Anfernee Simons’ may have already played his last game in 2021-22. The Portland Trail Blazers announced last Friday that he’d be “re-evaluated in 1-2 weeks” after an MRI confirmed a prior diagnosis of mild patellar tendinopathy in his left knee, but the organization’s brazen efforts to tank suggest Simons is likelier to take the floor again next fall than for any of his team’s final 15 games.

Just like Josh Hart, Trendon Watford, Keon Johnson and more, Simons could obviously benefit from spending even more time occupying an outsized role for the Blazers as Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic sit. He’s still just 22, and played full-time floor general and primary ball handler for the first time ever from early January to March 5th, the last time Simons suited up for Portland.

Don’t fret too much about him missing out on those developmental reps, though. Simons is already well ahead of where Chauncey Billups thought he’d be during training camp.

“He’s exceeded [my preseason expectations] to be honest with you,” Billups said. “I didn’t think he’d have this much time where he’s actually carrying our team. None of us thought that we’d be injured the way that we are, so at that time obviously my plan was him being a sixth man, and him making some gains, making some progress. But he’s exceeded what we’d planned on before the season started, so he’s already knocked down that ceiling.”

Simons’ season-long numbers—17.3 points, 3.9 assists and 3.1 made triples per game at a 40.5% clip—make him a worthy candidate for Most Improved player by themselves. But it’s his star-level production and all-around impact since the New Year that him not just a favorite for that postseason hardware, but have entrenched Simons as a foundational building block in Rip City ahead of his foray into restricted free agency.

He averaged 23.4 points and 5.8 assists in 27 games as the Blazers’ top offensive option, shooting a red-hot 42.3% on over 10 three-point attempts per game—with more than half of those tries coming off the dribble. Even more telling of Simons’ meteoric rise to stardom? He was a true offensive bellwether over that timeframe, Portland putting up a respectable 110.8 offensive rating with him on the floor and a putrid 97.9 offensive when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com/stats.

The Blazers still have many questions to answer heading into a pivotal offseason. Blunting concerns gleaned from most of them, though, is the possibility of Simons taking his game to an even higher level come 2022-23 and beyond.

“He’s still got a ways to go in my opinion. He’s got some levels that he can really level up,” Billups said of Simons. “We’ve seen him make some great gains this season. We’ll continue to see him get better by way of his work ethic. He asks a lot of questions, he’s thirsty for knowledge. He’s gonna continue to chase greatness. I don’t think he’s anywhere close [to his ceiling.]”

[h/t Aaron Fentress, The Oregonian]