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The origin story of high school basketball’s ‘Ant-Man’

Anthony Edwards always knew he could become the best basketball player in the country, but even he was surprised by how fast the transformation took place.

Anthony Edwards didn’t know how to handle the request. It was the first time he looked unsure of himself all weekend. He had spent four days playing the best basketball of his life just a short drive from where he grew up in Atlanta, racking up points at the Under Armour Challenge with such ruthless efficiency that recruiting insiders began wondering aloud if he could be the No. 1 player in the country.

They weren’t the only ones who took notice. As Edwards tried to exit the massive gym in Emerson, Georgia, a young fan asked for his autograph. Edwards was bewildered. No one had ever asked that of him before. His long-time trainer Justin Holland could only laugh when Edwards went to him for advice.

“The next day, we took a pad and practiced some different autographs,” Holland says. “I said, ‘Get used to it.’”

This is Edwards’ life now, forced to grow up at 17 because his talent demanded it.

A year ago, he was entering his sophomore season at a new school, focusing on basketball full time for the first time, and fighting for national respect as a four-star recruit. Now, he’s a senior needing to make a college decision and suddenly drawing hype as the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Edwards decided to “reclassify” in late November, allowing him to skip his junior season to put him another year closer to college and the pros. He announced his intentions an hour before James Wiseman, then the No. 1 senior in the country, made his college choice. Before Wiseman could even say he would be attending Memphis over Kentucky, Edwards had already leapfrogged him in the eyes of some scouting services. In May, 247 Sports had Edwards as the No. 27 player in the 2020 class. Now you won’t find a scouting service that ranks him outside of the top four for 2019.

Edwards’ game feels perfectly suited for the modern era of the sport. At 6’4, he’s an attacking combo guard with an unbreakable resolve to give you buckets from all three levels. Edwards can cross you over, he can hit you with a step-back three, or he can dunk on your head. He plays relentlessly.

“I had a killer mentality coming into this summer because I knew what my plans were as far as graduating,” Edwards tells SB Nation. “I just had the mentality that I have to kill if I want to be a McDonald’s All-American.”

Edwards has always been planning for this moment, but it came more quickly than even he could have anticipated, coalescing this summer when Edwards was named MVP of the Under Armour Association playing for Atlanta Xpress. The transcendent athletic ability he showed from an early age didn’t always manifest on the basketball court. Now that he’s harnessed that athleticism, even faster than anyone could have hoped, there’s no telling where he can go from here.

Anthony Edwards at an Under Armour Association event in Dallas on April 22, 2018.
Edwards (left) reclassified, skipping his junior season, and is considered by some to be the No. 1 prospect in the high school class of 2019.
Alyssa Trofort/Under Armour

He was known as “Ant-Man” around Atlanta before he even hit puberty. Edwards’ father gave him the nickname when Edwards was 3 years old — far pre-dating the Paul Rudd superhero movie, but still fitting for his own spectacular origin story.

In those days, “Ant-Man” wasn’t a can’t-miss prospect on the hardwood just yet. Instead, he was the most dominant kid on the football field.

YouTube is full of videos of a young Edwards tearing up defenses. He primarily played tailback, but he also logged time at quarterback and cornerback. No matter where Edwards lined up, he was unstoppable. In the football-crazy South, Edwards looked like the next big thing on the gridiron.

“I could have been a professional football player,” Edwards says. “I was really good. I was the No. 1 running back in the country at 9 or 10. I stopped playing because I seen my brothers playing basketball. I thought it looked more fun.”

Edwards remembers where he fell in love with basketball.

“In the backyard of my grandma’s house,” he says. “In the summer time [my brothers and I] had nothing else to do unless we were going to summer camp. We just used to go there and play. I never used to win so I just got fed up with it. I’m like, one day, I’m gonna beat them.”

Edwards finally got the better of his brothers in ninth grade. That’s the same the year he also started his regular training sessions with Holland.

Holland knew who Edwards was before he ever met him because of his reputation on the football field; he also knew Edwards had a long way to go as a basketball player.

“I remember in one of the early sessions he told me, ‘Coach, if I learn how to shoot, I’m going to be the best player in the country,’” Holland remembers. “‘I’m gonna be unguardable.’ He literally said that to me in his ninth grade year.”

Holland never had Edwards’ talent during his own playing days, but he was familiar with the spotlight. He was part of the first Atlanta high school basketball game to be broadcast on ESPN when he started at point guard for Landmark Christian High School in 2004, alongside future Kentucky star Randolph Morris, against Dwight Howard’s Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.

Holland would go on to play at Liberty, but that’s where his career stalled out. Shortly after, he started personally training some of the best high school players around Atlanta.

Holland’s training sessions included four of the area’s top players when he started working with Edwards, headlined by current Florida State sophomore guard M.J. Walker. Holland remembers thinking Edwards was a little lazy at first, but the young guard quickly learned how to adapt to the level of competition.

“The first thing about it is he was already a freak athletically,” Holland says. “God made him that.”

Holland saw he needed to build Edwards’ jump shot from scratch, so they started at the most fundamental level. Holland prioritized maintaining proper form and getting the right rotation on the ball. They started slowly by trying to get Edwards to make 70 or 80 shots right in front of the rim with the mechanics Holland required. That first year, Holland didn’t even let Edwards shoot a three in their sessions.

“If you can’t get the right rotation on the ball close to the rim, I’m not going to bring you out,” Holland says.

Edwards’ shot was hardly an overnight success story, but he slowly progressed and began to stack up to Holland’s other protégés. When Walker was named a McDonald’s All-American, it only made Edwards hungrier. And as his jumper improved, so did his confidence.

The summer going into his sophomore year, Edwards put himself on the map while playing on the Under Armour circuit. His bread and butter was still driving to the basket — he was just that much stronger and faster than his opponents, and also a little bit older before the reclassification — but for the first time, Holland and others started to see Edwards evolve from an athlete into a basketball player.

“When [Edwards] made a jump shot, he would look at me like, ‘That’s those gym hours, I can shoot a little bit now,’” Holland says. “And I would look at him like, ‘You ain’t there yet, man. You’re shooting better but you ain’t there yet.’”

High school basketball player Anthony Edwards catches his breath during UAA Finals in Las Vegas on July 25, 2018.
Edwards catches his breath during the UAA Finals in Las Vegas on July 25, 2018, where he was named the league MVP.
Kelly Kline

Ty Anderson has coaching in his blood. He is the grandson of Lefty Driesell, the fourth-winningest coach in college basketball history, and the man who brought Maryland basketball to relevance from 1969 to 1986.

Anderson was a walk-on at Georgia Tech under Paul Hewitt and started coaching at the high school level around Atlanta soon after. Last summer he took the head job at Edwards’ high school, Holy Spirit Prep, knowing exactly what he was inheriting after Edwards led the team to a state title the previous season. Anderson told his grandpa he had the best player in the country.

Driesell was hesitant to believe it until a conversation he had at his enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September. That’s when Driesell brought up Edwards to another famous college coach who is currently recruiting him. The coach’s response? That Edwards would be the first pick in the NBA draft if he could enter right now.

Anderson’s time with Edwards might be limited now that he’s a senior, but his new coach is making the most of it. He’s leaned on his famous grandpa for some help.

When Anderson sent Driesell some footage of Edwards, the 87-year-old immediately drew a connection to the best player he ever coached: Len Bias. Driesell told his grandson he used to run a play for Bias that would be perfect for Anderson. It’s essentially a “floppy” set that allows his star to come off a double screen on one side, or a single screen on the other. Sure enough, Anderson has made it one of Holy Spirit’s go-to sets.

“It’s pretty cool that 30-something years ago granddad was running it for the best player in the country,” Anderson says. “Now I am.”

For Anderson, this season is a chance to coach the best player he might ever be around. For Edwards, it’s about trying to win another state championship and continuing his push to become the consensus No. 1 player in the country by the time he enters college.

All Edwards did this summer was ace every test he faced. He was arguably the best player at the NBPA Top 100 camp and the Pangos All-American camp, he took home co-MVP honors at Steph Curry’s SC30 camp, and he dominated the Under Armour circuit every time he took the court.

Edwards’ numbers in the Under Armour Association speak for themselves. He averaged 21.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.8 blocks per game. He also nailed down his shot, going 53.5 percent from the field, and 37.5 percent from three-point range on 4.8 attempts per game. He closed the season with nine straight games scoring at least 20 points. When it was over, he was named league MVP.

Edwards accomplished all of this as a nominal incoming junior, but he always had plans to move into the senior class in the back of his head. Reclassification is common for elite high school players, with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Marvin Bagley III, and R.J. Barrett being recent prominent examples. All of those players have been or will be top NBA draft picks, a trajectory Edwards is expected to follow.

“Basketball wise, Anthony Edwards doesn’t need another year of high school basketball,” Anderson says. “You see that when you watch him. He’s ready to take the leap. What he’s been able to do academically is make that a possibility for himself.”

Edwards has been enrolled in online classes approved by the NCAA since the summer. He’s done all of this while leading Anderson’s Holy Spirit Prep team and maintaining his training regimen with Holland.

Ant-Man is officially a star. The only question left is just how brightly he’ll shine.

Anthony Edwards at UAA Finals in Las Vegas. He is expected to be one of the top players selected in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Anthony Edwards at UAA Finals in Las Vegas. He is expected to be one of the top players selected in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Kelly Kline

Edwards has trimmed his college list down to five schools: Florida State, Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia. He says he’s looking for a school that isn’t too far from home, and one where he has a close relationship with the coach. It’s worth noting that Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State was the first big program to make a serious push for him. Edwards remembers that, and it’s why many recruiting insiders view FSU as the favorite.

Whoever lands Edwards for his one year of college ball is getting a go-to scorer with explosive athleticism, deep shooting range, and a mindset that’s wired to never take a play off.

“Anthony Edwards ain’t no chilling around, make a play every here-and-there guy,” says Jerry Meyer, lead scout for 247 Sports. “His nose is fully in there. His athleticism is functional. It translates. He’s a beast.”

Life is accelerating to a frantic pace for Edwards, to a point that would be overwhelming for most young people in his position. But Edwards believes that he’s uniquely equipped to handle everything thrown his way because of an upbringing that never gave him shortcuts. He’s talked openly about wanting to provide for his family, which has grown recently after the birth of his niece. In a video interview with DraftExpress, he mentioned feeling indebted to the people who raised him, including his mother who recently passed. “I work 24/7 so that they can stop working 24/7,” he said.

“I feel like I grew up at a really young age,” Edwards says. “I feel like nobody went through what I went through so me feeling like I’m grown up now, I feel like I already went through stuff that makes me feel like I’ve grown up. That’s just another stepping stone in life.”

You get the sense Edwards has been ready for this in his own mind for his entire life. Born an athletic prodigy and nicknamed after a superhero, maybe his ascension was only a matter of time. After years in the making, Ant-Man’s moment is finally here.

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