1 pleasant surprise who stood out for Trail Blazers during 2021 training camp
Damian Lillard knew there was something different about Anfernee Simons when the Portland Trail Blazers superstar saw a photo of his young teammate this summer. Suddenly, it was obvious. Simons, ink-less over the first three seasons of his NBA career, had a half sleeve tattoo on his left arm—another step in the 22-year-old’s ongoing growth from notoriously shy teenager to Portland’s potential breakout player in 2021-22.
“I was just like, ‘Man this dude growin’ up,'” Lillard, laughing, recalled on Wednesday of first noticing Simons’ tattoo. “He was like 15 when he came here, now he got tattoos, he got a Hummer.'”
Body art, expensive cars and an obvious increase in strength and overall size aren’t the only indicators of Simons’ development as the regular season draws closer and closer. The fourth-year guard doled out six assists against the Golden State Warriors in Portland’s preseason opener, looking plenty comfortable in his new role as a primary ball handler with the Blazers’ second unit. More encouraging than his assist totals or even the eye test? In a game the Blazers, operating Chauncey Billups’ offensive system against an opponent for the first time, committed a whopping 26 turnovers, not one of them was owed to Simons.
“The past couple weeks in practice they’ve been pushing me to become a good point guard,” Simons said after Wednesday’s practice. “They’ve been emphasizing that every single day, is pushing me to become that. That’s something new. I’ve never had somebody push me to step forward in that position. They trust me to operate in that space, so it’s been good. I’ve been learning each and every day, trying to get better.”
The strides Simons has taken entering this season won’t necessarily be manifested with a significant increase in playing time. Portland is loaded on the perimeter, obviously, and the emergence of fellow training camp standout Nassir Little means Billups won’t be forced to rely on three-guard lineups outside his starting five. The surest indicator of Simons’ more subtle progress a year ago could dip, too. He shot a scorching 51.4 percent on catch-and-shoot triples in 2020-21, per NBA.com/stats, third-best in the league and a single-season number that could prove unsustainable for even the world’s most elite shooters.
The Blazers won’t be bothered by Simons coming back to earth a bit from deep as long as it means an uptick in the overall difficulty of his attempts. Shooting has been a known commodity for Simons since he was drafted, though. Questions about his role and ultimate ceiling have always revolved around Simons’ viability as a traditional point guard or even reliable secondary playmaker, ones he hardly answered positively while playing caretaker and standstill shooter under Terry Stotts.
But the frequency of his opportunities on the ball in recent seasons was nearly as big an issue for Simons as his performance with it, and he’s clearly feeling empowered by how Billups plans to use him. Lillard saw Simons’ newfound confidence in action on one specific possession from the exhibition opener.
“He got pressured one time at halfcourt. In the past he would just let him pressure him and try to force a pass because he feels like he’s gotta run the offense, and then somebody tips it or something like that,” Lillard said of Simons. “They pressured him, he went around ’em, he got to the rim, floater off the glass. That shows a different level of confidence and comfort to recognize that situation and react that way.”
That’s a mundane play for Lillard, C.J. McCollum and the vast majority of proven playmakers throughout the league. Not for Simons, who averaged only 2.3 drives per game last season and shot an ugly 24.4 percent from floater range and 51.4 percent from the restricted area. Needless to say, much more off-dribble verve and finishing dynamism than that can be expected from a player who supplements his elite shooting ability with the type of explosive athleticism that made him the winner of last year’s dunk contest.
Becoming a consistent downhill threat in the halfcourt and open floor is probably the next next frontier for Simons. Portland will be more than happy for now with him simply embracing the blend of freedom and responsibility afforded to full-time point guards, while continuing to build on what helped him break into the Blazers’ rotation last season.
So far, so good.