The Portland Trail Blazers already had enough questions entering
the 2022-23 season.
Having missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years,
they lost Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic and Nassir Little to
injuries for large chunks of last season — and traded CJ
To counter, the franchise geared up with some notable summer
moves. They traded for versatile forward Jerami Grant and selected
the 2022 NBA Draft's biggest unknown in Shaedon Sharpe with the
seventh overall pick. Fast forward to Nov. 4 — Portland's injured
players have come back healthy (though Lillard is now dealing with
a calf injury), and the team has gotten off to a stellar 6-2
Somewhat lost within the offseason retooling is that Portland's
plan to replace McCollum was as critical of a question as any other
pressing need. Anfernee Simons has been a gamble since he was a
rare prep-to-pro draft pick from IMG Academy in 2018. Now, the
Blazers are pushing their chips in with Simons, hoping the breakout
he started in the lost 2021-22 campaign carries over to major
minutes on a playoff contender.
So far, that bet is paying off.
Simons is averaging 36.7 minutes per game — a season-by-season
career-high and also more than any individual month from 2021-22 —
and putting up a career-high 22.0 points as both a backcourt
partner for Lillard and as the primary guard since Dame went down
with his injury. Simons' base scoring efficiency numbers are about
the same as last year and slightly down in some areas, such as his
37.1% three-point clip (down from 40.5%).
At first glance, Simons doesn't appear to have gained or lost
much as a scorer from last year, and one could argue that's enough
of a positive. But a closer look shows the 23-year-old has improved
in important areas, and if sustained, he could be growing into more
than a perimeter bucket-getter.
Historically, Simons has not been much of a rim-pressure threat.
According to Cleaning the Glass, that's started to change during
this (admittedly tiny) seven-game start to the season.
(Scroll right to view full
Simons is taking just over one-fifth of his shots within 4 feet
from the basket, which is a noteworthy jump up from his prior two
seasons, and he's been more proficient in that range. That's come
with the trade-off of fewer demonstrations of his high-level touch
in the short-mid-range — but that's fine if it means getting to the
His improvements near the hoop actually carry even more
significance than this one table shows. To explain this, we're
going to use the findings of Darryl Blackport and PBP Stats.
One of the subscriber features of PBP Stats includes a
comparison tool that measures how a player is faring in different
scoring ranges relative to their efficiency numbers from the past
two seasons, as well as the league-wide average efficiency for the
player's shot diet. In short: Is Player X shooting better in a
space than he usually has, and is he shooting better in a space
than the league usually does?
To this point, 137 NBA players have attempted at least 30 shots
within 10 feet of the basket. Simons is making 54% of those shots
in different contexts; according to PBP Stats, that's a whopping
11.4% better than expected given his last two seasons. The
difference ranks third among the aforementioned 137 players, behind
only Bobby Portis (13.6%) and De'Aaron Fox (15.9%).
Simons is also performing 5.8% more efficiently in this zone
relative to the league-wide expectation — not quite as jarring of a
difference, but a respectable one that ranks 36th out of 137.
So what's been working?
Despite Lillard's presence in five of seven games, Simons has
actually seen his frequency of self-created attempts close to the
basket rise up. A career-high 22.2% of his field goal attempts are
shots within 10 feet where he holds the ball for at least two
seconds. Amazingly, he's making 60.7% of those looks, which
shatters recent seasons.
He's not a downhill athlete or an ankle-breaker. Simons has
instead found comfort with his snappy ability to change speeds,
often using some sort of in-and-out dribble, and then gliding to
the basket. He's bouncy enough and strong enough to separate from
even the best NBA defenders (take a look at Anthony Davis here) and
layup shots with his arms extended well away from his
Simons also has some seriously impressive touch on his floater.
This one came outside the 10-foot radius, but it's an example of
what the young guard can do as he scans the floor and seeks out
Several of these clips include straight ball-screen actions.
Interestingly, Simons has struggled as a pick-and-roll
ball-handler; Synergy says he's averaging just 0.79 points per
possession and shooting 37.7% from the field.
However, a lot of these are actually plays where Simons is
pulling up from long range. He hasn't shot the ball particularly
well as a three-point creator and is generally much better off the
catch. In fact, Simons is making a career-low 29.6% of his
self-created three-point attempts so far this season. His
catch-and-shoot rate is 43.6% — a stellar rate that is still
actually low for him, and that includes three dud outings in seven
games that undoubtedly affect a small sample.
When Simons can use ball screens to give himself space to probe,
or when he finds a tasty 1-on-1 matchup, he continues to achieve
more success getting to the basket. He's not an elite finisher by
any means, but the numbers and tape show Simons is improving. A
healthy Lillard return should only help his young partner find
easier perimeter chances off the ball and more freedom in the open
Look at what Simons can do as he flies around screens and shoots
in the face of some tough contests. In fact, according to Synergy,
Simons is third across the entire NBA in points per possession
coming off of ball-screens. Defenders definitely key in on Simons
as a shooter at this point, but with Lillard running the offense,
they'll never be able to shift their entire focus to either
Simons is somehow in his fifth NBA season and still just 23
years old. He has a lot of growing left to do — we didn't talk
about passing or defense at all here. But Blazers fans should feel
optimistic. Simons is turning his tools and flashes into production
while his team is winning, and this start is just another chapter
in the young guard's ascension.
THE OUTLIERS (a.k.a. other random interesting numbers I
found in the void):
- A mind-boggling stat from our own Nekias Duncan in his analysis of Bol Bol's breakout
start: Among 77 players that have defended at least 75 shot
attempts, Bol's contest rate (92.59) ranks 12th on the list, per
Second Spectrum. That puts him right behind players like Anthony
Davis (93.59) and slightly ahead of guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Always interesting to see how this levels out, but SIS Hoops
reports that the general vibe around some impressive individual
shot-making this season is backed up by data:
- Andre Drummond is apparently on pace to break our brains as a