The Portland Trail Blazers have had stellar guard play ever since the emergence of current back court of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. However, the players behind those two stars have rotated on almost a year by year basis. Since the massive roster shift during the summer of 2015, and the loss of four starters from the year prior, the only real backup point guard that has been on Portland’s roster has been a two-year stint from Shabazz Napier, during which he averaged just over 16 minutes per game. That seems to be changing with the emergence of young breakout Anfernee Simons.
Simons, in a shift that was not widely anticipated, went from one of the most inconsistent bench scorers in the league to a player that has served as a steadying presence for the Blazers so far this year. In a season where almost every returning player has seen a dip in their scoring thus far, Simons has been a spark plug off the bench that has lifted the Blazers scoring attack at times that it seemed stagnant.
Simons has averaged career highs almost across the board, as he has career highs in points, assists, rebounds, field goal attempts and makes, three point attempts and makes, field goal percentage, and two point percentage, as well as not missing a free throw yet. It is easy to look at these stats and see clear improvement, but where the improvement is exceedingly obvious is in his impact on the team while he is on the court.
An understated career high that Simons has been experiencing so far is possibly the most telling one of this season. His on court plus minus so far has been a +2.3, demolishing his previous career high of +.4. Partner that with a career high on/off differential of +4.9 shows just how much of an impact he has had on the Blazers performance so far. The Blazers are five points per possession better when Simons is on the floor, which is made even more jarring when considering almost all of Simons’ minutes have come without one or both of Lillard or McCollum on the court, as the trio has played just 37 minutes together.
Simons has had an obvious impact on winning, as he boasts the third highest on court plus minus on the team, following just Jusuf Nurkic and Larry Nance. The question then presents itself: what has Simons done this year that makes his impact on the court so much greater?
The most apparent answer is an uptick in his confidence levels. Whether that is a result of more trust from the organization, or just from him growing into his own more is not entirely clear. However, in just six more minutes per game, Simons has raised his shot attempts from 6.3 to 10.4 per game. This points to a more involved role in the offense, something that new head coach Chauncey Billups has wanted for Simons since his arrival. Billups has made it known that he sees Simons as a true backup point guard, and as such has focused on developing his playmaking skills during this past off-season.
This increased focus on playmaking ability can be seen in a slight uptick in assists from 1.4 to 2.1 per game. The 50% increase in assists points to an increased focus on getting teammates involved, and that is reflected in a subsequent increase in passes per game from 20.3 to 27.8. The Trail Blazers organization, and head coach Chauncey Billups, have shown Simons that they have faith in him as a real backup point guard, and that faith has led directly to Simons having an increased confidence level in his own abilities.
Simons made a name for himself last year as a knockdown shooter on his way to shooting 51.4% from three on catch-and-shoot opportunities, good for fifth in the league among shooters who attempted one or more catch and shoot three per game. This year he has expanded his abilities to make threes by expanding his offensive arsenal. Due to being cast more as a point guard then he has in recent years, Simons has had the ball in his hands more than he has before, going from eighth on the team in touches per game to fourth this year. This increase in touches has allowed him to take more pull-up and off the dribble threes than he has in the past.
Simons has changed his shot profile, taking more shots off the dribble than ever before. His development this year is the direct result of that, as his confidence and changed role have pushed him to try different things than he has in the past. He has worked to become a true point guard, and in doing that has carved out a greater role in the Blazers’ offense. He has seen an uptick in shots and assists due to this greater role. His role will only increase as his growth continues, and he keeps on his current trajectory which seems to be the path of a sixth man of the year candidate in the coming years.