Anfernee Simons’ path to the 2018 NBA Draft, and thus to the Portland Trail Blazers, was an unorthodox one. The 19-year-old guard forsook the usual NCAA route in favor of a year at IMG Academy before entering the draft. In a league once defined by young prospects, Simons’ youth marks him rare and his chosen course unique. How will he stand up against more traditional competition?
The question is significant, as routes like Simons’ could become commonplace in the near future. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has flirted with the idea of ending the controversial “one-and-done” rule that prevents prospects from entering the draft directly after completing high school. As more young players get drafted, Simons’ career in Portland will provide an interesting case study for how the NCAA-free prep-to-pro process has evolved since 2005.
Evaluating Young Athletes
In the heyday of drafting young players, “Feast or Famine” became one of the biggest criticisms. For every Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett who dominated the league, half a dozen players washed out...a couple tragically. The high-risk nature of young draftees seemed unavoidable; their promise dwarfed their actual body of work. With the right body and skill set, looking good in high school is easy. The pro game never is.
Organizations like IMG Academy, Oak Hill Academy, and Montverde Academy have evolved as an alternative to college ball, giving players a chance to develop, and in many cases showcase, their game against more advanced competition. In an interview with Blazer’s Edge, IMG’s Director of Basketball, Brian Nash, explains:
“We try to compete at the highest level, at the prep school level. A lot of these guys are in the post-grad years—they’re fifth-year kids, so they are true freshmen, and some are even older. Some might even be sophomores in college with the way kids are holding themselves back at earlier ages now. I think he [Simons] competed against some high level guys all year long, older guys. I think he competed against some guys that were going to some of the top colleges in the country.”
Nash, who has coached at nearly every level of the college game, explains that IMG’s approach to development is holistic. They encourage mental and team aspects along with the physical.
“We have something at the academy called: APD. Athletic and Personal Development. What these guys get access to is: a nutritionist early on in the year to set the tone. We have the Gatorade Sports Science Institute on our campus, we are able to do sleep studies with our guys to monitor sleeping to see exactly where they’re at statistically—to look at the differences from when they’re getting sleep to when they’re not getting sleep.
We have a great leadership team—Anfernee was obviously one of our leaders on the team. We were able to do some things with him from the leadership end. A lot of college teams are now doing the military training for leadership. They are bringing in ex-military, and we are able to do the same thing here. Major Tannehill came in and did a 36-hour boot camp with our guys, and did some team building and leadership building.
We have mental coaches for each team here. There are topics that come up throughout the year. If guys are struggling with certain things, or if they need to get better with certain things on the court, there is a mental team involved.
We have vision training. We have our own mind gym, where we continually work on hand-eye coordination.
One of the last pieces that we do is some pretty intensive yoga. Yoga throughout the year for flexibility and injury prevention.”
With the G-League evolving to fill the same function that IMG does, it’ll be interesting to see if the NBA can adopt or adapt similar practices at a systemic level, or whether they’ll remain the province of particular institutions or teams.
Stacking Up to College?
Simons’ agent Bobby Petriella spoke with Blazer’s Edge about the IMG experience. Alongside Simons, Petriella represents players who took the traditional college route to the NBA. I asked him how Simons’ readiness compared to his other clients.
“It is definitely comparable. I’ve worked with guys who have come from major programs, Florida, Maryland, and Anfernee was just as prepared as those guys. I think a lot of it has to do with the kid, the player themselves, and how hard they want to work. Really the only difference with Anfernee was that he didn’t play against the top level guys. But the skills, the weight training, the regimen they put him on at IMG—I feel it is just as good as any Division One college out there.”
An Early Test Case
If Simons’ transition to the NBA is a smooth one, his journey will likely calm the nerves of organizations looking to build around players without true college experience. According to these interviewees, Simons has had access to all the tools necessary to build a successful professional career. Nobody expects to see him start at the level of a four-year NCAA graduate, but if he blossoms over the course of his rookie contract, he’ll add legitimacy to the idea that college isn’t a requirement for success at the next level.
—Steve / @SteveDHoops / BEdgeSteve@gmail.com