ATLANTA – Winfred Jordan is a self-professed basketball junkie. When he was an adolescent in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, his uncles would pick him up in his Oakland City neighborhood in southwest Atlanta and take him up to Georgia Tech to watch the state high school playoffs.
Jordan rattles off the names of the great players he saw there.
“There were so many of them,” Jordan said. “Dale Ellis, Jeff Malone, Terry Fair, Donald Hartry, Lamar Heard, Cedric Henderson, Melvin Howard, James Banks. I watched James Banks destroy people all by himself.”
Banks, of course, ended up going to the University of Georgia where he helped lead the Bulldogs on their Final Four run in 1983. Fair, Heard and Hartry also were on that team.
That’s why Jordan, head coach of the Atlanta Xpress AAU team, is taken aback when people react with such surprise that the state’s latest basketball sensation – Anthony “Ant Man” Edwards – is seriously considering signing with the Bulldogs. In fact, Jordan doesn’t discount the notion that Georgia might actually hold a lead in the bid to sign his 6-foot-5 guard, who is considered the No. 1 basketball prospect in America.
Then again, the Bulldogs haven’t signed the No. 1 player in America in a while. OK, maybe never.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Jordan said with a laugh. “But Georgia has a strong basketball history. People tend to forget about the times they’ve been really, really good. Hugh Durham always recruited great players.”
The world will find out Monday morning if Georgia’s latest head coach has been able penetrate Atlanta’s AAU zone. Tom Crean has been on the job only since March 15, but he and his staff have made up an enormous amount of ground when it comes to the considerable pursuit that has been recruitment of Edwards.
Edwards will announce his decision at a commitment ceremony scheduled for 9 a.m. at his high school, Holy Spirit Prep of Atlanta. The Bulldogs are one of three finalists. The other two are Kentucky and Florida State. Actual letters-of-intent can’t be signed until April 17, the first day of the spring signing period.
“If they’re still in it at this point they’ve done a good job,” said Ty Anderson, Edward’s coach at Holy Spirit.
Georgia most definitely is still in it. Edwards himself acknowledged that after scoring 41 points in Holy Spirit’s Region 1-AAA championship game this past Friday night in Duluth.
But Edwards gave no hints as to which way he is leaning, only that he’s “pretty sure” which school he’s going to choose and that he’s eager to have the decision behind him.
“I can’t wait,” Edwards said. “It’s going to take a lot of pressure off me. I won’t have too much to worry about. I can focus just on school. It’s going to be a dream come true.”
Just who is Ant Man?
Everybody who knows anything about basketball can tell you about the Ant Man. That’s the explosive, high-scoring athlete who averages 27 points and 9 rebounds a game and can literally score from anywhere on a basketball court at any moment.
Fewer know about Anthony Edwards, the person behind the cool nickname. That’s actually the way he prefers it. His is a past of great personal tragedy, but also of remarkable personal triumph.
Edwards was raised by his mother, Yvette Edwards, and grandmother, Shirley Edwards, in the same Oakland City neighborhood that Jordan grew up. The difference is, when Jordan was coming up, Oakland City wasn’t considered one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden areas in all of Atlanta.
“It wasn’t rough like it is now,” said Jordan, who’s in his 50s. “Years later, after crack came along, it took over those inner-city areas.”
Edwards’ world drastically changed four years ago. In the same year, both his mother and grandmother died, according to Jordan. He said both women died of cancer.
“They were both very important people in his life,” Jordan said. “They raised him.”
Jordan said Edwards’ father is not involved in his life, so custody was granted to Edwards’ 25-year-old brother, Antoine. It has been between Antoine and Jordan that Edwards has received his care ever since.
“He doesn’t want that stuff talked about,” Jordan said. “He just wants the focus to be on who is as a person and a basketball player.”
Edwards gets high marks on both of those fronts. He busted out on the basketball scene as a ninth-grader playing AAU basketball for the Atlanta Xpress. At the time he was attending Therrell High School in southwest Atlanta. But it wasn’t always clear that basketball was his future.
“People don’t believe me when I tell him but he’s just as a good of a football player as he is a basketball player,” Jordan said. “When I met him in the eighth grade, he played football at the time. But it was ninth or 10th grade he got an injury. He hurt his foot. When he did, I told him he needed to lay off football for a while. I told him he could always go back to football but he wouldn’t be able to with basketball. But once he got to dedicating more time to basketball he just blossomed, more and more and more.”
It was Jordan that initiated what ended up being one of the biggest moves in Edwards’ life. They decided to transfer schools. He ended up at Holy Spirit Prep, a relatively new private Catholic school located in the North Buckhead suburbs of Atlanta, the year before last.
“I felt like he needed a change,” Jordan said. “I was looking for a better situation for the young man, something that would make him better for the next 20 years of life and prepare him for college. He needed something a little more structured, something that would make him a little more polished as a young man. He needed more diversity in his life and more structure academically. He’s gotten that at Holy Spirit.”
Greg McClaire was the coach at the time. McClaire was succeeded last year by Anderson, a four-year letterman as a basketball player at Georgia Tech and the grandson of coaching legend Lefty Driesell.
“Ant’s an extraordinary human being,” Anderson said. “He’s just a high-character, hard-working, fun-loving kid. Whichever school he says he’s going to on Monday morning, he’s going to be a great ambassador for that basketball program and for that academic institution.”
NBA definitely ‘down the road’
In Anderson, Edwards received a fresh set of eyes. Anderson starred at Oconee County High School at the same time Louis Williams was playing at South Gwinnett High. He said Edwards is the best basketball talent he’s seen since.
“I think he’s the best scorer I’ve seen in high school since Louis Williams,” Anderson said. “I played against (Williams) and he was unbelievable. Georgia almost got him, too, but he went straight to the NBA. So, yeah, there are comparisons. But I think it won’t be too long before guys are comparing the next generation to Ant. He’s going to make his own mold.”
Dan McDonald, a longtime recruiting analyst for Rivals who also runs his own basketball camps, probably has seen more of and knows more about Edwards as a basketball player than anybody.
“I’ve been saying since last summer that I think he’s the best player in the country,” McDonald said. “He’s a great athlete, really strong and powerful, and he’s become very skilled. He has NBA level moves already with room still to grow. He’s very unselfish and a great a decision-maker for most part. Along with all that, he’s just a great kid that others gravitate to.”
The NBA could be an option for Edwards as well, but at this point none of his advisers are recommending it. The NBA can be a risky path, especially without the assurance of an extended future.
Edwards is part of the first graduating high school class that can choose the NBA’s G-League, which offers “select contracts” for players not yet eligible to enter the NBA draft. It offers the alternative of earning as much as $125,000 to play professional basketball in the U.S. rather than go overseas or choose the “one-and-done” in college.
Edwards told the AJC in January he prefers the college alternative. “You can only struggle for so long,” he said.
NBAdraft.net is among the mock drafts that projects Edwards as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. But Edwards is being advised not to be in a hurry.
“There’s a lot of time – maybe 19 months – between now and the 2020 draft,” Anderson said. “There’s plenty of work he needs to do and he knows that. So he’s approaching that with humility and a workman’s mentality, getting in the gym to work on his game. As far as how the NBA fits in, I don’t know. He’s a kid who definitely focuses on the next step, whatever that is. Right now the next step is choosing college. The step after that is winning a state championship, then graduation, then college. The NBA is a little down the road.”
That’s good news for Georgia — and Kentucky and FSU as well — and that’s where Crean represents a change from the previous regime. Former coach Mark Fox often complained about the trend of college basketball powerhouses such as Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina to recruit “one-and-done” players that had no intention of playing beyond a single season before entering the NBA draft.
Crean embraces the concept and says there’s no reason players of that pedigree shouldn’t consider Georgia as an NBA launching pad same as they would Kansas or Kentucky
“You can do everything here you can do there,” Crean said earlier this season. “And look at what this place has to offer? We have everything you could possibly need, plus a great education.”
The next Georgia great
Such an attitude has endeared Crean to Edwards’ camp and, indeed, to many in Atlanta’s tight-knit AAU community. It’s no fluke that two members of Crean’s coaching staff — Amir Abdur-Rahim and Chad Dollar — have deep ties to the AAU scene.
“Crean is amazing to us; he’s going to be the second-best thing to happen there outside of Hugh Durham,” said Jordan, a longtime presence in the Atlanta basketball community. “He is a true teacher of basketball. He teaches his players the game and he doesn’t have just one philosophy. He’s always doing a lot of individual stuff to help develop his players. That’s important, that’s big. Coach Crean spends a lot of time making players better individually.”
Georgia has, in fact, signed great basketball players before. There’s some debate as to whether Dominique Wilkins was the No. 1 player in the class of 1979 as recruiting rankings weren’t as sophisticated as they are today. James Worthy, Sam Bowie, Ralph Sampson and Ellis were also in that class. But Wilkins definitely in the top five.
But one really doesn’t have to go back that far to find the Bulldogs landing some of the top players in the country. Dennis Felton signed Williams out of South Gwinnett in 2005. The 6-foot-2 guard was ranked the No. 1 player in the state and the No. 7 in the nation by Rivals that year. He ended up going straight to the NBA, and he’s playing for the Los Angeles Clippers 13 years later.
In 2012, Georgia landed the state’s top player again in 6-foot-6 guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Ranked 12th nationally by Rivals, Caldwell-Pope played two seasons with the Bulldogs before becoming a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Pistons. He’s now with the L.A. Lakers.
But it has probably been since Wilkins that the Bulldogs have been in position to land a player Edwards’ ilk. Not only is he considered the No. 1 prospect in the country by 247Sports.com (Rivals ranks him No. 2), but NBAdraft.net projects him as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft.
Jordan was asked why Edwards would choose an upstart Georgia program under Crean over a tried-and-true, NBA factory like Kentucky has been under John Calipari.
“He respects those other universities very much,” Jordan said. “He loves Duke; he loves Kentucky. Kentucky really has him in awe right now. It’s hard to go against Kentucky basketball. But Anthony wants to write his own script, write his own chapter. He wants to write his own book. That’s him.”
McDonald and 247Sports’ Evan Daniels are both predicting Edwards to announce Georgia on Monday. Should he choose the Bulldogs, it will be considered a major upset by the college basketball world.
Jordan’s not so sure that should be the case.
“It’s been 20 years, I guess, and people tend to remember what they saw recently,” Jordan said. “Georgia is known for football, so you talk about basketball and people say, ‘ah, it’s not a basketball school.’ They forget what it used to be.”
If Crean lands Edwards, Georgia could become what it’s never been.