September 27, 2022

Rookie Kessler Edwards has blossomed into the Nets’ stopper

Edwards, a second-round pick, has become a critical part of Steve Nash’s rotation. (Tony Dejak/AP)

TEMPE, Ari. — Nets 3-and-D wing Kessler Edwards said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been the toughest cover of his rookie season. That projects to change on Tuesday, when he’ll surely get his cracks at defending both Devin Booker and Chris Paul as the Nets take on the league-best Phoenix Suns.

That’s because Edwards has not only emerged as a rotation player in Year 1 on a championship-caliber team, he’s also blossoming into a defensive stopper, a process that began in high school, where he learned to use his physical gifts – his wingspan, speed, strength and athleticism – to improve his game under a defensive-minded head coach.

“It’s my main focus when I think how I’m going to perform,” Edwards said Monday about guarding the opponent’s best scorer. “That’s my number one thing… I feel like I’m blessed in that department and I can bring a lot, help this team win through that, so that’s what I try to do really.”

Edwards said he isn’t necessarily impressed with how seamlessly he’s fit with his teammates. The Nets selected him 44th overall out of Pepperdine and will have to convert his two-way contract into a guaranteed rookie-scale deal — which will require cutting a player — if they want him on the roster for the playoffs. Given Edwards’ play, that is a formality.

The rookie said he knew his role once his name was called on draft night: Alongside superstar scorers and playmakers like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, his biggest impact would be as a defender, a floor spacer and a energy guy/hustle player.

Nets head coach Steve Nash agrees. It’s why Nash has started Edwards over veterans in each of the last 10 games, and it’s not just superfluous, experimental starting, either: The rookie has played at least 29 minutes in each game of this stretch and has logged 32 or more minutes in seven of the last 10 games.

Edwards’ game is simple. He is a prototypical 3-and-D wing on a Nets roster with both a dire shortage of players of his ilk.

“It’s great. It’s a big part of why he’s a great fit for our team,” Nash said after Monday’s practice. “He doesn’t try to over-play or play outside himself, but at the same time, he’s confident and aggressive to step into opportunities. So he’s got a really great approach, I think, for his skill set, and we know defensively, with his size, athleticism, and his discipline and instincts, he’s a really nice defender for us.”

The second-round pick has earned the respect of his teammates, specifically from the veterans like James Johnson, DeAndre’ Bembry and Bruce Brown. Those are the players whose minutes he’s taken.

And those are the players who he projects to replace in the rotation once the Nets get fully healthy: He started alongside Durant, Harden and Irving in Brooklyn’s 26-point beat-down of the Bulls in Chicago and blanketed their star scorer Zach LaVine. Edwards also did well guarding Stephen Curry, and now he’ll have his shot against Booker and the Suns on Tuesday.

The Nets aren’t at full strength for the Suns game, but Edwards has an idea of what it’ll look like when he’s out there with the Nets’ best lineup.

“Thankfully I got a chance to play with the Big 3 in the Chicago game, and that was fun, so (I) kind of got a little glimpse of (my fit with them),” he said. “We’ll see when everyone gets back healthy, even Joe Harris or (Aldridge). I just keep doing what I’m doing.”