TORONTO – There’s a kind of riptide rookies and young players in the NBA can get caught in. They enter the league either so unaccustomed to its rhythms and nuance or so eager to contribute within the limited minutes they have that they rush, getting into foul trouble and hoisting bad shots because they haven’t learned to pick their spots. Some go from being the most lauded athletes at their respective colleges to relative unknowns, relegated to breather minutes for starters or garbage time. Eager to prove themselves, they risk the ire of veteran players if they opt for spontaneous decision making on the floor within franchises where the chemistry may already be strained or have blunders and tough calls weigh more heavily on their chances of seeing the floor in the next game.
The label young players often get slapped with as a result is “inconsistent”. A catch-22 of a term that applies only to results, an oversimplified write-off that can put players in temporary stasis or out of contention, completely.
But there are occasionally situational lifelines thrown to young guys. Teams that are going through rebuilds or investing in their young talent via development, franchises forced to get creative to stay competitive in less lucrative markets for stars, or else the indiscriminate equalizer of every team and athlete regardless of career stage—injury. It was the latter, initially, that pushed Anfernee Simons into the limelight with the Trail Blazers.
Simons was selected 24th overall by the Blazers in 2018, making him the third NBA player to be drafted directly out of high school since 2015. He would see the floor 20 times in his first season, contributing mostly quiet minutes until his first career start in Portland’s final regular season game. A 19-year-old Simons scored 37 points, put up 6 rebounds and 9 assists. In a game that Damian Lillard sat out, Simons was the first Blazers rookie to score over 30 since Lillard did in his own inaugural year.
Simons’ minutes have nearly quadrupled since, up from an average of seven per game as a rookie to 22 with a solid share of starting assignments among them in his sophomore campaign. Part of the reason his usage has gone up has been necessity. With Jusuf Nurkic still sidelined from last season, plus Zach Collins out since late fall with a shoulder injury and Rodney Hood now recovering from achilles surgery, the Blazers were forced into the same injury-laden boat as many teams early on.
Portland has opted to get less weird than some of their contemporaries with roster deficits, bumping guys like Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja to starting roles, rather than experimenting internally with positions. This strategy has occasionally hurt them. In an already wobbly game against Toronto on January 7, Bazemore being ejected after two quick techs sent things spiraling.
Enter Anfernee Simons.
There is a kind of heartbreaking trust Simons has on court. He’s out in the corners, at the wings, always the first one there because of his speed, waiting. Wide open most of the time because Toronto was concentrating its defense in the paint, efforting to smother Lillard and Carmelo Anthony. Simons doesn’t call for the ball, doesn’t wave. He waits, gently vibrating, spring-loaded and ready to make the run, any run. It’s this patience that serves the second year player—dashing in from the corner for rebounds or swooping blocks, taking slick pull-up jumpers in the mid-range when Lillard was being forced farther and farther out. Size-wise, he’s a rabbit among wolves. Waiting in plain sight for the moment to split and spin through arms and legs ready to snatch him out of this world, crashing boards against Chris Boucher and Serge Ibaka, guys double his weight and triple his length.
Postgame, Portland’s locker room buzzing with a dagger of a win against Toronto, Simons admitted to using his speed to slip out of screens and come “out free from the pick and roll”.
“Anytime they attack, they know I’m fast and I have a quick first step,” Simons told Dime, “so they want me to try and get to the rim and try to make plays there.”
It isn’t just his speed and size that make Simons more difficult to contain. He has a fearlessness that’s matter-of-fact. In another recent game against the Timberwolves, Simons was met at the rim by Robert Covington and Josh Okogie and hit hard by both on his way down. Walking away, Simons touched his right cheek, fingers coming away with blood. Continuing to the bench, it wasn’t until he was intercepted by Lillard, who laid an arm gently around Simons’ chest to turn him so Lillard can point out the injury—four stitches to close—to a nearby referee, that Simons draws attention to the injury.
Asked by Dime in Toronto how he prepares himself for going up against larger players, Simons is pragmatic.
“I’m smaller so guys want to bump me and stuff, but I’ve got to use that to my advantage,” Simons says. “Try to get around them before they can get their hands on me and be physical with me.”
But being able to accelerate so quickly has its drawbacks. Simons missed an open layup coming in too hot, rocking the ball hard against the glass. Another time he flew from the top of the key too late, coming away with a goaltend instead of the stuffing block he was after. The Raptors’ Pascal Siakam experienced the same issues with getting a handle on his explosive game and if Simons can add a gear or two between zero to a hundred, his steadfast approach to those looking to contain him on court would become all the more chilling.
Because in a game that was at times raggedy and busting out any loose seam, it was Simons’ confident handles that shone as much as his speed. When on the receiving end of Lillard and Anthony’s limited distributing, there were glimpses into the flourishes of style Simons is hungry to use. Even under Toronto’s unflagging defensive pressure, Simons showed control with his handles and when to push.
When asked about his knack for fast break points and the silky way he is able to slip between defenders, Simons admits it has come through pressure.
“Working at it,” Simons says, “being uncomfortable. Dribbling the ball when I’m working on it. When I’m coming down the court I’m scanning the whole court, seeing where I can attack at and if I don’t have it then I bring it back out. I try and pick my spots wisely, in transition or when I’m going downhill.”
Where the Blazers most often get into trouble is when their floor leaders become reluctant to distribute. In an already sloppy game, the Blazers were slow to take advantage of the mess. Pre-game, Portland coach Terry Stotts admitted he didn’t think the team was where they could be defensively.
“One thing we’ve talked about is communication,” Stotts says. “We have a young group coming off the bench, and the transition for young players defensively is often times more difficult than at the offensive end.”
Communication and utilizing ball movement could have given an earlier edge over the Raptors, but Portland stayed stuck relying on Lillard and Anthony—who were getting bogged down in the paint—to make shots. Simons is the current anchor point between the shuffled starters and bench and has gained experience in transition not only between lineups, but in how their shifting effects energy on the floor. Aside from the necessary adjustments Simons needs to make in his speed, much of his in-game inconsistency could be remedied by trust and more touches, opportunities to put transitional experience to use alongside his intuitive sense of when and where to help.
A key example of this came with a play that would ultimately turn the game for the Blazers and allow Lillard to make his signature clutch-from-forever-away shot. An incoming Lowry gets double teamed in the paint by Hassan Whiteside and Anthony, Whiteside tips it out and as the ball hangs in the air between a quickly recovering Lowry and sticky Patrick McCaw, Simons spins mid-stride and dashes back between them to grab the ball and flip it to Lillard, waiting at the baseline. With 44 seconds left on the clock it was a quick, calm read, a steady finger to hold down the bow Lillard was about to tie around the game, leveling it out 99-99 before Anthony’s cinching pull-up jumper.
Simons has a rookie’s tenacity but the measured approach of a vet, playing with a rigorous kind of care that with development could turn into the precision that pins games, dismantles teams, stops seasons dead. He’s shy, but his earnestness is disarming. A central Florida transplant who moved to Portland with his parents in tow, Simons is poised to shine and isn’t wary of the work it will take to polish himself.
When asked about his increase in minutes he was matter of fact.
“Whatever coach needs me to do out there on the court,” Simons says, “no matter how many minutes it is, I’m willing to do it.”
When gently pressed, he lets slip a small smile, allowing himself, maybe, to move beyond the next bus, next game, next foot in front of the other outcome.
“It’s fun being out there for a long time,” Simons says.
Simons is going to be.