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Trail Blazers 2021-22 Season Preview: Anfernee Simons

Anfernee Simons has proven he can score in bunches. But can the Blazers guard consistently showcase other facets of his game in 2021-22?

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

2021-22 will essentially be a “bet on yourself” type of season for Anfernee Simons. The talented combo guard and the Portland Trail Blazers couldn’t agree to terms on an extension of his rookie contract, in part because Portland wants to see more, and in part because, as Jason Quick of The Athletic notes, Simons believes he can drive his market up under new head coach Chauncey Billups.

Under that backdrop, the pressure is on to see if Simons can coax a new level of production in his fourth year, and help push the Blazers’ second unit to a new level. Here’s what’s worth monitoring as Simons gets his fourth year started on Wednesday night against Sacramento.

Anfernee Simons, 2020-21 Statistics:

AGE: 22 | EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons

PTS: 7.8 | REB: 2.2 | AST: 1.9 | STL: 0.3 | TO: 0.7

FG%: 41.9 | 3P%: 42.6 | FT%: 80.7

CONTRACT: $3.9 million in 2021-22; in final year of rookie deal

Here’s a statistic that Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey is likely well aware of: last season, there were only seven players that shot 50 percent or better from both the left and right corners (min. 20 attempts from each). Portland employed one of them to start the season — Anfernee Simons, of course — and went on to acquire two others in Norman Powell and Tony Snell, with Ben McLemore coming one 3-point make shy of joining them. (Seth Curry, Marcus Morris Sr., Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Lauri Markkanen are the others, for those curious).

That statistic begins to tell the story of the type of team the Blazers’ brass seeks to construct: a stretch-you-out, spacing-heavy offense, and one that Simons thrived in as a shooter a season ago. His shot profile is brimming with statistics that tell a similar story. To illustrate: of the 173 players that took at least 125 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in 2020-21, Simons’ 77.1 effective field goal percentage ranked No. 1. Those are building blocks as he heads into Year Four.

The Role:

Simons’ role in Portland has been well-defined at this point. He’s expected to either provide a hefty punch for the Blazers’ second unit, or excel in a role playing off of them. For what it’s worth, here’s how the lineup numbers shook out last season.

Simons + Lillard backcourt: 422 minutes, -3.2 net rating
Simons + McCollum backcourt: 265 minutes, +12.3 net rating
Simons + Lillard + McCollum: 33 minutes, +8.2 net rating
Simons + Powell: 192 minutes, +14.4 net rating

It’s arguable that none of this is definitive, but it does provide an idea of where Simons is most effective at. That’s what makes his role this season all the more interesting. The Blazers again went against the strategy of acquiring a traditional, pass-first point guard to help orchestrate that second unit. Instead, they’re banking on Simons to display improved passing chops and sort of moonlight between efficient, aggressive scoring and setting the table for others. In spurts, he looked up to the challenge.

It was interesting to hear Mike Richman of the Locked on Blazers podcast call it a few weeks ago. The deadline has passed for the Blazers to extend Simons’ rookie deal, but his future in Portland could be on the rocks if he doesn’t add a “new dynamic,” such as the ability to play make at a more proficient level. Even if Simons isn’t a Blazer next season, one has to surmise that that’s going to play a role in determining what type of money he makes next season.

Areas for Improvement:

As noted before, there’s reason to believe Simons needs to improve as a passer. His career assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t even 2-to-1, though to his credit, his turnover rate was lower than it had ever been.

Then, there’s the defensive situation, which, at this point, you could throw in a “fill-in-the-blank” and insert the name of just about any Portland Trail Blazers player to talk about the need to improve. Personally, Simons’ defensive intensity and moxie towards the tail end of the regular season was noticeable. He attacked passing lanes and even showed some potential on occasion at the point of attack. It certainly wasn’t a year-round thing, though, so that will be his next step.

Last on the list would be Simons’ ability to get to the charity stripe. Over the last three seasons, his free throw rate has dipped. Simons has the athleticism — he’s the reigning Slam Dunk Contest Champion with a whopping four dunks during the regular season, according to NBA.com — and if he’s able to add a Lillard-esque aggression through traffic, it could be the difference between him averaging 7.8 points per game and a more eye-popping double-digits per game.

Final Thoughts:

It doesn’t feel as though Simons is far off from becoming a consistent “winning basketball player.” For the first time in his career, the Blazers had a positive on-court net rating (+0.4) when he was on the floor in the regular season, and under a new, defensive-minded, player-friendly head coach, there may be an unseen limit to where his game could be headed. With financial security hanging in the balance, expect Simons to make good on his bet, and have the most productive season of his young career.