The Portland Trail Blazers’ Fan Fest is not a place for making rash judgments. It’s even less serious than preseason games, and more focused on the team having fun than any basketball-related activities. But amid all the fun, a picture posted by the Blazers’ photographer, Bruce Ely, of Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons palling around stuck out to me, giving me serious mentor vibes based on the relationship displayed:
It’s a lot to assume based off one picture. But, it turns out,mentoring is happening behind the scenes. And this isn’t just the typical orientation program: it’s a job training to take over the franchise one day.
“I see him as he’s gonna be a star here when I’m on my way out.”
Lillard is entering his seventh season in the league, having become a focus of the franchise ever since his unanimous Rookie of the Year season. When LaMarcus Aldridge and remnants of a budding contender left in the summer of 2015, he became the undeniable No. 1 on the team. He has also relished the mentor role even as a young face of the franchise, taking players like CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic under his wing.
So it’s no surprise that Lillard has taken the rookie Simons under his wing, too. But Lillard’s comments about Simons after practice early in training camp are worth perking up over (video courtesy of The Oregonian):
“Just as one of the older players on the team now, I enjoy trying to be a part of his growth. And that’s something that I’m going to embrace.”
Typical mentor/mentee stuff. Sweet, but the usual Lillard.
“I always talk about wanting to just impact people, impact stuff, so that’s my new thing: I’m going to really enjoy being a part of his growth. He has a lot of potential, so I want to be a part of the beginning stages, try to help as much as I can.”
Again, it’s sweet Lillard cares about Simons tapping into his potential, but typical mentor talk.
“It’s think it’s different a little bit now, because I’m 28 now and not 25 [someone says “you’re old”]. I’m not ‘old,’ but when the roster first turned over I was 25… guys were younger than me, so me and CJ were a little bit older.”
Things are “different a little bit now”? Ears are starting to perk up...
“But now I’m almost 10 years older than [Simons]. When he gets about 25 I’ll probably be close to on my way outta here. So for me it’s different because I see him as he’s gonna be a star here when I’m on my way out.
When that day comes, I want to be like ‘Yeah, when he first got here, I was his vet.’”
Hold up. Did he just say he thinks Anfernee Simons is a potential “star”?
There’s a lot to unpack here.
First, Lillard admits that his mentor role has evolved, noting how things are a little bit “different” now and points to his age. It’s no secret: Lillard has grown up in front of Portland’s eyes, and he’s been there a while. And for an athlete like Lillard, the eventual decline that Time brings is always over your shoulder.
Second, Lillard sees Simons as growing into a star. It’s not exactly a “I would bet my life savings that he’s going to be a star,” but if Lillard is associating someone with the word “star,” you should pay attention. To throw that word out there already with Simons is telling.
Third, Lillard alludes to a point in where he’s no longer a Blazer. Not in the way that Lakers fans would sure be glad to hear, but in the way that he’s old enough to retire and close the book on his Portland career.
All these elements show that Simons is different than the usual mentee. This isn’t the same as trying to hype up McCollum over being a small-school prospect, or trying to make Nurkic feel appreciated — it’s about shaping the Blazers’ long-term future, one that seemingly points to Simons.