Rumors suggesting the Portland Trail Blazers refused to deal Anfernee Simons for Aaron Gordon at this year’s trade deadline had many a fan baying for Neil Olshey’s blood. Gordon, who was subsequently sent to the Denver Nuggets for a collection of players and a pick, ironically played a major role in the Blazers’ earlier than expected 2021 playoff exit.
At the time, Olshey, Portland’s President of Basketball Operations, clearly saw something in the 6’3 guard, despite him falling out of the rotation as the March 25 deadline approached. Fortunately, by the playoffs, Simons was an integral part of the Blazers roster, providing instant offense off the bench while helping quell the impact of opponent perimeter players.
By the playoffs Simons’ game began to resemble that of new teammate Norman Powell who brought a dynamic and aggressive style to the team. These similarities have given us an interesting insight into where Simons’ development might lead.
The trade deadline
Simons was marked with Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision three times in the week prior to the deadline and played just 12 minutes in a blow-out loss to the Dallas Mavericks on March 21. His chances of returning to the court were dealt a serious blow when the Blazers traded Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood to the Toronto Raptors for in-form wing Norman Powell.
Powell became the Blazers’ fourth player standing 6’3” or shorter and, at the time, was expected to monopolize minutes previously available for the newly-anointed Slam Dunk champion. Powell came to the Blazers with championship pedigree, heady defense, the ability to get to the rim and one of the league’s most efficient long-range shooting strokes.
The threat of yet again being marginalized at the end of the Blazers bench must have spurred on Simons. Prior to the deadline, he looked unsure on offense and mediocre on defense. While his shooting had improved on his first two seasons, the IMG Academy product couldn’t quite put it together when the underperforming Blazers needed him most.
But on April 16 in a game against the San Antonio Spurs, something happened. Simons registered 16 points, hitting four of eight from three and playing a major role in the Blazers’ one-point win. It was a sign of things to come.
By April 27, both Simons and the Blazers were back in form demolishing the Indiana Pacers on the road — the team had come off a demoralizing five-game losing streak. That afternoon, Simons recorded 27 points in 24 minutes and the Blazers got back on the winner’s list to kick off a grueling six-game east coast swing that culminated in a 5-1 record.
From there, Simons was locked in on defense and hit what felt like every three-point shot, combining with Carmelo Anthony to provide a real offensive threat off the bench. His play improved so much so that through the stretch run, Simons had leap-frogged Derrick Jones Jr. and Nassir Little in the rotation, often playing alongside two of Powell, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
The career stages
While Simons, at age 22, is only just scratching the surface after three years in the league, some traits are starting to shine through. Powell has just turned 28, has won a championship and is coming to the end of his second contract after six years in the league.
Powell also spent more time on the court during his first three seasons, playing 195 games, 16 of which he started. Simons has played a total of 154 games, starting in five with both averaging between 16 and 17 minutes.
It’s also important to note that Powell spent four years at UCLA and Simons only one at IMG Academy. As a result, Powell started his career with the Raptors at 22, with a teenage Simons joining the Blazers at 19. Consequently, Simons is currently the same age Powell was when he entered the league.
While both wings — or guards depending on your preference — share the same height, Powell boasts the longer wing span at 6’9” over Simons’ 6’7”. Powell is clearly the better transition player — an unstoppable force each time he gallops towards the rim. Simons is the superior ball handler with better court vision, allowing him to bring teammates into real scoring positions.
Both are athletic freaks, explosive and bounding leapers with the ability to cut through traffic and finish at the rim. Both can create shots for themselves at all three levels, a skill the Blazers have needed outside of Lillard and McCollum since Nicolas Batum was in black and red.
While it’s difficult to compare each player’s 2020-21 season due to their varying roles on the roster, it might be fair to compare seasons where Powell and Simons played similar minutes, took a similar number of shots and were at similar stages in their development.
For the purposes of this exercise we’ll use Powell’s 2018-19 season (his fourth). The then 25-year-old’s championship year delivered the Raptors regular production off the bench behind the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. For Simons, we look at his past season, the 21-year-old’s third, playing understudy to Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Powell.
Below you can see both played similar roles off the bench, recording staggeringly identical minutes, shots, three point percentages, blocks, free throw percentages, rebounds, assists and points.
It is eerie how similar these numbers are across the board, particularly the number of field goals taken (Powell with 6.7 and Simons with 6.3) and effective field goal percentage (Powell with 56.8 percent and Simons with 56.9 percent).
Both can undoubtedly shoot, with Simons the league’s 14th most efficient three-point shooter this season. Powell came in at 29th.
While the offensive numbers highlight significant similarities, it’s important to note that factors such team schemes, personnel and rotations from different seasons need to be taken into consideration.
On the defensive side of the ball, Simons has upped his intensity and smarts guarding premier players on the perimeter. However, he falls short of Powell who, thanks to his longer wingspan and physicality, can guard considerably bigger wings — just ask Michael Porter Jr. The edge goes to Powell right now but Simons has shown he has the chops to be an above-average defender.
The money and contracts
Simons just completed the third year of his rookie-scale contract, which will pay him almost $4 million next season before becoming a restricted free agent in 2022. Powell has one year left on his current contract, but with a $11.6 million player option for next season, he’s almost certain to opt out and guaranteed to receive a significant pay rise. The Blazers have indicated an intent to keep him but how high will they go?
If this argument is valid, Simons could have an increased impact on Portland’s play over the next few years. The Blazers are likely to pull out all the stops to retain Powell’s services this offseason. And they should. But if Simons continues on this current course, he might be the natural replacement in two to three years time, allowing the Blazers to move Powell for a replacement at a position of need.
Just to be clear: we’re not suggesting that if Powell bolted this offseason, then Simons could instantly step into either starting shooting guard or small forward roles. Simons is a guard and should only play the point or shooting guard positions. But he has the athleticism, body shape, skillset and natural ability to be on par with, if not better, than Powell.
Simons has every available tool to match Powell’s output on both ends of the floor and with similar shooting, rebounding, facilitating and defensive metrics it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.