June 22, 2018, 3:03 pm
Asked Thursday night what he liked about the Portland Trail Blazers’ controversial first-round pick, Neil Olshey sighed, looked away and quickly collected his thoughts.
“Talent,” he said of Anfernee Simons, the largely-anonymous teenage guard who enters the NBA having faced lesser competition than any other player in the league. “At that point in the draft, we’re looking for the guy with the highest ceiling we can possibly find.”
Olshey had struck a much different chord leading up to draft night. He’s been adamant since the Blazers were swept by the New Orleans Pelicans that they would focus on adding players this summer who can be on the floor next spring. That’s an increasingly tall order in an era legitimate two-way chops and overall basketball IQ have never been more important, especially for a team limited to re-signing incumbents, using salary-cap exceptions and scraping the bargain bin in free agency. The late first round isn’t a surefire means of finding a plug-and-play rookie, obviously, but the depth of this year’s draft class combined with realities of Portland’s financial handcuffs meant it might represent the best chance of bringing an impact player into the fold.
There’s recent precedent for that unlikely development, too. O.G. Anunoby, easily his team’s most effective defender on LeBron James and a 44.8 percent 3-point shooter in the playoffs, was selected 23rd overall last year by the Toronto Raptors. Even a much more finite 3-and-D type, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Josh Hart, lasted until the first round’s final pick. University of Oregon product Dillon Brooks went 45th in the 2017 draft, but fared well enough stretching his wings for the tanking Memphis Grizzlies as a rookie to imagine him cracking the Blazers’ postseason rotation. Just like it’s undeniable that schematic fit and team culture were vital to Jordan Bell and Semi Ojeleye getting minutes deep into the playoffs for the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, so are the raw abilities that will keep them in the league for the next decade.
As Olshey continually stressed in his post-draft press conference, though, how the draft unfolds when it finally comes can alter a team’s preferred plan of attack. Georgia Tech’s Josh Okogie and Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison, older, more seasoned prospects who might have been earmarked for minutes on the wing next season, were each snatched up shortly before Portland selected. It was also a notably quiet draft in terms of trades. Not a single veteran was moved on Thursday night, a likely byproduct of the alarming lack of cap space throughout the NBA that’s sure to infect free agency.
If Portland didn’t think Melvin Frazier or Khyri Thomas, other supposed “win-now” targets during the pre-draft process who were available at No. 24, were worth a first-round pick, the last thing Olshey and company should have done is reach higher than they felt comfortable to fill a roster need. Indeed, those guys were still waiting for their names to be called several picks into the second round. Not to be overlooked, the Blazers traded two previously-acquired future second-round picks, both of potentially low-value, to the Sacramento Kings for the rights to Gary Trent Jr., another player some no doubt thought would have been a better pick than Simons 13 spots earlier than where he was ultimately drafted.
Olshey didn’t mince words while assessing the chances of Simons and Trent Jr. to see the court for Portland in 2018-19. While that’s a determination ultimately left to Terry Stotts, it’s hardly surprising to learn the Blazers’ hopes of getting some help immediately lie more with the latter, a broad-shouldered marksman who’s been on the NBA radar for years, than the former, a classic late-bloomer physically whose inexperience and relative anonymity led him to go through more pre-draft workouts than any other prospect.
“I don’t think we’re gonna need to feel as patient with Gary, based on the body of work he brings to the table, as we will be with Anfernee,” Olshey said. “He’s been on track for this his whole life.”
Portland raised eyebrows last June by trading up for Zach Collins, a lithe big man with rare feet and nascent perimeter skills whose best days were clearly ahead of him. One year later, in the wake of a disastrous playoff appearance that surely shakes Lillard’s confidence in his team one year closer to his own free agency, the Blazers again used their shiniest asset to upgrade the roster on a teenager liable to spend time in the G-League.
Despite Olshey suggesting otherwise, that’s where Simons’ comparison to Collins, something close to a revelation last season, begins and ends. Basketball is trending wider and faster on an annual basis, and Portland desperately needed a frontcourt player this time last year who could account for that evolution. New Orleans sorely exposed Jusuf Nurkic‘s inherent limitations on both ends of the floor in the first round, and 3-point shooting ability, unfortunately for the Blazers and Meyers Leonard, signed through the next two seasons on an eight-figure salary, is no longer the trump card that makes one-dimensional big men worthy of meaningful playing time.
Getting a player with the all-court versatility of Collins was something close to a necessity for Portland, basically, divergent timelines of player and team be damned. Simons, on the other hand? Not only is he redundant given the presence of Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but Simons lacks the one standout attribute – spot-up shooting, pick-and-roll playmaking or the size to defend multiple positions at a high level – that will make him an impactful player if he fails to reach his ceiling. As the game continues evolving, live-wire athleticism only matters so much if it isn’t supplemented with another fully-ingrained, high-level skill.
Thankfully, Olshey understands that drafting a guy like Simons is as much about asset acquisition as the likelihood he will ultimately help the Blazers win games. In 2011, early in his tenure as general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers, Olshey used a blockbuster trade package headlined by young Eric Gordon to get Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets. More superstars will be made available on the trade market under similar circumstances going forward, and before Thursday night, Portland lacked the necessary trove of young talent and future draft compensation for their teams to even pick up the phone. While Portland certainly isn’t overflowing with trade capital like the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers, it at least has intriguing enough pieces now to get a conversation started.
“The draft is about acquiring talent – long-term talent,” Olshey said. “Eventually, when that talent blossoms, you hope that those players become assets and then you make a decision.”
The Blazers’ summer has only just begun. As a proven playoff team that clearly needs a dose of shooting and defense on the wing, they’ll be attractive suitors to mid-and-lower tier free agents yearning for opportunity. Will that caliber of player prove the difference between Portland being run off the floor in the playoffs and competing with the Western Conference elite? No way, but the more ready-made rookie who could have been chosen in place of Simons wouldn’t be, either, and Trent should get every opportunity to play next season.
“When the physical growth catches up to his natural god-given ability,” Olshey said of Simons, “he’s gonna be a really good player.”
For the sake of the Blazers’ long-term success and Olshey’s job security, let’s hope that development comes sooner than later – assuming it does at all.