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The Pain and Promise of Anfernee Simons

The Blazers seem excited about Simons, but is he a point guard or a shooting guard, and can he defend?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When your favorite NBA team is knocked out of the playoffs, it’s easy to focus on everything negative. For fans of the Portland Trail Blazers, it probably feels like the last few weeks have been a constant stream of badness, to be frank. From the frustrations of trying to find a new coach to the constant anxiety surrounding who will even be on the roster next season, it feels like it’s already been three offseasons.

When analyzing everything that has been bad, it’s easy to forget what was good. One of the good things to come out of this year was Anfernee Simons finding his shot. While Portland’s bench was often maligned for being a sieve on defense (and rightfully so), Simons was a bright spot who showed that he can pick up buckets and do it in a hurry if needed.

Simons is a promising yet flawed young player, one that several Blazers fans were ready to give up on after only one season of consistent playing time. After this season, there might be reason to believe that he can become a key part of this franchise’s future. Flaws remain, though. Let’s dive into how Simons did this year.

Simons improved his shooting this year. He couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn last year. He transformed into one of the most effective catch-and-shoot guys in the league this season, upping his three-point percentage from 33.0% to 42.6%. He managed to do that while also increasing the amount of threes he takes a game by one. That’s not an easy thing to do.

The three-pointer became the main staple of Simons’ offensive diet this past season. His three-point attempt rate ballooned, going from 42.2% in the 2019-20 season to 70.3% this past season. That means 70.3% of the shots Simons took were from outside the arc. When you combine the high three-point rate with his improved accuracy, you get a young stud who averaged 120.5 points per 100 shot attempts per Cleaning the Glass. That ranks in the 89th percentile among combo guards.

Simons was impressive from all around the arc, but the corner threes stand out the most. He shot 57% from three in the corners, which puts him in the 96th percentile among guards. And in case you were wondering, his nearly 43% clip at which he hits threes puts him in the 89th percentile.

Most of Ant’s points came in catch-and-shoot situations. He was one of the best in the league at that, shooting 51% from the field overall. That put him seventh in catch-and-shoot field-goal percentage among players with 36 or more games played this year. (Simons played 64.)

How big of a difference was this year offensively compared to last? When looking at the on/off numbers, the gap might as well be the Grand Canyon. When Ant was on the floor for Portland last season, the Blazers scored 8.5 points less per 100 possessions and had an effective field-goal percentage that was 4.5% worse. With Simons on the floor this year, Portland’s EFG% was only 0.2% worse and Portland scored 1.6 points more per 100 possessions.

Those numbers aren’t mind-boggling. They’re actually pretty average to meh stats. But when compared to last year’s numbers — which didn’t even crack the 10th percentile per Cleaning the Glass — it’s a huge improvement. Simons went from giving the Blazers an efficiency differential that would’ve added 28 losses over the course of a season to one that would’ve averaged only one. That’s not great, but it’s a heck of a lot better.

When Simons is on the floor, he’s usually playing with either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum. That makes it a lot easier for Simons to set up in the corner or on the wing. There’s a lot of talk about gravity with players like Lillard who spearhead heliocentric offenses, and the guys who benefit are ones like Simons. The only thing Simons has to worry about is making shots when he’s open. This year, he did just that.

He was far from a perfect role player, however. Most of his problems stemmed from his work on the defensive end. Simons posted an estimated defensive plus-minus of -3.9, second-worst among all NBA players (for the record, his estimated offensive plus-minus was at +0.9). DARKO, one of my other favorite plus-minus estimators, had Ant’s defensive DARKO plus-minus at -1.4, third worst on the team (Melo leads by a country mile at -2.3, Lillard is second worst at -1.6). DARKO is kinder to Ant, ranking him as only the 22nd worst in the league. That is still not very good.

Simons’ defensive struggles are a problem for a team that is already flawed defensively. It’s no secret that the Blazers were one of the worst defensive teams in basketball this year with a defensive rating of 115.3 (29th in the league). Simons did not make that better. Teams scored two points more per 100 possessions with him on the floor. That’s a slight improvement over the 3.5 points teams added with Ant on the floor last year, but it’s still not ideal.

Shooting makes up for a ton of flaws. We already knew that Simons had potential. He’s even shown flashes of it before this past season. But this season laid out a clear role for him as an impact scorer off the ball. The easier your role can be defined in the NBA, the better.

That being said, there are still limitations to what he can do, especially in the playoffs. Portland’s bench was dreadful all series long against the Denver Nuggets. The defense was especially terrible. Simons wasn’t the only reason for those defensive struggles, but he certainly wasn’t helping. He’s still not a plus-player, but he’s working his way towards it.

I’m curious to see how his role evolves next year if he continues to make the same leaps. More specifically, I want to see if he can truly be the backup point guard that President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey claimed he was at the beginning of this season. Ant played 34% of his minutes at the point this season, and he was overall a negative with an efficiency differential of -1.6. That is much better than the differential of -18.6 he posted last year at the position. (To be fair, only 12% of his minutes technically came at the point guard position that year.)

I still don’t think Simons has that on-ball prowess just yet. It’s going to take time to develop, and hopefully he’ll learn more from Lillard. But unless he comes out next season as a pull-up maestro who can dish more than 1.4 assists a night, he’s still best off as a shooting guard with Lillard, McCollum, or maybe even Powell handling primary ball-handling duties when he’s on the court.

If anything, this year showed that Simons not as bad as last year’s advanced stats painted him. He’s still only 21 and showed marked improvement from last year to this season. Now the hope is that he continues to grow.