The Portland Trail Blazers have had a relatively-unique season in terms of the amount of trades and injuries that they’ve dealt with.
Among the brightest spots of the 2021-22, though, has been the breakout season of fourth-year guard Anfernee Simons.
Simons, a strong candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year, sat down with Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic to discuss some of the highs, lows and lessons as a Blazer.
Portland Trail Blazers young star Anfernee Simons sits down with @Stadium: “Fantasizing being in those moments…I didn't expect this.” On bond with coach Chauncey Billups, learning from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, utilizing Dame's sidestep, Most Improved Player and more. pic.twitter.com/bsO120dspQ— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 22, 2022
This year, Simons has been able to play with more freedom. Part of that has come through necessity with the Blazers’ injuries. But, he also attributed some of that to the blossoming relationship he’s uncovered with new head coach Chauncey Billups.
“He’s helped me tremendously. We’re just in constant communication, we’ve got an understanding of how I wanted to be coached before the season, how he was going to coach me, what he sees, what type of player I am. We were right through a connection at the beginning, so, as the year keeps going on, we’ve just built a great relationship. He can come and tell me anything he wants. No matter how it sounds, I’m always receptive of it. And we go from there and communicate what things I need to get better at, and what I see and what he sees. It’s always a good back-and-forth, coaching and player relationships. It’s been amazing to see him be a first-time head coach and have this success and also coaching me and kind of helping me take my game to the next level.”
Taking Moves from Damian Lillard
Charania asked Simons about some of the moves he’s implemented from Damian Lillard — this right-baseline sidestep 3-pointer in particular — and how similar they’ve become. Simons noted that they’ve got the same trainer, and added this thought:
“That comes with training with him in the offseason a lot, kind of learning from him what moves are effective, so I want to just add that to the arsenal, to be able to do that. It’s a very difficult shot, very hard to guard. I wanted to have that in the arsenal just in case I needed it, and I needed it in Memphis.”
The relationship between Simons and Lillard has been well-documented, particularly in how Simons has been able to soak up knowledge from the six-time All-Star, as well as former teammate CJ McCollum. Simons said Lillard would come over, even in middle of games that Simons wasn’t playing in and teach him. McCollum, similar to Simons in that he wasn’t a featured player from his rookie year, told Simons not to worry about when the time would come, and just to stay ready.
Simons shed light on his reaction to the trade as well:
“He’s been there my whole career, and he’d been there already for nine years. Just to see him go was kind of weird because he’s just one of those guys you never thought was going to leave. It was kind of weird seeing him the next night in a Pelicans uniform and seeing him play. Obviously, I’m glad everything worked out for where he wanted to go. I’m praying for him in his new situation.”
It’s unclear as to whether Simons will be able to have a postseason appearance to show for his breakout season, though there is one piece of hardware — the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award — that his play has allowed him to campaign for. He spoke about the potential of that, in being one of the midseason favorites to earn it. He called it a “goal” of his, particularly now that he’s starting.
In becoming a star on the Blazers, Simons has also been tasked with becoming more of an emotional, on-court leader for a youthful group. In thinking about his process towards becoming a leader, he drew back to what he learned from Lillard:
“Just watching Dame and CJ and how they carried themselves each and every night. Things they needed to say, how did they conduct themselves on the court. Just by little things like, as a leader, you should never hang your head during the game or never showing acts of frustration. Stuff like that goes a long way of showing your team that you’re still in it with him, you’re still level-headed. Those are kind of the little things that I’ve watched, and they told me to always conduct yourself and be poised in every situation, no matter of things were going good or bad.”
On the year, Simons is averaging career-highs in points per game (17.0), assists (3.9), field-goal percentage (44.7) and 3-pointers made (162).