When Anfernee Simons was picked with the 24th overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft, alarm bells sounded across the Pacific Northwest. General Manager Neil Olshey had expressed a desire for players who could come in and contribute immediately. His selection was a player who did not play a second of college basketball, coming out of IMG Academy. While ESPN had him as the 19th best potential selection, it was clear Simons would be little more than an afterthought for much of the year.
The perception changed dramatically when Simons scored 37 points against the Sacramento Kings on the final game of the regular season. Expectations soared as the Blazers traded away Evan Turner and watched Seth Curry return to Dallas that Simons would be the leader of the second unit.
However, in a season where nothing has gone the way the Portland Trail Blazers would have liked, Simons’ inexperience is overshadowing his potential. Averaging just 9.6 points per game despite playing 21 minutes a contest is not good, but the other stats paint a doomed portrait. 1.9 rebounds per game. 1.5 assists per game. 0.4 steals per game. The worst offensive rating on the team at 101.2, just .3 points lower than Mario Hezonja, who has also struggled mightily. A 112.1 defensive rating, second worst among regulars on the team, just ahead of rookie Nassir Little.
That rating difference (-10.9) ranks 283rd in the NBA, and among players who play at least 17 minutes a game, it is 13th worst in the league. (Of note, he is not alone among young players struggling. Lonzo Ball’s 120.9 defensive rating is 4th worst in the NBA, giving him a hideous -16 differential.)
The question is: how to get Simons back on track? The answer might be more simple than we realize.
Looking at the shot chart for Simons going back to last season, it is clear Simons is far more comfortable dribbling and driving to the left side of the basket. Many players have these eccentricities. The problem is the that patterns like that get widely known, and widely scouted ahead of time. As a result, teams have been closely guarding him when he is on the left side of the hoop, and slacking off of him on the right.
Sure enough, Simons is an above-average shooter from every shot chart position on the left side (shooting 40% from the field total), and a far below average one from every position in the center or on the right. So the key lies in getting Simons more comfortable moving on the right side of the hoop in practice.
The other fix is the drive. At the hoop, Simons has been an excellent finisher. Getting there is the weakness. Early scouting reports on Simons detailed his relative inability to drive with his left hand, and his tunnel vision once he makes his move and starts his drive. As a result, he is third on the team on turnovers on the drive, behind the obvious Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside. While Simons is terrific at shooting from the left side, his weakness in driving with his left hand is why defenders can close tightly, knowing that it is far more difficult for him to get past them.
Working with Simons to improve his coordination despite the hand, and affixing his shot regardless of the position is something that the team will work with over time for the young guard. In the meantime, the team will have to live with the growing pains of a veteran star’s talent in a youth prospect’s frame.