Back in January, a few weeks before Anthony Edwards made the program-altering announcement that he’d be staying home for college, he was talking about a growing awareness of his fame and the sense of responsibility that comes with it. It was something he had taken to heart.
“I come out of the locker room always smiling,” he was saying. “I don’t want to seem unapproachable. I know fans want to take pictures of me, want me to sign stuff, so I don’t want to come out with a mean mug on my face. Having fans, I mean, it’s just an honor for me. I like to see kids smile. I like to make other people happy.”
In February, Edwards put smiles on the faces of countless Peach State residents when he declared for the Georgia Bulldogs, becoming the highest-rated hoop recruit in program history. His stated reasons for the choice were pretty simple: a connection with new UGA coach Tom Crean and an affinity for “my home school.” For as long as he’s in Athens—and you’d be smart to assume it won’t be for more than a year—this Atlanta native figures to be one of the most popular guys in the state.
As recently as a year ago, all of this would’ve seemed pretty far-fetched. Last spring, Edwards was generally considered a top-30 prospect in the 2020 class—a great player with high-level college offers, but only a borderline NBA prospect. But then he blew all the way up, dominating on the Under Armour summer circuit and shooting up the national rankings. His rising rep, and the advice of an unnamed NBA player with whom he’s tight—“He told me, you know you’re ready for college when you get bored in high school games”—drove Edwards to hit fast-forward on his future and reclassify into the class of 2019.
“A couple of months before I decided, I went to my family and was like, What y’all think about me graduating early? They were like, That’d be a good idea,” he recalls. “When I made the decision, everybody was proud—and happy. So I feel good about it. I feel like I’m ready for the next level.”
He’s now a consensus top 5 senior, territory that’s at once unfamiliar and also makes perfect sense—on a different playing surface, folks have been predicting Edwards as a future pro for years. “I was pretty good at football,” he understates, recalling his years as one of the best Pop Warner running backs in the country. But having watched his older brothers hoop, Edwards thought it looked fun and made the switch. Not surprisingly, the same combination of size, speed, explosiveness and agility that made him so hard to tackle on the field has made him almost impossible to defend on the court.
At 6-5, 210, Edwards has the sort of all-around offensive game that coaches dream about: He’ll burn you from pretty much anywhere, in transition or a halfcourt set. His natural skills deserve some credit, of course, but Ty Anderson, his coach at Holy Spirit Prep, insists that’s only part of the story. “Ant has a really high basketball IQ, really likes to think the game,” Anderson says. “And as an athlete, he is addicted to the work. He loves working after practice every day, going to the gym, getting extra work in. The guys that have staying power have what Ant has—they have that work ethic.”
It’s the complete package, in other words, all the tools necessary for Edwards to continue his swift rise to college and beyond. He knows he’s not the finished product yet—“sometimes I don’t play D,” he admits, “and I gotta get consistent with that”—but he’s confident he’s on the right track. And if you get the chance to watch him, he thinks you’ll agree. “Basketball’s really fun,” Edwards says, “and I feel like it’s fun to watch me play.”
Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.
Portraits by Ben Rollins.