If the long-expected Damian Lillard trade is completed soon, the Portland Trail Blazers player most likely and ready to capitalize on the unlocked opportunity is high-octane, offensive guard Anfernee Simons.
Of course, hyped rookie point guard Scoot Henderson is coming — and he is more pro-ready than most 19-year-olds after two seasons developing in the G League — but he’ll still be a rookie with lessons to learn, after all. Second-year shooting guard Shaedon Sharpe just started to scratch the surface of his lofty potential at the end of last season, but he’s still in the thick of his developmental process.
On the other hand, Simons is a young veteran at 24 with five seasons of NBA experience. He’s already gone through a considerable chunk of his progression — maturing from young rookie project outside of the rotation, to a spot-up 3-point marksman and then microwave scorer off the bench, to a bonafide NBA starter scoring 20-plus points per game last season on the first year of a multi-year contract worth $100 million. He’s been Lillard’s primary understudy, waiting to be handed the keys to the offense. With his elite 3-point shot, impressive athleticism and deep bag of moves, he could be due for another leap now that he’s getting those keys.
On a recent episode of “The Brief Case” podcast with Trail Blazers reporter Casey Holdahl, Simons talked about an array of topics, including his readiness to step into a leadership role; initial impressions of rookie teammates Scoot Henderson, Kris Murray and Rayan Rupert; and his expectations for the 2023-24 season.
With the likely departure of Lillard coming, Holdahl asked Simons how he felt about the prospect of teammates looking to him now to fill that void of locker room leadership. Simons said it was a challenge he’s ready for after learning from an all-pro like Lillard for five seasons.
“From watching Dame and how he conducts himself in being a leader, it’s not as hard [of] an adjustment, because you’ve seen exactly what he’s done and why he’s been named Best Leader in the NBA and stuff like that. You see what he does, even when I was younger, he would explain to me why he was doing that stuff. A player might be not as receptive, as coachable, and he’d say, ‘This is how you’re supposed to approach this type of player.’ You have to learn each and every player’s attitude, know who they are as a person, hang out with them, and then once you coach them and give them criticism, they will understand where you’re coming from because you hung out together. He understands where you’re coming from, he understands your intentions. ...[Lillard’s] taught me so much about how to approach and be a leader in that sense. I think really that’s the final step is vocalizing that, for me. I think I pretty much understand the cerebral part about being a leader. Like I said, the only thing that’s left is being the vocal part because obviously [Lillard] was the vocal part. So I was just sitting back and observing exactly what he would do in each situation, and I’d be like, ‘Okay, if my time will come to be in that position, I’ll be prepared for it.’”
Part of those newfound leadership responsibilities for Simons will be leading and gelling with Portland’s newest class of rookies. After running through some informal workouts with the bunch in the past few weeks, Simons offered some initial impressions of his newest teammates, starting with Scoot.
“The type of player people describe him as is exactly who he is. [He’s] somebody that can get downhill, can make plays for everybody on the court, pushes the pace, makes the game so much easier for everybody else around him, so I think that’s what he’s special at. ...Also, just his mentality. He’s always said it himself how he’s a bulldog and that’s how he carries himself when we’re playing in competition. He doesn’t like to lose, you can just see it. When it’s game time, he’s ready to go, he’s locked in, and he’s going to anything it takes to win, so that’s one of the things I’ve been impressed by, and just his ability to pick up on things fast. ...He’s well above his age when it comes to maturity and understanding and how to be a professional.”
Simons said Murray is also catching on fast during workouts, calling the 23-year-old rookie forward out of Iowa a “cerebral player” who “understands what he can do.” My personal favorite scouting report Simons gave during the interview was reserved for 19-year-old French rookie Rayan Rupert:
“He’s playing hard as hell, all the time. He just never stops and that’s all we need from him.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, just a month away now, Holdahl acknowledged how the outside perception of the team has shifted as it prepares for a new, younger chapter. Despite the expected personnel and perception change, Simons said internally the team is still hungry to win.
“I go into every situation expecting to win, so it’s not like I’m going in there expecting to lose a whole bunch of games. I’m going there to win, that’s what we expect us to do. I think everybody is the same way. All of us are super competitive, Scoot’s super competitive, we’re gonna go into a game expecting a win. As the two point guards...we’re going to carry that attitude each and every game, and we’re going to let the team know we’re here to win. Whether we’re young or not, it doesn’t matter. ...We’re here to get better each and everyday, grow as players and grow as a team.”
The 20-minute conversation goes more in depth on the subjects above and a host of other topics. It’s a nice regular season primer in September and gives great insight into Simons’ mindset heading into an important year for his career.
You can find the podcast episode here.