%) to date. With him on the floor, Minnesota's offensive rating is nearly four points per 100 possessions better this year (117.7) than it was last (113.8).
At the same time, it's fair to wonder whether his nascent love affair with the mid-range is taking him too far away from the things he still does best. His frequency of non-rim 2-pointers has jumped from 28% to an astonishing 46%. A ton of those shots are coming from the short mid-range area (i.e. floater range), where he's still struggling with his touch (34%). He's taking fewer threes and, as previously mentioned, a lot fewer shots at the rim.
It's easy to dismiss those concerns considering the Wolves sit atop the West at 12-4, but their success has largely been propelled by their league-best defense. Edwards sets the tone for the offense, and for as good as he's been, he needs to make sure he doesn't get in the habit of settling. Minnesota as a team has the league's highest mid-range frequency, after clocking in at 24th last season, per Cleaning the Glass.
Edwards, though, has shown enough growth and feel for the game to make you feel confident he'll ultimately be able to strike the right balance. For now, the most important thing is that he's added an essential tool to his belt - and one that'll be particularly handy come spring. With defenses locking in and game-planning more diligently, rim frequency declines in the playoffs every single year, often to a considerable degree. Last year, teams went from taking 33.3% of their shots in the restricted area during the regular season to 28.6% in the postseason. Most of those shots are redistributed to the mid-range.
Edwards has already produced some monstrous playoff performances in his young career without the benefit of that scheme-busting shot. Mastering it could be the key to unlocking a new level for him and the Wolves when the games matter most.