Anfernee Simons played 141 minutes over 20 games in his rookie season with the Portland Trail Blazers. 48 of those came on the final night of the season, when Portland rested pretty much everybody and played a six-man rotation against the Sacramento Kings. It was quite easily the best game of Simons’ young career and, in terms of league-wide impact, might have had a larger effect on the NBA than anybody realized at the time.
Evaluating Simons remains immensely difficult after his rookie season. We never got the chance to see him on the collegiate stage, nor did he go overseas to play in a professional league before making the move to the NBA. He measured out very well at the 2018 Combine and jumped up draft boards, but drafting him was entirely an upside play for Portland, who took him with the No. 24 pick last June. He wasn’t ready to compete night in and night out at the professional level and they knew it; he was just a few months removed from playing high school ball at IMG Academy in Florida, where he spent his mandatory post-graduate year.
His rookie year made things no easier, as he played precious little actual professional basketball in 2018-19. On top of his 141 NBA minutes, he notched just 91 minutes in the G League with the Agua Caliente Clippers, since the Trail Blazers don’t have their own G League club at this point. The result is that Simons is nearly as much of an unknown as he was this time last year, having played solely in garbage time throughout his rookie year outside of the final game of the season.
There were significant flashes in that final game of the season – Simons showed the skill with the ball in his hands that pushed him into the first round to begin with – though there couldn’t possibly be more noise in a single-game sample for a player. It was the last of the 82-game regular season for both Portland and Sacramento, the Trail Blazers played none of their top rotation guys, the Kings were locked into their spot in a lottery in which they had no pick and played 12 guys 11 minutes or more, and the game was out of hand early before Simons led a late-game comeback to seal the third seed for his team. It was a cornucopia of “this isn’t a serious game and shouldn’t be taken seriously as a result”, but also gave us the best window we’ve had in his entire career into what kind of player he may eventually become.
Simons’ primary draw at the NBA level is his scoring; he’s got a quick handle and flashed quite a bit of pull-up shooting acumen against the Kings, hitting seven of his 11 attempts from beyond the arc, many of which came in ball screen and dribble handoff actions.
Should that pull-up shot be a significant part of his arsenal when he earns consistent minutes for the Trail Blazers, it will open up everything else in his game. While he doesn’t quite have the vision at this point to qualify as a lead creator, the threat of his pull-up shooting may bring defenders further out on the floor and open up easier passing lanes to a rolling or popping big man. It’s not imperative that he become an all-world playmaker if the plays he has to make are the easy ones right in front of him.
Projecting him out to be a lead ball handler is a bit of a stretch at this point and would require him to hit his absolute ceiling as a prospect, which he very much still is after playing so little throughout his rookie year. With changes to the Portland roster coming in the offseason, there’s an opening for Simons to take over a reliable bench role in Terry Stotts’ rotation with a strong summer and the sort of consistency that comes with a year in the Trail Blazers’ system on his resume, even if most of that experience came in practice. His professional progress has been somewhat slower than many in the 2018 draft class, but Neil Olshey and his staff knew that Simons was going to be a long-term prospect when they chose him 11 months ago. The distinct advantage of taking a player like Simons late in the first round is that his salary is relatively small (compared to the cap) throughout his rookie scale contract and the club gets four years to develop his skills before they have to make a decision about a new contract. While we didn’t see a lot of Simons in his rookie year, it’s safe to assume that the team is still invested in his growth and will give him every opportunity to earn minutes next season.