Heading into the 2022-23 NBA season, which Portland Trail Blazers player has the most to prove?
Is it Damian Lillard, returning to play again after an injury-plagued, underwhelming season? Maybe Nassir Little, stepping into a contract year and likely the starting lineup? Or is it 22-year-old shooting guard Anfernee Simons, fresh off signing a four-year, $100 contract?
According to The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov — in a piece that posed this question for all 30 NBA teams — the primary answer in Rip City has to be Simons.
Vorkunov acknowledged that Simons showed great growth last season, but most of the dazzling play that earned him a new deal came when the season was already lost. The real test will be continuing his flashes of star power during an entire campaign, with the Blazers gunning for a playoff spot and Lillard back in the fold.
Anfernee Simons undoubtedly took a jump forward last season. The topline numbers — 17.3 points per game, 40.5 percent shooting — were very good, but the timing was rough. He went off once Damian Lillard played his last game and the Blazers were already headed for the lottery. Portland went 12-15 during Simons’ big stretch, and he was an efficient scorer even when he became the lead guy on that team after CJ McCollum was traded in February. If Simons can be just as good and provide a strong No. 2 to Lillard this upcoming season, it would validate the $100 million deal he just signed and fast-track the franchise’s rebuild. — Mike Vorkunov
Taken by the Blazers with the 24th pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, Simons is no stranger to hype and expectations during his young career. Former Portland general manager Neil Olshey famously said Simons was the most talented player he had ever drafted, a list that includes six-time All-Star Blake Griffin, Lillard and Blazers great CJ McCollum. With quotes like that following him, Simons has spent his career under the microscope.
After averaging less than 10 points per game during his first three seasons, last year’s breakout — more specifically, a blazing stretch in January — gave hope Simons could live up to the lofty praise of his former GM. As Vorkunov said, Simons’ play this season will help determine where the franchise stands in its “retooling” process.
If Simons continues to produce like a star, general manager Joe Cronin’s hefty financial investment will look justified and the Blazers will be closer to contention than people expect.