Justin Edwards will lead Kansas State in scoring.
Justin Edwards will win Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.
Justin Edwards will throw down enough dunks to become a “SportsCenter” regular.
Those predictions are but a sampling of the over-the-moon statements K-State basketball players and coaches have made about Edwards since the 6-foot-4, 195-pound guard nicknamed “Air Canada” joined the team last year after beginning his college basketball career at Maine, where he led the America East Conference with 16.7 points as a sophomore. The hype has gained momentum like a Corvette with no brakes, and no one is trying to slow it down.
“I will just get straight to the point,” said Edwards, when asked what fans could expect from him this season. “A lot of dunks. You will see a lot of dunks from me, a lot of exciting plays, lobs and dunks. I just think I am going to be a very exciting player with high energy. I like to score, so, yeah, of course I am OK with (the hype).”
The hype would not exist if not for a new phenomenon in college basketball – transfer season. More than 600 players transferred last year. The number is so high that K-State coach Bruce Weber suggests every team has at least two. It’s gotten to the point where most schools keep a scholarship open specifically for transfers. So when Edwards received his release from Maine, coaches from across the country bombarded him with calls. Iowa State, Creighton, Oregon, Miami and K-State all arranged for him to visit their campuses. After seeing only light recruitment coming out of his Canadian high school, he was suddenly one of the most sought-after players on the transfer market.
It didn’t matter that he was unlike most transfers. Instead of looking for a new start because he was unhappy with his current school or coach, Edwards simply thought he was too good for Maine. Critics have slammed the recent transfer spike, calling it an epidemic. And they label Edwards the worst kind of transfer, a free agent that turned his back on the school that helped him become an emerging talent.
Had Weber coached Edwards at Maine, he’s not sure he could have blessed his departure.
“I hate it, to be honest,” Weber said. “As a coach, you feel bad for the coach that gave him a chance and gave him an opportunity and then all of a sudden he wants to leave. At the same time, I’ve got to help Kansas State win and if I don’t take him, maybe he goes to Iowa State or another Big 12 school, and I’ve got to coach against him. It’s a fine line there. It is a tough thing and one of the dilemmas in the business.”
Edwards understands some may not approve of his path to K-State, especially after Maine fell to 6-23 without him and fired its coach after 10 seasons, but he never saw himself as a free agent. He chose Maine because its coaching staff promised unlimited playing time when bigger schools said it would take him years to start. Then he played so well as a freshman, averaging 13.9 points, that he thought his skills would hold up in a power conference. He considered transferring after one year, but stayed out of respect to his former coaches.
Following a dominant sophomore season, the urge to transfer became too strong.
“I was just looking for another school that has a lot of exposure, faces good competition and has a good coach,” Edwards said. “... I do feel kind of bad for leaving, but I did give them two years of my time ... I don’t feel any remorse, because, at the end of the day, you have to do what is best for you and that was what was best for me.”
Weber went all-in to convince Edwards that K-State was the best place for him. Angel Rodriguez and Adrian Diaz had recently transferred away from Manhattan, and he targeted Edwards as an ideal replacement. To show his interest, he flew all the way to Bangor, Maine on the final day recruiting travel was permitted that April. They met at a diner and talked for two hours, mainly about how Edwards would fit in Weber’s motion offense.
Edwards was so impressed by the rendezvous that he bragged about it to his friends, asking if they could believe a well-known coach traveled all the way to Maine to meet him.
Then he took a recruiting visit to Manhattan and committed.
“It is more than I expected,” Edwards said. “It feels like I wasn’t even at a D-I school before. Now that I am here, we get so much stuff. I just tell the players all the time, ‘Don’t take it for granted.’”
Weber was thrilled.
“He wanted to see if he could play at a higher level,” Weber said. “He didn’t come from a great AAU program. That is how he ended up at Maine. I don’t think he had confidence in his ability. When he came to our campus, he struggled with the workouts and stuff, but he has really made improvements. He has gained 17 pounds. I hope it is a good story. Right now it seems like we got an awfully good player.”
So good, no one seems worried that he was a 27-percent shooter from three-point range at Maine or that he lost 119 turnovers compared to 99 assists as a sophomore. Or that he plays the same position as Marcus Foster, shooting guard, and that using them in the same lineup could require creativity.
His teammates say he has improved dramatically as an outside shooter and can get past anyone on his way to the bucket.
“He’s probably the most athletic player I’ve ever played with,” senior forward Nino Williams said. “I think he is going to surprise a lot of people and our own fans that haven’t heard much about him yet. I personally think him and Marcus will be our leading scorers this season. I’ve never seen anyone live in practice like Justin. I think he will bring a lot of excitement to the team.”
Living up to the hype
Edwards may or may not live up to the hype. Foster seems like the safer bet to lead the team in scoring, and the Big 12 has no shortage of talented newcomers. Still, K-State is undoubtedly a better team with Edwards. He hasn’t played in a game since he decided to leave Maine, but he shined in every public exhibition setting during his year off, winning K-State’s preseason dunk contest and looking like its best player during a preseason scrimmage.
Everyone who has seen him dunk is a believer.
“He brings a different style of play to K-State,” Foster said. “He is athletic, can shoot the ball and get to the rim. I feel he is going to be very hard to stop and he is going to relieve pressure off of guys like me ... He does crazy things every day. I have seen him take off on the other side of the paint and go around a player and get a layup. I’ve seen him dunk on huge players. He definitely does incredible things.”
Sophomore point guard Jevon Thomas thinks he could be the missing piece to K-State’s offense.
“He can score in a lot of ways that our guys couldn’t last year,” Thomas said. “He doesn’t even need the ball in his hands. He is good at cutting the basket and alley-oops. He just finds ways to get open. It’s crazy, he is always open.”
Some players would blush listening to so much praise. Not Edwards. He seems to feed off it.
He embraces the hype, and isn’t afraid to list a Big 12 championship and the Final Four as attainable goals. This is what he left Maine for.
“I just wanted to go to a winning program and be part of a winning environment,” Edwards said. “Our team wasn’t that good, so I just wanted to be able to add to a really good team and make that team even better.”