In 2021, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ campaign to make Anthony Edwards the NBA’s Rookie of the Year failed. But a token of their marketing genius still takes up space in my mind — and, actually, in my house.

The spunky first overall pick out of Georgia had quickly become known as one of the best quotes in the league. Voting media members for NBA awards received buttons that, when pressed, spouted his best audio clips. My personal favorite, which I queued up again and again, was when Edwards asked an Irish media member (over Zoom) where he was from, then added: “I like your accent. ... I want to learn how to talk like that.”

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The little button of sound bites was charming enough to make the cut when I moved from L.A. to Baltimore. The battery has long since run out, but the Ant-Man’s electric game is only now starting to surge.

It couldn’t be a better moment for the Minnesota Timberwolves — a franchise that had advanced past the first playoff round only one other time in its 35-year history — and for the NBA itself, which relies on great showmen to thrive.

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Edwards possesses the physical tools that awe, seemingly walking on air in a fashion that has drawn hushed comparisons to Michael Jordan. Four years into his NBA career, he has refined his skill set, too, including his turnaround jumper in Game 2 against two Denver defenders. If you’re only checking the box score, you’re missing out, but his 32.3 points per game in these playoffs, along with .547/.419/.818 shooting splits, attest to his greatness as well.

What separates Edwards from his peers, however, is his personality. He has tons of it. Unless you were one of the stone-faced Nuggets fans who watched the 22-year-old rattle the defending champions, it is impossible to resist Edwards’ playful bravado.

Something different seemed to be brewing in the first round when Edwards rang up a 3-pointer over Phoenix’s Kevin Durant and then beat his chest, telling the former MVP his time had arrived. In the second round against Denver, Edwards crossed over Reggie Jackson, causing him to fall, then pointed.

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Said Edwards: “If I do something nice, I got to let it be known.” If any of us were as nice as Ant-Man, we might do exactly that.

Labeling the Next Jordan or the Next LeBron James is always a murky water-cooler discussion that quickly gets tiresome. Edwards has a way to go before measuring up to the all-time greats, so let’s file that for later.

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But his charisma is undeniable. It feels refreshing and vibrant, which helps illustrate what title he might actually take over soon: the NBA’s most entertaining American, a vital role for a league that is sorting out the future of its media deals and will say farewell (one can only assume) in the coming years to James, still its biggest star.

Edwards is fun to watch on and off the court, a rarer combination than you might expect.

Perhaps none of the major American pro leagues attaches as much marketing and cultural relevance to its biggest stars. In the early ’80s, the NBA Finals were still on tape delay. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan were catalysts, cultivating huge followings that helped the NBA explode in popularity and revenue.

Kobe Bryant similarly captured the public’s imagination in a way that has continued beyond his death. James and Stephen Curry defined the 2010s, with one or both appearing in every NBA Finals from 2011 and 2020, and it’s no surprise that the most-watched game of that decade was Game 7 in 2016 when they went head to head.

Aside from achieving championships, all of these figures helped redefine what an NBA superstar was, putting momentum into massively lucrative rights deals, sponsorships and lifestyle brands. When the league needed a boost, those players helped broaden the appeal of the game itself, which is easier to take for granted today.

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The future, in one sense, is healthy with great talents. Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid have spurred an innovative big man boom with MVP seasons, and Luka Doncic seems like he’ll win the award in the coming years. Victor Wembanyama, a freakish Frenchman who just won Rookie of the Year, has talent unlike we’ve ever seen for his 7-foot-4 size.

But, while all of them are entertaining, none is American. The breadth of their origins shows promise for the league’s worldwide popularity, but none quite bridges the cultural gap to the American audience in the way that the NBA’s other most stirring personalities have in the past.

The 1992 Dream Team, for example, still has a stranglehold on our imagination and sense of nostalgia. Tying athletic dominance to the American dream is an intoxicating, enchanting ideal. Their swagger feels somehow a part of the national character, stitched into the flag like the stars and stripes themselves.

We watch and think, Yes, this is what we’re about.

Anthony Edwards of the Timberwolves has shown his talent and charisma against the Nuggets. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Enter Edwards, the trash-talking, air-walking shot maker with a winning smile who feels somehow relatable even though he is so clearly different from the rest of us. It always feels like he’s having fun with basketball and the fame it has brought him. He’s spent press conferences talking about his love of fast food (which had to be music to the ears of the NBA’s commercial partners). He will, naturally, play for Team USA this summer at the Paris Olympics, another opportunity to storm the basketball Bastille (so to speak).

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Edwards feels like a familiar archetype. He’s the cocky kid at the pick-up game, making you laugh when he’s not making you cry. If any of his competition could shut him up, they would. So far, they can’t. He just keeps rattling off huge games.

There are many good American players, including Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Phoenix’s Devin Booker, but they lack the carefree charisma that Edwards has oozed since he arrived. Zion Williamson and Ja Morant generated early buzz for this kind of stardom but have gotten sidetracked by injury and (in the case of Morant) poor judgment.

New York’s Jalen Brunson might be the most watchable performer in these playoffs, a pint-size puncher who took out the Philadelphia 76ers in a memorable series. But, while his underdog rise is worth savoring, the biggest NBA stars feel like a force of nature, powerful and unstoppable on a scale that makes our jaws drop.

Edwards is far from cresting to that plateau, but we can see the swell gathering, plowing its way past more established stars in the NBA playoffs at a sweeping pace. With each win, these once far-fetched comparisons feel like they might be more fitting.

Edwards himself has dismissed comparisons to Jordan, recently telling Fox Sports: “He’s the greatest of all time. I can’t be compared to him.”

So far, he can claim at least one common trait. Once you’ve seen Anthony Edwards perform, you’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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