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Looking Back On Anfernee Simons’ Career Night vs. the Hawks

The talented guard put on a 43-point masterpiece as a tribute to his late grandfather.

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

When the Portland Trail Blazers selected Anfernee Simons with the No. 24 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, he wasn’t the most well-known commodity. Entering the NBA as a fifth-year postgraduate with zero NCAA tape to refer to, supporters were left to merely hope that the traits on Simons’ scouting report — the Monta Ellis and D’Angelo Russell comparisons, the admiration for his combination of athleticism and scoring ability — would come into fruition on a night-to-night basis.

On Monday night, shorthanded against the Atlanta Hawks, Simons put every positive superlative speaking on his potential on tape. By the final buzzer, the 22-year-old’s statistical ledger read as follows: 43 points (a career-high), seven assists and three rebounds on 13-of-21 from the field, 9-of-16 from 3-point range and 8-of-8 from the charity stripe in a 136-131 thriller.

The backdrop of Monday’s game took on an entirely new focus upon the storyline that Simons dedicated the game to his late grandfather. The Athletic’s Jason Quick penned a touching story detailing Simons’ tumultuous week, starting with his battle within the NBA’s health and safety protocols prior to putting on the game of his life. Simons’ mother, Tameka, had one quote that seemed to encapsulate the night to the fullest:

“I think it was divine in the sense of Anfernee using his emotion, and carrying it out in the game, and doing what he feels like my dad would want him to do,” Tameka said. “But also, I feel like he did it because that’s what he is capable of doing. He played to the fullest of his potential tonight.”

With the one-day break between the next Blazers game, it felt beneficial to go back and revisit Simons’ career night. With both of the Blazers backcourt stars out, similar performances like this could be a possibility. And, if you’ll recall, Simons and the Blazers couldn’t reach an agreement last fall, as it was said the Blazers wanted to see a “larger, more consistent body of work.” ProFitX currently projects Simons, a restricted free agent this summer, to have a game worth something in the $15.9 million range with a nod to his potential. Here, let’s look back on what felt sustainable from that Hawks game, and what it could mean going forward.

A Budding Star in the Offensive Pick-and-Roll:

For years, Anfernee Simons has had the opportunity to observe the art of pick-and-roll manipulation from two of NBA history’s most skilled offensive talents in Lillard and CJ McCollum. The reps he’s putting on film suggest that he’s well on his way towards becoming a nightmare for opposing defenders in that area as well. Here’s a statistic to ponder: there are 58 different players with at least 100 shot attempts as a pick-and-roll ball handler in 2021-22. Simons ranks ninth among them in points per possession (0.99), and he’s one of just 24 to hit over half of their shots in that setting.

In looking back at Simons’ game vs. Atlanta, there may have been some truth to that idea of “divine intervention.” Despite being well aware of Simons’ potency as a pick-and-roll scorer, the Hawks, in some situations, elected to not only keep their big back in a drop, doubled their mistakes by going under on a few screens, as shown in the video above.

Maybe those scouting reports were written in No. 2 pencil? Maybe the Hawks just wanted to give Trae Young a break during his own 56-point, 14-assist masterpiece in this same game? In any case, Anfernee took on the coverage gladly; of his 13 field goal attempts, a healthy six of them came off a pick-and-roll or a DHO. Young, when asked to cover Simons, spent most of the night pursuing from the rearview. He hustled admirably, but that won’t show up on the box score. As a result, Atlanta gave Simons the ultimate sign of respect, bringing Young right back in when Simons checked in and offering some Lillard-type traps on his picks.

In doing recaps, you learn to pick out subtleties in particular players. There are parts of Simons’ game that are becoming eerily similar to that of Lillard and McCollum. He has the choppy, in-and-out sort of hesitation into a pull-up when a big switches to him, a Lillard signature. He’s got that right-handed zip pass across the court to the left corner while driving right — much more difficult than it sounds — the pull-up moving to his left, right-shoulder aligned … the Blazers’ star backcourt can’t be carbon copied, but the way Simons is performing provides hope that long after their run as stars, the backcourt could be in good hands.

A Work in Progress in the Defensive Pick-and-Roll:

There’s some truth to the idea that the Hawks and Trail Blazers put on a masterclass in tough shot-making, but there’s also some truth to this idea that the 136-131 final score was reflective of how much defensive attention was being played. Just as the Hawks, on occasion, went “under” on Simons, the Blazers were susceptible to being fooled as well.

Simons, in particular, kept his mistakes to a minimum, and when you score 43 points, a few defensive lapses here or there are to be expected. There were a few occasions, though, where he seemed to struggle, as everyone did against Young on Monday. Over the first quarter, he checked off a few of the “cardinal sins,” helping off just one pass away — while guarding, you guessed it, Trae Young — or even going under on a double drag screen. It’d seem that years of guarding someone like Lillard in practice would condition that to be a flaw.

Young, over the course of the game, finished with 17 of his 56 points on 5-of-7 shooting against Simons’ defense, which included a few questionable, so-so foul calls. Simons didn’t make a ton of mistakes on either end on Monday, but there were a few examples of overhelping or falling out position that were noteworthy.

A few months ago, I wrote about how Simons’ aggressive defense, particularly in fighting through screens, had teetered on impressive. He still brings that same moxie over stretches in most games. Thinking long-term, it’s going to be especially fun to see how Simons manages to maintain the motor on that end with the newfound responsibilities on offense. He’s being called upon more than ever, and subsequently, is raising his game with career-highs almost across the board, and as the saying goes … the reward for work is more work.

Thinking Long-Term:

Because Simons plays such an important role in what the Blazers are doing both right now and in the near future, it’s become sort of a focus in looking into which lineups he’s thrived in the most. Lineup statistics are to be taken with a grain of salt until they reach a certain minutes total, but over the Blazers’ last ten games, it is interesting to note their most productive four-man lineups (min. 25 minutes) have come with three players: Simons, Jusuf Nurkic, and Norman Powell (the fourth being either Larry Nance Jr. or Nassir Little).

To a degree, that’s understandable. Little has taken on the role of creating “winning plays,” such as tracking down misses that he can kick out to shooters. Simons has been the second-most frequent beneficiary of Little’s passes this year. Nurkic has remained one of the NBA’s better passing bigs; that inside-out playstyle was what got Portland its lead in the first place. And then, on defense, it’s noticeable how many times Portland does a switch-everything with Nance Jr. as the center, his admirable willingness to take on guards along the perimeter. It hasn’t led to strong defensive results, though, at the very least, it’s allowing the Blazers’ guards to hide a little bit more and safe energy.

Just as a reference: since Simons returned on Dec. 12, the Simons-Powell-Nurkic-Nance lineups have been a +27.7. Put in Little instead of Nance, and they have a +17.6 together. That’s even more remarkable when you consider that Portland is 3-6 in those games. It’s a mere spitball, hypothetical talk, but perhaps there’s something to that. In any case, Simons could be poised for more burn with McCollum still out indefinitely and Lillard’s recent news. How he performs going forward will provide observers with something must-watch in what has been a difficult season to this point.