September 19, 2018, 4:44 pm
Leading up to the Portland Trail Blazers’ season-opener against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Moda Center on October 18, HoopBall is profiling the team’s 15 players with guaranteed contracts, in reverse order of price.
Player: Anfernee Simons
2018-19 salary: $1,835,520
Age, experience: 19, rookie
Measureables: 6-foot-4, 183 pounds (6-foot-9 and 3/4 inch wingspan)
Strengths: explosiveness, first step, length, long-range shooting, ball handling
Weaknesses: strength, experience, court vision
Swing factor: 3-point shooting
Likely role: G-League
Neil Olshey’s hands were mostly tied this summer. Despite a public-relations blitz about adding an experienced wing in wake of his team getting swept out of the playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers’ general manager never had the means to acquire a player of that caliber. But such hollow talk didn’t mean Portland had to punt on the notion of acquiring a potential rotation player; several intriguing options of the 3-and-D variety were poised to be available with the Blazers first-round pick.
If Anfernee Simons underwhelms, both as a rookie and going forward, there’s a chance the frustrating subtext of his selection is a contributing factor. After weeks of being promised by management that their team was finally finished rebuilding, ready to focus fully on the present, Portland fans weren’t thrilled with bringing in an anonymous high-schooler who plays the same position as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Any criticism directed at Simons was less about the chance the teenager makes good on his obvious wealth of talent; it stemmed from the chance he does so while this team’s core is still in its prime, and how Terry Stotts would dole out minutes if that hope eventually comes to pass.
There’s no disputing that prospects of Simons’ raw potential normally can’t be had with the 24th pick in the draft. At 6-foot-4 with a wingspan nearly six inches longer, he’s physically comparable to San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray, an All-Defensive Second Team pick last season at 22. But the skill limitations that hold Murray back aren’t encumbering Simons. He shot 34.6 percent from three on a team-high 4.3 attempts per game in Summer League, especially encouraging numbers considering the comfort he exhibited catching and shooting a couple feet behind the line and pulling up off the dribble. There’s no reason to believe long-range shooting won’t be a strength of Simons’ game in time, combining with his natural ball-handling verve and lightning first step to make him an imminently dangerous scoring weapon both on and off the ball.
What’s less certain is whether he’ll ever develop the playmaking chops to be a primary creator. Don’t mistake that relative lack of optimism with any concerns about the feel Simons showed in Las Vegas, though. He was a reliable ball mover for the summer Blazers, and displayed keen understanding of time and space creating his own offense out of the pick and roll. But when spelling Wade Baldwin as Portland’s point guard, Simons was far more game manager than impactful playmaker for others – not a surprise given his complete lack of experience playing against professionals and pre-draft label as a combo guard.
In a perfect world, Simons would realize his destiny as a high-octane scorer with the physical tools necessary to check multiple positions sooner rather than later, pushing the Blazers closer and closer toward making a choice on their future with Lillard and McCollum manning the backcourt. His Summer League performance, understated as it may have seemed to some, only furthered the optimism Simons will eventually develop into that type of draft-night steal. But he surely won’t justify it this season, as a 19 year old playing behind Lillard, McCollum, Seth Curry and Baldwin, Portland’s designated defensive stopper, and as a result is unlikely to become a regular contributor until 2019-20 at the absolute earliest.
Where will the Blazers be then? Without an offseason that addressed this team’s need for greater lineup flexibility, it’s fair to assume Portland will befall the same fate next spring it did against the New Orleans Pelicans in April. An even worse but almost as realistic an outcome would be Stotts’ team, fighting with seven or eight others for positioning below Western Conference juggernauts, missing the playoffs altogether. Major changes would be inevitable at that point, thrusting Simons into the spotlight as a potential trade chip or foundational piece for a team suddenly forced into rebuilding.
But that’s a situation to ponder for later. Simons will be an afterthought for the most part this season, likely proving his chops in the G-League and flashing his talents in garbage time, serving as an embodiment of the Blazers’ tenuous place between staying the course and starting anew.