Closer look: Georgia basketball star Anthony Edwards hitting ‘Freshman Wall’ like no other

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Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards had struggled in SEC play.

ATHENS — For once, it seemed, Georgia basketball freshman Anthony Edwards was not at ease talking basketball on Saturday evening.

The Bulldogs had just dropped their third game in a row, falling at home to an Ole Miss team that had lost six straight and was sitting last in the SEC.

Edwards squirmed, he fidgeted, he smiled and he frowned. An 18-year-old young man who should still be in high school by birthdate, Edwards didn’t know what to do or what to say in this curious, awkward and pressure-filled situation.

Four nights earlier, Edwards was held scoreless in the first half at Kentucky and committed five turnovers.

Pressure cooker

Every Georgia win and loss seemingly rides on Edwards’ shoulders, and the weight of having a program’s hopes reliant upon his performances appears to finally be taking a toll.

“I think he handles it pretty well, but sometimes I’ll be worried about him,” UGA senior Jordan Harris said last Saturday. “I’ll always check on him like, are you good? Are you going through something?

“He deals with all the outside noise pretty well. I am shocked at the way he deals with it, because it is a lot for him.”

But how could Edwards explain his 3-of-12 shooting night against Ole Miss? The Atlanta basketball prodigy nicknamed “Antman” had taken (settled?) 10 shots beyond the 3-point arc, unable to get his 6-foot-5, 225-pound explosive frame to the rim.

“Teams are trying to defend me differently,” Edwards offered. “They are trying to take me out of the game and make other people score. I’ve just got to find ways to help my team win.”

That was the hope for Georgia basketball when Edwards signed on, turning down opportunities to go virtually anywhere else in the country to stay closer to his family.

Edwards is projected by some to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, but more and more are having their doubts.

“To me, he’s a prospect, he’s not a finished product,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenburg said. “It’s amazing people talk about him as the No. 1 overall pick.”

Focus on winning

Edwards has said since arriving that his focus is on winning, and he has maintained his confidence that he can help lift a Bulldogs’ program lacking notable tradition or recent success.

“As a team, I want us to make it to the (NCAA) Tournament and go deep in it,” Edwards said after the opening exhibition game in November, in what now seems like an entirely difference season. “Bring Georgia basketball back and have the most fun I can.”

The Bulldogs haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 2014-15 season. The hopes for 2019-20 took a decided downturn with the home loss to Ole Miss, and Edwards’ expression suggested he knew it — and was helpless to do anything about it.

Georgia coach Tom Crean, who developed NBA lottery picks Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo, at Marquette and Indiana, respectively, is working to support Edwards on and off the court.

“If we put this in perspective, who is going through college basketball like he is right now?” Crean said after Edwards’ 23 points weren’t enough to lead the Bulldogs over Kentucky in front of a sold-out Stegeman Coliseum crowd in the SEC opener.

“I mean, who is? We talk about that all the time, people want to be Anthony Edwards, do you really?”

Hard work

Edwards’ lifestyle as a Georgia student-athlete — and as projected multi-million dollar draft pick expected to perform each night — sounded like a lonely one as he discussed part of his workout routine after an 80-63 win over Tennessee earlier this month.

“I was in here until 1 o’clock (a.m.) on Monday, and yesterday I was in here until 10:30 or 11 (p.m.),” Edwards said, explaining how he reacted to a 22-point loss at Auburn.

“Most of the time I’m always in here late night, because that’s when I like to shoot, that’s when I have the most energy because I’ve got nothing to do.”

Fact is, Edwards has plenty of areas to improve his game, even with the hard work and spectacular athleticism that’s brought him this far.

“Part of it is not pre-determining, there’s a laundry list, not getting fixed on one thing, learning to really see and learn the game,” Crean said. “Those are all things he’s learning. He’s learning to put possession by possession together.”

And now Crean said it’s up to him and his staff to help find Edwards more ways to score and help the team win.

Edwards’ heart and competitive spirit is in the right place each time he launches his long-range shot, but “it’s not the game plan,” Crean said. Edwards, the leading freshman scorer in the nation (18.6 points per game), is hitting just 31.3 percent from 3-point range.

Coaching adjustment

Crean has reiterated how important ball movement and player movement is to an effective offense, and Edwards fits square in the middle of that plan.

“We made some real adjustments with him, he’s got to continue to cut when they’re denying him, he’s got to continue to cut rather than stand, because he becomes very, very easy to guard when he’s just standing in the slots, right, because they’re not coming off him,” Crean said.

“Now, it might create a basket for somebody else, but he’s learning a lot about cutting, a lot that he never knew. But we’re nowhere near where we have to be with that.”

And Edwards doesn’t appear to be anywhere near where he was some two weeks ago, when he explained his jubilant sideline antics during the blowout win over the Vols.

“Basketball is always business for me, because I’m trying to make a lot of money playing this game,” Edwards said that night, “ but you never let the fun be taken away from it. That’s why you play, because it’s fun.”

Georgia returns to action at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Missouri.

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