From April of 2019 to the present day, Portland Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons has had a rollercoaster year. The Ant Colony (is this trademarked?) grew after he led an inspiring comeback against the Kings with a 37-point outburst to clinch the third seed in the playoffs for the Blazers. It grew bigger when he dominated the Summer League, averaging 22 points on 56% shooting, including a scorching 65% from three (this is not a typo). And the colony expanded just a little bit more at the beginning of this season, as he looked increasingly capable as a sixth man for Portland, scoring in double-digits in seven of the first 10 games.
But as the season progressed, Simons hit some roadblocks. He’s had to fight through scary injuries. His shooting hit some cold stretches, including an abysmal January where he made only 35% of his shots and 23% of his threes. His defense has never been enough to make up for it and he hasn’t shown that he can generate offense for others (only 1.5 assists per game). Player impact plus-minus — one of the more reliable advanced metrics — has him at a league-worst -5.34.
Simons has struggled this year, but that isn’t something out of the norm for a player as young as him. The fact of the matter is that Simons will still get minutes in the NBA restart even with the return of players like Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. So what can he do to be a viable third or fourth guard for the Blazers?
One of the great things about Simons is that he’s a young player who can generate his own shot. His percentages are quite low. He’s shooting 40% from the field and 34% from three, but he’s still able to use a variety of dribble moves to free himself up for a decent look. Still, separation doesn’t matter unless it results in either points for you or your teammate. Simons has struggled to do both of those things.
Simons has never boasted great vision. He’s posted an assist percentage of 10% so far, which ranks in the lower end of NBA guards. He doesn’t turn the ball over a ton (he’s averaging less than one turnover a game), but that doesn’t really mean much considering his mentality is almost always score-first.
A lot of Simons’ attempts come after excessive dribbling, which is something that Nate Mann pointed out back in December. Almost 46% of his shots have come after 3+ dribbles. He’s also not utilizing his skills to get close to the basket, settling too often for mid-range jumpers (he’s only averaging about 0.76 points per possession on those shots). He’s only making about 51% of his shots within 10 feet, settling far too often for tough floaters.
Another thing that Mann pointed out that remains true: Simons might be best suited off the ball. His catch and shoot numbers still aren’t particularly great (only 34% from three), but they’re still better than his pull-up shooting numbers (34.9% overall, 32.1% from three). His shot creation is handy at times, but pairing him more often with either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum should benefit him in some way. The rotation should theoretically be tighter (especially with the news of Trevor Ariza’s decision to stay out), which means we’ll see more lineups where he has another creator like Lillard or McCollum to take the pressure off. Having another guard out there that can be the primary creator would help Simons immensely.
Defensively, it’s hard to see a road to immediate improvement. The reality is that he will continue to be bad while he’s on the court on the defensive end. His smaller size means he gets worked defensively, and when he’s on the floor the safest option is usually to have him guard the worst/smallest player on the floor.
With the knowledge that he won’t be a plus defender, what can Simons do to be more effective? We know Simons is quick. He’s got impressive length (an almost 6’10” wingspan). He can use those attributes as ways to force turnovers, assuming he’s in the right position.
Plays like this one in the season opener serve as an example of what he can do. He isn’t generating a ton of steals right now, averaging 0.4 per contest. But he has shown good instincts in a few multi-steal games. If you go play-by-play, you’ll see a lot of bad offensive plays where Simons is in the right place at the right time. But occasionally you’ll see him using his quickness and active hands to force turnovers.
These are the kinds of plays the Blazers need from Simons on the defensive end. Utilizing his physical tools while limiting deficiencies in other areas, he becomes less of a liability on defense. He won’t transform into a defensive expert overnight, but he can alleviate some problems by using his length effectively.
With the news that Trevor Ariza is not joining the Blazers in the NBA restart in Orlando, Simons will be that much more important to the team’s rotation. Gary Trent Jr. will more likely than not find himself playing at the 3 more in Ariza’s absence, which means more minutes at the guard spot for Simons. If he can contribute in the above-mentioned ways, he could earn enough time to recapture some of that past magic.