With more responsibility, Anfernee Simons is stepping up in Portland

With more responsibility, Anfernee Simons is stepping up in Portland

Late in the third quarter, the Portland Trail Blazers look to set up shop against a surprisingly-good Brooklyn Nets defense.

Nassir Little brings the ball up the left side of the floor, patiently awaiting a screen from Cody Zeller. The latter is knocked off his rocker a bit; Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant are able to switch the action without Little threatening things. 

The ball swings to the opposite side of the floor to Anfernee Simons, chilling around the right hash while Robert Covington acts as a matchup-dictating shield. It's Simons versus Kessler Edwards now.

Edwards begins his defense attempting to shade Simons towards the sideline, but Simons boogies a bit and shifts Edwards' weight. He eventually drives to his left, not quite blowing by Edwards, but doing enough to gain inside leverage on the attack. Griffin, now defending Little, provides relief around the free throw line to protect the middle of the floor. Simons counters with a left-hand dart to Little, who then cashes the open triple.

My initial thought when watching that possession: What the heck am I watching?

It's not that the possession is a bad one; it simply isn't supposed to be happening.

Late third-quarter offense is supposed to be spearheaded by either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum while the other gets a breather. Instead, it's Simons being forced into a new role. He's gone from sixth man to starter; from hired gun to lead initiator.

It isn't supposed to be like this, this soon. But the circumstances are the circumstances. Luckily for Portland, Simons appears to be more scalable than advertised.

Simons has started eight games now, including all five games the Blazers have played in 2022. He's been pretty darn good.

  • Starter numbers: 20.9 points (58/41/96 split), 3.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists (2.1 turnovers) in 32.4 minutes
  • 2022 stats: 27.8 points (61/45/95 split), 3.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists (2.8 turnovers) in 37.0 minutes

The silky smooth guard has seemingly taken the role shift in stride. Dock him for not facing an elite defensive assignment in the calendar year if you'd like — between games against the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets, Kyle Lowry might be his stingiest foe — but it's hard not to be impressed with what Simons has done.

The three-ball remains his most powerful weapon, though he's forced to get those looks in a more difficult fashion. On the season, Simons is averaging more catch-and-shoot triples (3.4) than off-the-dribble bombs (2.7). Over the last five games, that story has flipped — of the 11.2 threes he's attempting, 6.2 of them have been off the bounce.

Only three players (Fred VanVleet, Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell) are taking more pull-up threes per contest than Simons in 2022; none of them are doing it at better efficiency than Simons (41.2% on those shots). It's a 10-day sample, of course, but even this snapshot of high-volume pulling should be respected.

Give the Portland coaching staff a little bit of credit; it has done a good job of leveraging Simons' talents and simplifying his reads at the same time.

The Blazers have spammed pick-and-rolls with an empty corner during this stretch. No guard has received more picks with an empty side than Simons in 2022, per Second Spectrum; in terms of volume, the Simons-Jusuf Nurkic combo is lapping the field. 

They've also been wildly efficient with those actions; the Blazers are generating well over 1.2 points per possession on trips featuring a Simons-Nurkic empty corner ball screen since the turn of the calendar.

It's easy to see why. Playing drop coverage allows Simons to flow into pull-ups if his defender can't stay attached. Against ICE coverage — the cue is the on-ball defender aggressively shading Simons towards the sideline — Simons is able to get into his shot if the screen hits, or string out the play to the baseline to unlock pocket passes, hit the pop or force a switch.

While the shooting has been impressive, Simons' work on drives may be even more encouraging. He's averaging a shade under 12 per game in the new year while converting 62.5% of his shots.

While he isn't Morant-level fast, there's a suddenness about him that work. His dribble combos shift his defender's weight on the regular, then he sinks juuuust low enough to create an angle for himself. Combine that with impressive touch, and you have the makings of an interesting finisher.

More than anything, he's pretty insistent on touching the paint. It doesn't always look smooth, but getting into a threatening area of the floor still forces the defense to react.

That shooting and driving aggression has opened up passing windows for Simons. There have been some solid corner skips on his film as of late, but he's mostly a run-the-set or slip-it-inside initiator right now. That's perfectly okay. The fact that he's showcasing more comfort on pocket passes — and getting a little more daring with them — is a welcome improvement.

Some of these numbers will regress. That's how sample size works, and we'll likely see a shift in the quality of defenders thrown at Simons while the stars remain out. But it's hard not to be impressed with the work that Simons has done with more responsibility.

The Blazers have been firm believers in Simons' upside since they drafted him. They slow-played him in Year 1, and have slowly given him more responsibility in the years since. This was their vision: a combo guard that can play off their stars, or take over the show when called upon.

Vision's looking pretty good right now, huh?

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