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Anfernee Simons Needs to Play More Off Ball for the Blazers

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To dazzle and delight, the young guard may need a few easier opportunities.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers sanguine pledge to contend for a championship in the 2019-20 season put a lot of pressure on its players to deliver, perhaps none more than Anfernee Simons. The front office handed him the keys to the second unit by trading Evan Turner and letting Seth Curry sign elsewhere in free agency. They took a leap of faith on a 20-year-old who had played just 141 regular season minutes as a rookie .

Through the first dozen games of the year, the leap of faith appeared well-founded as Simons demonstrated his ability to score dynamically and added a new punch off the bench. There were still cobwebs to shake off, but the sophomore was finding his role as a secondary scorer alongside CJ McCollum.

As of late, his offensive production has spiraled. In the month of December, he’s averaging 7.6 points on 37.6% shooting from the field and 30.3% from three. An increase in minutes ideally leads to linear progression for a young and potential-filled guard, but his scoring and efficiency have declined to a career low. Meanwhile, the Blazers have won six of its 11 December games and are back in the playoff picture for the first time since the first weeks of the season.

To alleviate the unreasonable pressure assigned to Simons, the coaching staff should take the ball out of his hands more on offense. That doesn’t mean reduce his shot attempts; he’s the second-best scoring option among the reserves – best if you don’t include McCollum – and should still see his fair share of opportunities. Simons’ shot choices require correction…they need to be easier.

Nearly half of Simons’ field goal attempts come after three or more dribbles. He has the athleticism and wherewithal to score off the bounce, but at this stage of his career, it shouldn’t be relied on so frequently. Isolations account for one-tenth of his offensive possessions and he’s scoring 0.86 points per possession, which ranks in the 43rd percentile league-wide.

As a primary scoring option for the second unit, defenses collapse on Simons when he drives much like they do with Damian Lillard and McCollum. He doesn’t have the vision to exploit helping defenders and locate the open man – he has a 12.9% pass rate and 5% assist rate on drives – and therefore forces up a heavily-contested shot outside the restricted area.

Recently, the 20-year-old has frequently resorted to a strong-hand floater no matter which direction he’s running. When he’s going left, turning his hips to get the shot off with his right hand makes an already difficult floater exponentially more difficult.

When he does reach the paint, he’s demonstrated finesse and acrobatics. In the restricted area, he’s shooting 59.2%, right around the league average. Still in the paint but outside the restricted area, that percentage drops to 32.5%.

To clear a lane for Simons to reach the hoop, the Blazers offense should replace his isolation possessions with more pick and rolls. As the pick and roll ball handler, the guard’s points per possession jumps to 0.94, which is in the 74th percentile league wide. He can blow by switched big men a lot easier than the opposing guard, leading to more shots within the restricted area and less eight-foot floaters.

It doesn’t get any easier for him beyond arc: Barely half of Simons’ three-point attempts are catch-and-shoot. For reference, a ball-pounding Austin Rivers in the Houston Rockets’ isolation-dependent offense is shooting a higher percentage of catch-and-shoot threes.

Simons is converting 35.9% of his catch-and-shoot threes and 30% of his pull up threes. That’s a 6% improvement when the opportunity is created by passing and off-ball movement. He therefore shouldn’t have a near 50-50 split of the two types of triples. With McCollum playing in the bench unit, there’s another ball handler on the floor to enable Simons to get more catch-and-shoot opportunities.

In his new role, the sophomore guard has among the worst catch-all stats in the league. He’s tied with Charlotte’s Miles Bridges for last in the league in PIPM and ranks 441st out of 445 players in ESPN’s RPM.

These numbers should be accepted with a grain of salt; the Blazers bench in its entirety has struggled all season long, especially with injuries to the starting unit forcing the coaching staff to promote reliable bench guys to starter status.

Nonetheless, Simons isn’t within shouting distance of the organization’s lofty goals advertised over the summer. To extract the offensive potential Simons is known to have, Portland’s offense needs to play him off the ball more and provide shot opportunities that require fewer dribbles and more help from teammates.