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Anfernee Simons Still Has Room To Grow

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Is anything really different for the young guard this year?

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Athletic’s Shams Charania dropped an interesting little nugget on his NBA Inside Pass column on Monday. Buried in the noise about what will happen with Andre Drummond, Charania noted that the Portland Trail Blazers very own Anfernee Simons is officially drawing interest from teams around the league for the flashes he’s shown. In classic trade jargon, teams are now “monitoring” him.

It’s probably all just noise, but it’s not unwarranted. The third-year guard is coming off a difficult season with Portland, one where advanced stats had him as one of the worst rotation players in the league. He was dead last among all players in player impact plus-minus (while PIPM is no longer active it seems at Basketball Index, it was as low as -5.34). Stats like RAPTOR and LEBRON both had him as net negatives on both ends of the floor. It was a pretty tough year for Simons to say the least.

But this year has been different. He’s been shooting the ball with more confidence and just seems more comfortable out on an NBA court. Do the stats seem to back up this seemingly new found confidence? And what does this mean for Portland’s future? Let’s dive into it.

Let’s just start with the raw numbers. The box score stats are actually pretty similar so far to what they were last season. His PTS/ASTS/REB splits of 9.0/1.2/2.3 are almost identical to last year’s numbers of 8.3/1.4/2.2. The most interesting thing that stands out is his shooting numbers. His overall field goal percentage of 41.3% isn’t much higher than last season (39.9%), but the three-point percentage is significantly better. Simons is making 42% of his threes right now, a stark contrast from his 33.2% mark last season.

Simons had some really bad shooting stretches in his second year. In January of 2020, he made only 23.3% of his threes. He made only 14.3% of his threes in the month of August. He had some occasionally good shooting months — in February he made 43.2% of his shots from outside — but it was overall not a great shooting year for Simons.

This year, he’s not only making more threes, but doing so at a higher volume. Simons has upped his three point attempts from 3.2 to 5.2 a game. More of his shots are coming on catch-and-shoot opportunities. 26.9% of his field goal attempts last season were of the catch and shoot variety, and he made only 33% of those attempts. This year, his frequency is up to 35.3%. All of those shots have come from three and he’s made them at 47.7% clip.

These above-the-break threes are Simons really likes to launch. Of his 131 threes taken this year, 112 of them have come from above the break. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t really need to do that much here. He barely shifts over even after passing it back to Damian Lillard. But a player like Lillard draws players to himself just by virtue of existing, and the benefit of that is players naturally get open. Simons has just enough of an opening to capitalize here.

He hasn’t been too bad on pull-ups either. He’s made 34.4% of his pull-up threes, which isn’t crazy high, but is a pretty decent number. It also contributes to that high amount of above-the-break threes mentioned earlier.

Simons has cut out a lot of the junk from his shooting diet. His two-point field goal attempts are down significantly, from 4.4 to 2.1 attempts per game. That’s not necessarily a good thing, especially if you’re not shooting well on those attempts (Simons has shot only 39.6% on two-point field goals). However, what’s positive about this development is that Simons is cutting out the right kinds of shots.

Simons is cutting the mid-range out of his game more and more. Last year, he averaged two pull-up attempts per game from mid-range, hitting only 36% of those shots. This year, he’s at 0.9 a game and making 40.9% of those takes. Simons shot 107 shots from mid-range last season and is on pace to only shoot a bit over 40 this year. Meanwhile, he’s on pace to shoot about 380 threes this season after shooting only 223 last year.

It’s good that he’s cutting those tougher, less efficient shots out, but he does need to start capitalizing on those closer two-point shots. He’s only made 38.7% of his shots from within 10 feet and only 47.6% of his shots in the restricted area. Those aren’t stellar numbers, so the next step is finishing those shots.

This is actually a pretty good take. He utilizes the Harry Giles screen effectively and takes Eric Paschall head on without much fuss. But it seems like he jumps a bit too soon and that makes his path to finishing the layup much too difficult. That’s just a matter of timing right there.

Here is Simons making the not-so-great decision to take on a defensively competent wing in Torrey Craig at the rim. Going right at him in seemingly slow motion is already not a great idea. It’s even more difficult when the timing of the jump is too early. Simons can jump out of the arena when needed, but that doesn’t mean he can cover that amount of ground with a guy in front of him.

The more shot-making that Simons does, the better, because that is really his main value offensively. During the free agency period, Neil Olshey made it clear that Simons was the future at the backup point guard spot. That was really only a half-truth. Technically Simons slides into that position, but that’s not what he’s really doing.

Simons has played shooting guard for 54% of his minutes this season per Cleaning the Glass, and that number feels low. Obviously, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum playing the majority of minutes at point guard all the time affects that, but Terry Stotts deliberately seems to be moving Simons off the ball more and more. With a healthy Rodney Hood, Stotts has even handed primary ball-handling duties to the vet as opposed to young Ant.

The reason for this deliberate moving of Simons off the ball is his lack of playmaking. As noted earlier, Simons is only averaging 1.2 assists per game and only 2.5 assists per 36 minutes. His assist percentage of 11.3% is very low among guards in general, and his 1.48 assist to turnover ratio isn’t much better.

This isn’t something new. Simons has always struggled as a passer, even in his one magical Summer League run where he shot lights out from the field. But what’s different is that the playmaking burden is no longer being thrust upon him. Simons can just focus on getting buckets like he’s meant to do.

Despite the passing shortcomings and finishing at the rim, Simons seems to have figured something out on the offensive end, or at least found a role for himself. What about on defense? Well, he’s still very bad. He’s posting a defensive rating of 119.3 right now, which is absurdly high. He’s just straight-up not good on that end.

I understand that it’s not ideal for Enes Kanter to be defending a smaller guard on the perimeter and the more help the better, but Pat Connaughton is a 38% shooter from three. Lillard is there to help and Kanter’s size makes that dump off to Bobby Portis very hard. Sagging off of Connaughton there is not the right move here.

I don’t hate everything here. Simons stays controlled and doesn’t try flying past Jaylen Nowell or anything dumb like that. My main problem is that Simons doesn’t do anything to cut off the baseline route and tries just guiding him along. Having Harry Giles and Nassir Little there to protect the paint makes that a slightly easier decision to make, but I’d like to see Simons step up and try to cut Nowell off here.

Overall, it’s been a better year for Simons. I don’t think he’s some prodigal son who’ll take the Blazers over the top, but I believe in him becoming a good rotation player. I disagree with Olshey on the idea that he’s the most talented player he’s ever drafted. But Simons seems to be carving out a role for himself. If he stays on this trajectory, he can become a solid rotation guy for Portland.