ATLANTA – Given his incandescent smile and the unflappable bravado of his game, it might seem Anthony Edwards knew from the moment he picked up a basketball he was headed for the NBA.
But that wasn't what Edwards dreamed about growing up in the Oakland City section of southwest Atlanta that his friends and family caution out-of-towners to visit only during the day — and don't slow down when driving through it.
Edwards didn't even have starry thoughts about basketball.
"I really used to dream about the NFL, for real," Edwards said.
More specifically, Edwards wondered about living a life far removed from the dangers of Oakland City, one he didn't really think possible — until he crossed paths with a former Viking.
All-Pro offensive lineman Chris Hinton played two of his 13 NFL seasons with the Vikings. Starting when Edwards was 8 or 9, Hinton's son Chris and Edwards became best friends through football.
There were plenty of nights Edwards stayed over with Chris Jr., a defensive lineman at Michigan who declared for this month's NFL draft, at the Hintons' 12,000-square-foot house on a 3.5-acre plot in Johns Creek, a suburb northeast of Atlanta.
"Crazy big," Edwards said. "They had a big ol' pool and court. … I used to say, I want to live like this. That was a lot of motivation. I tried to stay there as long as I could."
The Hintons were only too happy to have him. Much as he is now, Edwards was constant energy in the house; while sometimes that might wear on people, the elder Hinton said, "the moment he was gone, you missed having him around."
Hinton added: "I always say he had an old soul. He was beyond his years. Not necessarily maturity, just he had a soul of an old person, as far as who to trust, who not to trust. He saw things that your typical 8-, 9-year-old wouldn't be able to process."
Not just 8 or 9, but through 14, when his mother, Yvette Edwards, and grandmother Shirley Edwards died of cancer seven months apart. Anthony, his two brothers and sister were left without their twin backbones.
But they weren't without people who had their backs.
The Hintons, and others along the way, made sure Edwards accomplished his dream — not that initial dream of playing in the NFL, but what that dream became.
The new dream led him to Minnesota, where the Timberwolves took him No. 1 in the 2020 draft, and where his infectious personality endeared him to fans in a hurry.
What Minnesota sees now was formed in Atlanta.
"Ant is a true Atlanta baby," his longtime trainer and coach Justin Holland said. "The city took care of him. The city really took care of him."
Drew Banks sounds as if he walked through hell and lived to tell about it.
When Edwards attended Holy Spirit Preparatory School on the north side of Atlanta, he stayed with "Uncle Drew," one of his former youth football coaches. Banks drove Edwards more than an hour each day through notoriously heavy traffic so Edwards could attend the small private school.
Banks knew what was coming when he signed up for the gig.
"He might've been 11 or 12, he was like, 'Coach, I'm gonna stay with you.' I said, 'No hell you ain't,'" Banks said. "Because I know how nasty he is."
"Nasty" like most teenagers who stay up way too late, don't answer wake-up calls and eat junk food.
But before Edwards' mom died, Banks told her he would do his part to help her son.
"He stayed with me probably a year and a half, maybe two," Banks said. "It felt like 10."
Edwards played video games until as late as 3 a.m. Then he'd wake up around 4:45 for basketball workouts with Holland before school, and it would often be a chore to get Edwards out of bed.
But dating to when Edwards was a kid, Banks was familiar with persuading him to do things he didn't want to do, like running at football practice.
"I would be exhausted. They always used to try and make me run," Edwards said. "I ain't like that."
Edwards, a running back, didn't like running when the ball wasn't in his hands.
"Hated it. I mean, hated it, to the point of aggravating the coaches," Banks said. "He knows he's the best kid on the field, the best kid in the city. He would be the last one in the sprints. He would be late to practice. I give Mom a lot of credit because she pushed him."
But Edwards loved the game when he could overpower defenses for touchdowns.
"Football was the best thing in the world that ever happened to me during that time of my life," Edwards said. "It was really the only sport I was playing that I was really good at. It was my pride and joy."
He initially made his reputation in Atlanta as "Antman," the star running back for his youth football team, the Vikings, from ages 6 to 13.
"If you lived in Atlanta, you had heard his name through football," Holland said.
Sports were integral to Edwards, whose siblings have similar names: Antoine, Antony (nicknamed Bubba) and Antoinette. It was how they kept their heads down and out of the trappings of their Oakland City neighborhood.
"Every city got a hood, but it was crazy," Bubba said. "It's a lot of gunshots at night. … We definitely had to stay out the way."
Sports were their "outlet," Anthony said. "We just stayed together, competed with each other ... played in the backyard of my grandma's house and we just really stayed in the house the majority of the time."
Then when they needed to get out of the house, all they did was play sports.
"It was four bedrooms. It would get to the point where it would irk me because we were always crowded in the house," Edwards' uncle Chris Edwards said. "So I'd say, 'Let's go play, let's go to the gym. Let's go practice.' To get them out the house was to drop them off at the gym."
Having his guard up
Where does Edwards' seemingly endless joy come from? It starts with his mom and grandmother.
"I ain't never seen them with low energy or bad vibes," Bubba said. "They were always in a happy place. Especially my grandma. She was the base of the whole family. She's always happy. She'll cheer you up if you're having a bad day or something like that. She's always easy to talk to, easygoing. Happiest person to be around.
"Then my mom, she's like our backbone. Any problem we had, anything we needed taken care of, she was there. She had our back. If we was 100 percent wrong, she had our back."
They were vocal at games, and there were times Yvette dealt with people doubting Anthony's age because he was so dominant. He got athletic prowess from his father, though his dad wasn't around much as Edwards grew up.
Edwards is the youngest of his siblings, and that showed in the relationship he had with his mother, according to Dana Watkins, commissioner of Edwards' football league and his coach for a time in AAU basketball.
"Mama's boy 110 percent," Watkins said. "Ain't no doubt about it."
There was significance to Edwards being the youngest sibling and the kind of person he became, his brother said.
"He's always been easy to talk to," Bubba said. "He's gonna say what's on his mind and be himself at all times. He been like that since he was young. I guess that comes from being around so many siblings and being the youngest. You got so much to take in and it makes you more comfortable when you see [stuff] so you know how to react, you know what to think, know what to say. He just was born with that."
Edwards was naturally wary of people; this was true even before his mother and grandmother died. He had an ability to avoid certain people and embrace others who had his best wishes at heart. Trust isn't easily earned with Edwards.
"It took a lot to get him to come out of his shell," Watkins said. "Kind of quiet, sit back and wait. Once he gets around his peers, you kind of see another side to him. Once he gets comfortable with you as an adult … he wasn't as reserved. He spoke his mind."
That's a side Edwards carried with him to Holy Spirit, where Rachel Little, who worked in student support, helped make sure Edwards had what he needed to navigate his busy schedules.
"He's extremely guarded," Little said. "He is 100 percent nice to everyone's face, but he is not going to let somebody in without really earning your trust or him earning your trust."
Edwards was also naturally suspicious of those who tried to be more than support, especially after his mom and grandmother died.
"A lot of people, whether teachers or coaches, they would come into his life, they wanted to fill this void," Little said.
That's not what Edwards was looking for.
"It's just like survivor traits," Banks said. "Even growing up if somebody were to offer. 'Hey Ant, come stay with me,' he's going to read the room, read the person, he's going to say, 'Nah, I'm straight.'"
'Integral part of our family'
Edwards would sometimes stay with Watkins and his family if they had a busy sports schedule.
"He was just like a godfather, for real," Edwards said of Watkins. "He just helped take care of me, made sure I was straight. He would take me all the way to the crib, to practice, all that. He was just a great dude."
Edwards had relatives in his life. He stayed with Antoinette for a while, but his siblings were also young, and everyone had their own lives to navigate. To help out when Edwards needed a ride, a meal, or a place to crash, families like the Hollands, Watkinses and Bankses were there.
The same went for the Hintons, and all the families got to see Edwards' humor and intelligence up close, often at the same time. The stories also tended to revolve around Edwards' "horrible diet," according to Watkins.
Hinton said Edwards often had a trick when the family would get burgers.
"He'd say, 'All right, Mr. Chris. This is how you order: Double cheeseburger, hold the cheese," Hinton said. "They bring out the cheeseburger. Double cheeseburger and they don't hold the cheese. He'd say, 'I said hold the cheese.' They'd say, 'I'm sorry, we'll make you a new one.' And that's how he'd always get an extra one. Worked every time."
One of Watkins' favorite memories involves a time Edwards called his grandmother to make sure he got a cornbread recipe correct.
"He said, 'Coach Dana, this is what you need to do. Go get some Jiffy cornbread and I'll show you how to make it," Watkins said. "I said, 'Ant, you know what that's actually pretty good cornbread.'
"Those are the moments. The basketball stuff, that was a chapter in all of our lives, but if nothing else, it's about him being a good kid ... for whatever reason, he just became an integral part of our family."
Watkins was in Yvette's hospice room shortly after she died, and it was one of the few times he saw Edwards' father. He remembers Anthony's reaction.
"There wasn't a whole lot of mourning or boo-hooing like you'd expect a kid to be boo-hooing with the finality of it all," Watkins said. "Even though there was a soft side to Ant, there was a shell to him. Maybe he saw things a little more closer and just realized — maybe it's that old soul — maybe she is in a better place than what she was going through."
Banks saw the same at Yvette's funeral.
"He wasn't crying. I guess he understood what the concept was," Banks said. "But he never went left. I think it made him just lock in more, because there wasn't nothing else."
After both Yvette and Shirley died, the family realized they had to move on with life as best they could. There was no use in wallowing in self-pity. They tried to honor them, even if the pain crept back in from time to time.
"We had a lot of blank moments," Bubba said, "just blank moments where it was just like, you got to deal with it. Because at some point you got to realize it's your mom, it's your grandmom, you're never going to see them again. You definitely have moments you feel down, like you're alone."
Sports became a distraction and a motivation to push forward.
"Basketball really helped us stay focused with our futures and keep our head on the right track and not get too caught up in the pain," Bubba said. "Basketball really was the answer to helping us cope with it.
As Anthony put it: "I was young, man. I was just — sports. I just played sports."
All basketball, all the time
Edwards suffered an ankle injury in ninth grade playing football and decided basketball was going to be his focus.
"As I grew older, I'm like, 'I ain't trying to get hit like that,' " he joked.
Shortly after his mom and grandmother died, Edwards started working with Holland, and he might have been channeling grief by working at an almost maniacal pace.
"He'd be on the court practicing every day," his uncle Chris said. "I think that's how he went through the progression."
Late nights, early mornings, whenever they could get a workout in, they did.
"When kids start feeling themselves get better, they get addicted to the work and I think that's what happened to him," said Holland, who still works with Edwards. "He started getting addicted."
As a high school sophomore, Edwards made a huge leap. He would take on NBA players, like former Wizards and Cavaliers guard Jordan McRae, one-on-one.
"As we grew older, he told me a story that he said he asked someone, 'What college did he go to?'" Edwards said. "They were like, 'Bruh, he in the 10th grade.'
Added Holland: "He said, 'Once I develop a jump shot, I'll be unguardable.' Those were his exact words. I used to say like he couldn't throw a brick in the ocean. He could not shoot at all."
But Edwards started dominating and rose up the recruiting rankings. One moment stuck with Holland, when Edwards said he was going to score 40 to reach the finals of an AAU tournament, but he had only two points at halftime.
"This is probably the best performance I've ever seen from Anthony Edwards," Holland said. "Next half, Ant goes on a tear. He's scoring at the rim, three-pointers, step-backs, up and unders, and-ones. Finishes with 43."
At that time, Edwards transferred from the public Therrell High School to the smaller, private Holy Spirit, where he was able to move freely in a school population that didn't care he was one of the top basketball players in the country.
"There wasn't a ton of awareness from 99% of the people in Holy Spirit of what was going on or what they had there with Ant," said his coach, Ty Anderson.
That was even with Holy Spirit playing a lot of games against some of the other top recruits and programs in the country. Edwards was on his way to the NBA. After reclassifying to an earlier recruiting class, Edwards chose to stay close to home and attend Georgia, where he averaged 19.1 points, and declared for the NBA draft after his lone season.
He wasn't the consensus No. 1 pick in a draft that featured James Wiseman and LaMelo Ball, but former Wolves President Gersson Rosas liked how he might fit alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell and admired Edwards' intelligence and work ethic.
The former quality is something those who know Edwards rave about.
"He's one of the smartest kids I've been around," Holland said. "You wouldn't know it, because at first, he didn't say much. Once you start having conversations with him, you realize he soaks in everything."
His work ethic extended everywhere in his life. If there was a phrase that came up repeatedly from everyone who spoke about Edwards during that time, it was, "He did what he had to do."
Going through those long commutes with Banks every day? He did what he had to do.
Getting up on no sleep for early-morning workouts? He did what he had to do.
Making sure he had good grades to go to college at Georgia? He did what he had to do.
"He knew what had to be done," Little said. "He's a good student. He's super smart. He picks things up really well."
Little kept an eye on Edwards to make sure he wasn't getting lost amid his hectic schedule.
She housed some international students and Edwards would often come by for dinner. She would sometimes spend upwards of $100 on pizza for all the growing teenagers. Little would also lend her office to Edwards so he could nap during his hourlong lunch break, one of the few times he got rest.
"When you're as talented as he is, you have a lot of pressure, and you have a lot of people that want a lot of things from you," Little said. "Sometimes, I felt the need to remind him I don't want anything from you, other than just for you to be happy to be successful. That's all that matters to me."
Edwards is eternally grateful for the help Little provided during his time at Holy Spirit — and thanked her in a way only he could.
"She's probably the best white person I ever met in my life," Edwards said. "My favorite white person. … I can't describe her. She was just a great person."
Happy and appreciative
Little was able to attend a game in Minnesota this winter and Edwards was only too happy to see her. He wanted her to take his Lamborghini for a spin around downtown Minneapolis. Little was terrified to drive it, especially with snow on the ground.
"I don't think I broke 25 miles per hour," she said. "He said, 'I'm really disappointed in you.' But it was just so funny. He was like this little kid saying, 'You want to see my car?' "
That story illustrates what Little always thinks about when she pictures Edwards.
"How positive and genuinely happy he is," Little said. "Even when things aren't great, he was still like that. I think he's taught me no matter what's going on, there still things to be happy about."
That's similar for the others who have had Edwards pass through their lives. Even when he was young, he enriched their lives in ways they may not have realized at the time.
"He's definitely dealt with a lot of trauma that would've put most people, even myself … I don't know if I would've been able to make it through," Holland said. "He pushed me to make me better because how can I complain about things going on in my life if this kid can take all that trauma and still show up to school, to practice with a smile on his face and make everybody in the room feel good?"
Watkins said he "can't help but be proud" when he sees Edwards shining in the NBA. He got emotional on draft night as Edwards became the No. 1 overall pick flanked by paintings of his mother and grandmother.
"When you factor in everything he has been through, it's a storybook, I want to say ending, but it's a storybook beginning," Watkins said. "That old chapter of your world is closed. Now it's just about navigating this world."
That world he dreamed about Hinton's house. Hinton said Edwards never made a fuss over how big their house was. He was just always Ant, wanting to play with his friends, eat some bad food and play football or basketball.
"I guess it shows you never know the impression you're leaving on somebody," Hinton said.
Edwards has left quite the impression on those that have known him in Atlanta — and many fans in Minnesota who are still just getting to know him.
"I'm just happy to be here," Edwards said. "Anybody in my situation should embrace wherever they're at. That's how I look at life."