June 20, 2018, 3:12 pm
Anfernee Simons is the only prospect the Portland Trail Blazers brought in for a second workout ahead of Thursday night’s NBA draft. The 19-year-old guard impressed the Blazers enough in a session on June 4 to be asked back for the team’s sixth and final pre-draft workout, held on Tuesday alongside five other players, including Dzanan Musa, the Bosnian wing many have projected to Portland since the draft order was finalized in mid May.
Both Simons and Musa were born in the spring of 1999. A calendar month separates their births: Simons on June 8, Musa 30 days earlier. In terms of playing experience against legitimate competition, though, the teenagers stand at opposite ends of the draftee spectrum. Musa, playing for Croatia’s Cedevita Zagreb, is the only player his age to average at least 20 points per 40 minutes in EuroCup play, per DraftExpress, and accomplished that feat with an impressive blend of efficiency and versatility.
At 6-foot-9, the ultra-confident forward can knock down open shots, attack aggressive close-outs by making plays off the dribble and, assuming his aggression is reined in, generally keep the offense flowing until a good look materializes. He would not only help fill the Blazers’ deepest and longest-running roster hole, but also allow for the possibility of immediate production with ample room to improve going forward.
Musa, definitely more than Simons, seems to fit the updated team-building blueprint Neil Olshey outlined for the Blazers at the pre-draft combine last month, during a television appearance on ESPN.
“I think this offseason we shift our focus to playoff-caliber guys,” he said, “guys that hit the right benchmarks or the body of work that can really perform come April knowing the rebuild got done quicker than we thought and it’s time to start thinking of playoff success over whether or not we can or can’t make the playoff while retooling.”
Portland isn’t finished rebuilding. The core of this team isn’t good enough to get past an average first-round playoff opponent, let alone challenge legitimate championship teams in May and June. The overall point Olshey is trying to make still stands, however. The Blazers, right in the thick of Damian Lillard‘s prime, no longer have the luxury of patience to facilitate hopes of future title contention. They need to win now, at a higher level than they have since the new millennium, to ensure Lillard’s preferred fate as the increasingly-rare superstar whose entire career is played with one franchise.
The player Portland selects late in the first round almost certainly won’t seal that destiny all by himself. Picks in the twenties are used on potential role players, long-shot starters and total projects. Simons, interestingly enough, is most accurately defined as the latter. He graduated from Orlando’s Edgewater high school in 2016-17 and enrolled at basketball factory IMG Academy last season, where he further solidified his standing as a top-10 recruit in the class of 2018.
In March, the former Louisville commit announced his decision to enter June’s draft, becoming the rare American-born player to bypass both college basketball and professional opportunities overseas before entering the NBA.
Simons’ upside is undeniable. A late-blooming guard who barely got off the bench for prep powerhouse Montverde Academy in 2015-16, he blossomed after transferring to Edgewater and re-classifying backwards, first winning Florida’s Class 7A player of the year, then dominating the summer circuit prior to enrolling at IMG, where he averaged 22.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
At a skinny 6-foot-4 in shoes with a wingspan over 6-foot-9, Simons, though a bit shorter, is physically comparable to Dejounte Murray and Patrick McCaw, who each forced their way onto the court for contenders as rookies through defense, athleticism and relentless activity. But unlike Murray and McCaw, Simons can shoot; he knocked down 45 percent of his 3-point attempts for IMG last season, showing off deep range and innate comfort shooting off the dribble.
Any team in the league would love to get its hands on a smooth, explosive guard with ready-made shooting ability, natural ball-handling verve and the physical gifts to theoretically check multiple positions. Simons is far more prospect than player at this stage, though, and the Blazers, Olshey continues insisting, are done mining for uncut diamonds in the rough.
“We need to kind of view our future this summer through the lens of, ‘How are we going to be more impactful and play at a higher level come playoff time next year?” he told ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth earlier this month.
Taking Simons, and probably even Musa, who could be selected in the teens, with a late first-round pick in a draft marked by its quality depth isn’t the answer to that question. Perhaps Portland is so high on either teenager’s long-term potential that it will veer from big-picture offseason plans with regard to the draft, and double its focus on finding playable bargains in free agency.
Maybe the Blazers are furiously working the phones, hoping to use their first-rounder as a means of shedding unwanted salary while moving down in the draft and stealing Simons with an early second-round pick. Still, both approaches would prioritize the future over the present. Portland is hardly the only team in need of two-way help on the wing, and has less financial flexibility than most of its counterparts during a player-movement in which period cap space is at an all-time low.
The Blazers should have several appealing options at No. 24 who fit Olshey’s revised offseason plan of attack, too. At least one of Georgia Tech’s Josh Okogie, Oregon’s Troy Brown and Creighton’s Khyri Thomas, who have all worked out for Portland, is likely to be on the board late in the first round. While none of those guys possess the theoretical star power of Simons or Musa, each of them could be earmarked for a shot at rotation minutes coming into training camp as the bench “three-and-D” option the Blazers sorely lacked last season.
Boise State senior Chandler Hutchison, rumored as a Portland target early in the pre-draft process, and Duke freshman Gary Trent, Jr. also loosely fit that bill.
Olshey and his basketball underlings in the front office should absolutely perform due diligence on any prospect that piques their interest. Bringing in a player to workout, just once or on multiple occasions, doesn’t necessarily suggest a team is seriously considering drafting him, either. If Simons didn’t shoot the ball well in early June, for instance, it would make sense that Portland’s decision-making brass wanted to watch him again in hopes of matching the in-person eye test with the established assessment of the scouting community.
Some team insiders have submitted the Blazers yearned to see how Simons, just 183 pounds, fared playing against more physical, experienced competition, which is why they worked him out opposite Jaylen Brunford and Jacobi Boykins, a pair of college seniors unlikely to be drafted.
Either way, it’s certainly telling that Portland seems to have done more intel on a high-school prospect – who plays the same position as Lillard and C.J. McCollum, no less – than any other player in the draft, and not just because that development clashes with Olshey’s stated method of upgrading his roster.
The ugly reality is that the Blazers, as constructed, are stuck somewhere between playing the long and short games of team-building. They don’t have enough high-end talent to compete with juggernauts, nor a reasonable means of acquiring it, but clearly need to round off the rough edges of their supporting cast to even get the opportunity to beat the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets in the first place.
A fully-realized Simons could go a long way toward making that happen. What Olshey and company must decide is if waiting for him to get there, and sacrificing their best chance at immediately fortifying an obvious roster weakness, is worth the possible payoff.
We’ll find out Thursday night.