Anfernee Simons introduced to himself a global audience at last season’s All-Star Weekend, living up to years of local hype by being crowned champion of the slam dunk contest. But what Portland Trail Blazers fans have always known about Simons was surely surprising to those who’d only grown familiar with him from his stunning aerial exploits.

As jaw-dropping a leaper and overall athlete as he was, Simons didn’t put those unbelievable physical tools to much use in games with the Blazers. He played more like Buddy Hield than De’Aaron Fox over his first three years in the league, relegated to the role of shooting specialist under Terry Stotts as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum dominated on-ball duties for Portland. It’s not like Simons had shown he was worthy of more responsibility or greater freedom within the Blazers’ offense, either. He was clearly most comfortable as a marksman, barely even hinting at the off-dribble explosiveness that normally comes with his exceptionally rare leaping ability.

It was fair to be skeptical of glowing reviews about Simons’ play in training camp before the regular season tipped off. Rip City had been prepped for his breakout campaign by team officials and teammates alike since 2019, with Simons providing basically nothing to support it other than tightening his jumper.

Plus three-point shooters off the catch and dribble are very valuable, but Simons eventually growing into that distinction was the low bar for his ultimate development when the Blazers took him with the 24th overall pick of the 2018 draft. His ceiling was always going to be decided by what Simons became off the bounce, and for years there’s been little indicating it’d be anything more than an ancillary playmaker who could bring the ball up in a pinch—at least until the first three weeks of 2021-22.

Simons has been the most pleasant surprise of a chaotic start for Portland this season, establishing himself as one of the league’s most consistent, productive and efficient bench scorers. His 14.0 points per game and borderline 50/40/90 shooting splits have gotten the most attention, but even more encouraging about Simons’ early performance this season are the massive strides he’s taken as a penetrator and finisher.

Simons is averaging 4.9 drives per game, according to, an easy career-high coming out to a per-minute rate better than Norman Powell’s. He’s also shooting 59.3% on those forays to the rim, not just another personal and team-best, but the sixth-highest mark in the entire league. Simons is finishing better on drives than Kevin Durant and Luka Doncic; one more make and he’d rank above Giannis Antetokounmpo. His 16 baskets off penetration are already more than half his total from all of last season, when Simons shot an ugly 39.7% on drives.

Those numbers paint a vivid picture of Simons’ growth finishing on the move, but are still less instructive than the eye test. His first score of the season was arguably the most impressive take of Simons’ career before opening night.

That swooping hook finger roll wasn’t an anomaly. Simons has since proven it’s a reliable weapon in his deepening bag of finishes.

It’s not just Simons’ increasing versatility scoring around the basket that’s made such a difference, though. All of that progress wouldn’t mean much at all if he didn’t couple it with a newfound ability to get to the rim in the first place.

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Simons just didn’t have the understanding of angles, ball-handling prowess or comfort with his off-hand needed to do this to defenders like Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard before 2021-22.

Paul George and Ivica Zubac aren’t exactly defensive liabilities.

Simons has begun leveraging his physical tools and budding package of dribbling and finishing skills in transition, too.

Ten games isn’t a big enough sample size to draw meaningful conclusions on individual player numbers. Simons probably won’t finish around the basket better than Durant or Doncic, for instance. But considering just how limited he was in that capacity a year ago, even 50 percent shooting from the restricted area would be a boon for Simons given the added frequency with which he’s getting there.

Simons’ maturation as a passer has been a bit slower to come by. He’s more comfortable making plays for others than he’s ever been, especially working in pick-and-roll, but still has a relatively rudimentary means of manipulating defenses to find open teammates with his eyes and changes of pace. Simons has flashed some additional creativity leaving the ball off to bigs after drawing defenders at the rim, too.

Obviously, the Blazers would be best off if Simons develops the all-court playmaking ability reserved for quality point guards, especially with Chauncey Billups continuing to experiment with four-guard lineups. Imagine just how much more dynamic those groups would be on offense if Simons made the game as easy on Lillard and McCollum as they do for him.

But for this season, at least, any steps Simons takes past his current level of play offensively would be a luxury. He’s already made the necessary ones, proving his long-awaited breakout campaign is real just shortly after tipoff of the regular season.