What the improbable Anthony Edwards means to this Minnesota Timberwolves season

Perk: Anthony Edwards as a leader is 'something special to watch' (1:53)

Kendrick Perkins breaks down the Timberwolves' Game 6 victory over the Nuggets and why he believes Anthony Edwards has been pivotal to Minnesota as a leader. (1:53)

IN HIS ROLE as the executive director of USA Basketball, it's not often Grant Hill has a hard time contacting players he's considering for the team. Even in non-Olympic years, that's a call virtually every NBA superstar will take or return quickly.

But, in his attempts to assemble the 2023 FIBA World Cup squad, there was one star Hill couldn't reach.

"I couldn't get ahold of Ant," Hill told ESPN of the then-21-year-old who has taken the league by storm. "I talked to [Minnesota Timberwolves president] Tim Connelly. I talked to all these people around him. But I just kind of got the vibes that he was on the fence about it and didn't really know why."

Anthony Edwards was young and had little experience with the FIBA game, having participated in a pair of training camps, but never playing for the national team. Not in a million years did Hill believe Edwards might actually be questioning whether he belonged on Team USA.

"I think it was the uncertainty of doing something outside of his norm," Edwards' longtime manager, Justin Holland, told ESPN. "He'd never been out of the country. He'd always liked to work out by himself in the summers. So it was more about putting himself into an environment he's not all the way in control of."

Such introspection is difficult to reconcile with the ultra-confident, effervescent young star who has become the face of this season's playoffs. But it's a reflection of just how far Edwards has come in a year: suffering from imposter syndrome to the poster child for this new generation of NBA superstars.

Just two weeks ago, the Timberwolves swept one of Edwards' idols, Kevin Durant, and the Phoenix Suns in the first round. The Wolves have pushed the defending champion Denver Nuggets further than any opponent has in two years -- to a Game 7 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET on TNT).

Not only did he become, in head coach Steve Kerr's words, "the man" for Team USA last summer, he's breathed new life into a Timberwolves franchise that has toiled in mediocrity and dysfunction since trading Kevin Garnett in 2007.

Throughout this season, the 22-year-old Edwards has been, despite his youth, Minnesota's unquestioned leader on the court and off, in moments public and private, and he has fueled his team to within one game of its first Western Conference finals appearance in 20 years.

Stephen A.: 'Game 7 starts with Anthony Edwards'

Stephen A. Smith puts into perspective how great Anthony Edwards will need to be for a Timberwolves win vs. the Nuggets in Game 7.

IT DIDN'T SEEM like there was a single moment during Minnesota's 45-point Game 6 win Thursday night that ESPN's cameras weren't trained on Edwards. From his 11 points during what proved to be a decisive 24-2 run in the first quarter. To his gestures throughout the game, egging the crowd on to keep cheering "Wolves in 7!"

They also caught a handful of moments that captured something far more subtle -- something team insiders and those close to Edwards say has not only cemented the team's culture, but has also led to Minnesota's most wins since 2003-04, when the Wolves made their one and only appearance in the Western Conference finals. It's these displays of leadership, despite turning 22 just 10 months ago and still being on his rookie contract.

"I've never seen a leader who was able to just ... he acts like he's 30," Timberwolves center Naz Reid told ESPN. "You would think he's 30."

When the Wolves built their lead to 26-11 with 2:53 remaining in the first quarter of Game 6, Edwards ran into the team's huddle during a timeout. Karl-Anthony Towns, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaden McDaniels and Reid were sitting on the bench, looking up at Edwards. Kyle Anderson and Rudy Gobert were at his side, doing the same.

"This is what I was talking about the other day," Edwards told them. "We get a lead and get comfortable."

Holding an NBA playoffs towel and a water bottle in his left hand, he gestured powerfully with his right, emphasizing each word.

"Keep your foot on the gas," he implored.

And they did. The lead never shrunk to fewer than 12 points, and extended to 50 midway through the fourth quarter.

"Just the way he's grown from, I always say my second year, his rookie year, just from the way he's grown as a basketball player and that person," Reid said, "It's completely night and day."

Afterward, Edwards, who scored a game-high 27 points, used his postgame interview to compliment Jaden McDaniels for what he said was the team's best performance of the night.

"This guy right here," he said, pointing at McDaniels. "He led us tonight. Everybody on our team is a leader, and he was a leader tonight. He stepped it up big time."

McDaniels, who had 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting, responded in kind. "My teammates give me confidence. Ant gives me the most confidence."

He's not alone.

In the postgame news conference, Edwards praised Towns for his defense on Nikola Jokic and provided a glimpse into how he's tried to lead the foul-prone Towns.

"He's been guarding him the whole series. He's been doing an outstanding job," he said. "The main thing today was his ass stayed out of foul trouble, like I told him in the Phoenix series. ... I cussed him out. I cussed him out every chance I got. Stop f---ing fouling. I think you guys see it. If KAT don't foul, we pretty much can win the game, every time. Tonight, he had three fouls. But he only had three. He didn't have five.

"I told him today, 'We're thankful you didn't foul ... because if you foul, we lose. You're the best matchup we have for Jokic.'"

These are but a few of the public moments, from one singular game, which show Edwards guiding his teammates, young and old. But there are many more that happen off camera, heavy lifting behind the scenes.

Like when he texted his teammates after Game 1, saying he didn't like the way he shot the ball and was going to a local college to shoot the night before Game 2. Anyone who wanted to join him was welcome, he said. Reid, McDaniels and Alexander-Walker received the invitation. But it wasn't exactly optional.

"That's what you want, right?" Reid told ESPN. "For your best player to lead by example, not words? ... We're all super young, but we all know that the sky's the limit for all of us, especially him obviously, but he wants to bring us along and that's dope."

EDWARDS HEARD THE chatter -- and knew it had to stop.

When Towns was out for five weeks following surgery on his meniscus in March, the Timberwolves went 12-6. Questions began percolating about whether the team might be better off without him.

As soon as the anti-Towns narrative began, Edwards shut down anyone who dared suggest it.

"He's an uplifter," assistant coach Micah Nori told ESPN. "Everything he does is to try to uplift."

Edwards stayed in close touch with Towns while he was out, making sure he felt included -- and needed -- while he was rehabilitating, and publicly celebrated his return.

Towns was touched.

"I've always strived to be the best teammate I could possibly be," Towns told ESPN. "From day one, I've made everything about winning here in Minnesota, as much as people have tried to discredit it.

"So to have someone come in here and immediately see who I am as a person and as a teammate and respect that and never diminish it is humbling."

Towns has had a long, often frustrating history since the Wolves drafted him No. 1 overall in 2015 and struggled to find him the right co-star. First he was paired with fellow No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins. Then there was the soul-crushing Jimmy Butler experience. And finally the personal palette cleanser with his close friend and former No. 2 overall pick, D'Angelo Russell.

None of those pairings worked, which left Towns frustrated and sometimes forgotten as the Wolves struggled for relevancy in a stacked Western Conference.

When the Wolves drafted Edwards No. 1 in 2020, it was essentially their last chance to get it right with Towns. It has worked out better than anyone could have imagined.

"It's led to a friendship and a relationship that I don't think many people get to have," Towns said. "I don't know many NBA players that get to have the kind of relationship where you truly know that it's purely love for each other. As much as he wants to see me win is more. I want to see him win even more."

Hill has watched all this unfold as a broadcaster for TNT, the leader of Team USA and a contemporary of the two all-time greats to whom Edwards has started to draw comparisons: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

And with Edwards' first Game 7 on Sunday, he has a chance to add another bullet point to an already impressive résumé.

"He's still emerging," Hill said. There's no telling how much more he'll grow.

"The thing that's so impressive about what Ant is doing is that he's still so young. He's already a vocal leader. He's a connector. People listen to him and follow him.

"I'm saying this respectfully, but with Kobe, with LeBron, with Steph [Curry], it took them time to embrace that. To evolve. And he's already done it at such a young age."