Anfernee Simons is the Trail Blazers ace in the hole

Photos by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
Photos by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images /

The Portland Trail Blazers have been searching for another piece to complement their star-studded backcourt. Anfernee Simons might be exactly what they’re looking for.

For the past few seasons, Portland has been all about the guard duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Those two have become legitimate stars, but the Trail Blazers but they’ve long been searching for a third piece to help bolster this team’s championship aspirations.

Second-year combo guard Anfernee Simons has started off this season looking like the missing link for this franchise. A combination of growth and opportunity has provided the 20-year-old Floridian with more minutes. The Blazers backcourt triumvirate has played 74 minutes together as of Nov. 16 and over that stretch, Portland has outscored their opponents by 25 points.

In the new era of basketball it isn’t crazy to have three players 6-foot-3 or smaller share the floor at the same time. Plus, Simons has a 6-foot-9 wingspan, which allows him to guard players that are taller than him (though he needs to add considerable weight if he wants to defend wings full time).

It’s easy to see why the three together would prove so deadly, each can score off the dribble, knock down perimeter shots and just create overall havoc for defenders. As the least heralded of the three, Simons is often the one the opponents opt to allocate fewer resources too defensively. To his credit, the sophomore has taken advantage of that and through the first 14 games — he played a total of 20 last year — he’s seen his minutes triple (from 7.1 minutes per game as a rookie to 21.3 this season) and his scoring input spike too (up to 11.3 points per game from 3.8).

On the final regular season game a year ago, the NBA world got a taste of what Simons could offer. With playoff seeding still unresolved, the Trail Blazers had an outside shot at securing the third overall seed in the Western Conference if they could defeat the Sacramento Kings and have a couple of other results go their way. However, the team decided to rest their big guns before the postseason got underway.

Simons made his first, and only, career start that night. Portland got behind early as their reserve-heavy lineup floundered early. Forty-eight minutes later — of which Simons played every second — the Trail Blazers won thanks to an inspiring 37-point performance from the former IMG Academy product.

This game provides the perfect snapshot of what the Trail Blazers are hoping Simons can bring consistently this year.

While he caught fire from deep, it was his ability to get to the rim (and convert) that really stood out against the Kings. His long arms allow him to finish around rotating bigs and he has the agility and athleticism to get by his primary defender in isolation situations. The best part of his game that night was his ability to score off floaters and other shots just short of the rim. We’ve seen Trae Young explode this season because he was able to fine-tune his ability to score in that specific area. If Simons can routinely make shots between five to 10 feet away from the hoop he’ll be really difficult to stop.

His shooting jas looked as good as advertised. He has a compact release and a quick pick up on his shots a la Lillard and Steph Curry. In a split-second, he can go from scanning the defense while dribbling to pulling up for a 3-point shot from 25-plus feet. Again, his long arms allow him to shoot over most guards and his release point is at his forehead meaning getting shots off shouldn’t be an issue.

Offensively, there really isn’t much that Simons can’t do, which is saying a lot for someone who was playing high school basketball just two years ago. Yet, if Simons is going to become the third leg of the Blazers’ stool, he needs to show progression on the other end of the floor. Lillard and McCollum aren’t exactly Patrick Beverley reincarnated but they have become good enough to not be complete negatives on that end.

Defense is often the part of the game that takes the longest for young players to understand. Not only are they trying to guard the best players in the world but each team has different schemes and the number of calls that needed to be communicated within 24 seconds could make someone’s head spin. Simons is known as a hard worker and will very likely put the work in to be a passable defender. However, if the Lillard-McCollum-Simons pairing is to become something more than a trick up Terry Stotts sleeve, one of them is going to need to hold their own against Curry, James Harden, Luka Doncic, etc. that are prevalent in today’s game. With time, it seems like the youngster gives them the best chance at having a true two-way stud.

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