Project Simons: The Unearthing of Portland’s Hidden Gem

Typically when we think of players who are considered projects, we think of raw bigs. But guards can be projects, too, and Anfernee Simons is an example of such a player. Drafted out of IMG Academy in 2018, he had spectacular athleticism, a promising jumper, and a solid handle. But he severely lacked strength, and was undersized for a two guard while being nowhere near ready to run the point at basketball’s highest level. 

His decision-making and craft needed work, and he was far from a standout passer. But he was devoid of bad habits and projected nicely as a scorer. He could, potentially, be molded into something special while serving as understudy to one of the greatest guards the game has known. That’s the way the Blazers saw it when they selected him 24th overall.

Fast-forward to the present: CJ McCollum has been out since early December with a collapsed lung, and Damian Lillard has been sidelined for two weeks due to an abdominal injury which has plagued him all season, and reportedly even longer. He underwent surgery on January 13th and is expected to miss a minimum of six weeks. And while he’ll almost certainly be able to return at some point this season, a total shutdown cannot be ruled out. As to the Blazers’ future, and Simons’ role therein, I’d rather not speculate here. An idea of their direction and course will likely crystallize into solidity over the coming months.

Simons took over as Portland’s starting point guard on January 3rd, and he’s been one of the hottest players in the league ever since, averaging 27.8 points and 7.6 assists per game over those five games while leading the Blazers to wins over Atlanta, Sacramento, and, most impressively, Brooklyn. He dropped 43 and 7 on the Hawks, 28 and 7 on the Heat, 31 and 6 on the Kings, and 23 and 11 on the Nets, offering a sizable dose of excitement to a Blazers fan base enduring an otherwise massively disappointing season.

Simons’ growth as a playmaker has been tremendous, and it’s been on full display over the past week-plus. Not only does he look every bit a starting-caliber point guard, he’s often looked like the best player on the court. Following the Brooklyn game, he talked about how much better he can feel the game as the starting PG, how much more patiently he can afford to approach the game in that role. And that patience has indeed been one of the most impressive and apparent elements of his recent run.

He’s not rushing, he’s not forcing; he’s calm, selective, and intentional. His comfort level as a pick-and-roll ball-handler has been eye-opening, and his decision-making in that context has washed away the picture of a score-first ‘tweener shooting guard — the ‘microwave bench scorer,’ to use a prominent cliché. He’s operating like a veteran, confident and poised, always reading the defense, usually making the right play.

He has excelled at picking his spots — sensing when to pull up from three after coming off a ball screen, when to employ his burst and explode to the rim, when exactly to hit the roll man, and whether to throw a lob or dart a well-timed bounce-pass. 

He’s taking advantage of the indecision he inspires in the defense with his combination of an ultra-quick release jumper, terrifying speed, and a vast array of floaters — traditional runners, right-hand/right-leg tear drops, pull-up push shots, and graceful, gliding mini-hooks — which force opposing bigs into defensive limbo.

With this ever-expanding arsenal and his get-where-I-want athleticism, Simons has turned into a midrange monster. He’s shooting 48% from midrange, which places him in the league’s 87th percentile (per, a dramatic increase from last season, when he shot 38% on middies and landed in just the 31st percentile. And this development is especially encouraging considering the increase in midrange shot frequency he’s shown from last season to this season, going from 2.3 to 5.1 attempts per 75 possessions.

Aside from midrange scoring, Simons’ greatest area of growth has been as a passer, and his ability as such has been showcased since taking over as full-time starting lead guard. Five of his six highest career single-game assist totals — seven, seven, seven, six, eleven — have been recorded in his last five games, and he’s dropping some legitimately high-level dimes: live-dribble bounce passes, look-away skips to the corner, lofted lead passes over defenders in transition, turnaround kick-outs from the lane. His assist percentage this season is 18.5%, up from 11.4% last season and 9.2% the season before. The aptitude he’s shown in creating for others is beyond what most could’ve imagined,

Above all else with Anfernee Simons, though, it’s the shooting. He’s a career 38.5% three-point shooter who shot 42.6% last season and is currently at 39.2% on a career-high 6.2 attempts per game. His shot mechanics are distinctly compact and exceedingly consistent, and his release, although slightly on the low side,  is undoubtedly among the league’s quickest. He shot 51.4% on catch-and-shoot threes last season — third behind Tony Snell and Joe Harris among qualified players — and he’s at 45.0% this season, just a shade below guys like Harris and Seth Curry. 

In addition to his well-established prowess off the catch, he’s been pulling up more often this season, and lately those attempts have really started to drop, as he’s at 41.9% on 6.2 three-point pull-up attempts per game over his last five. With the quickness of his release, the increasing threat he poses as a driver, and his improvement as a screen-user, he’s become utterly lethal as a pull-up shooter coming off a ball screen.

One of the most satisfying things to behold as a development-focused fan of basketball is an elite athlete learning to harness — to master — his athleticism and put it to practical use. We are witnessing this kind of optimization with Simons. His bounce is no secret — he won the 2021 Dunk Contest — and his agility is readily apparent to anyone who watches him play. But now he’s routinely using his quickness to shake defenders, and then turning on the jets to explode to the rim. 

He’s being selective with how he uses his athletic gifts, and as he adds more to his game, the more advantageous those gifts become. He’s changing speed, playing shifty, making moves in every direction, probing the defense for gaps. His balance and body control are shining more brightly than ever as his move and movement repertoires continue to expand. He busts out his elevation sometimes on finishes such as the floating hooks I mentioned earlier, and his speed is highlighted in transition. But overall he’s playing under control, measured, not trying to do too much. And for a young player with rockets for legs who’s been thrust into a featured role for the first time at the NBA level, that degree of restraint is impressive.

At just 22 years old and now in his fourth NBA season, he’s probably younger than you think. He had been in the same high school class as Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish, but he reclassified back a year, graduated high school early, and did a post-grad year at IMG before declaring for the 2018 draft. He had just turned 19 and was technically a full year out of high school (in terms of graduation), so he met the league’s eligibility requirements, becoming the first American drafted out of high school since the league enacted its age-restriction policy in 2005.

Considering his age and level of experience entering the league, and also his position and style of play, a slow start to his NBA career was to be expected. There aren’t many small scoring guards who have jumped straight from high school to the NBA. Nearly all prep-to-pro draft picks have been big men or players with good positional size and a defined position. A good comp for Simons strictly in that sense is Lou Williams, who was drafted out of South Gwinnett High School in 2005. A 6’3” skinny combo guard like Simons, Lou, who has now scored more than 15,000 NBA points, averaged just 1.9 points per game as a rookie and 4.3 in his second season before starting to figure things out in his third season and then really putting himself on the map in his fourth and beyond.

Simons now appears to be figuring things out. He’s learning who he is and who he can be as a player, and the game is beginning to make sense to him. He’s addressed perhaps the largest concern of his pre-draft and early career scouting profile by getting physically stronger, and it’s paid off in the form of some spectacular finishes through contact that would’ve been unheard of his first couple seasons. Defensively he remains a minus, to be clear, but the added strength has helped, and he still holds some potential in that regard thanks to his quick feet and 6’9” wingspan. It’s not unrealistic to think he could someday reach serviceability on the less glamorous end of the court. But he’s not out there for his defense.

Ant Simons is out there to get buckets. And now he’s proving he can run the show. It’s difficult to ascertain just how much of this striking breakout is the massive opportunity he’s been given — certainly the most convenient explanation — or whether he recently had some kind of grand basketball epiphany, or if this is mostly the inevitable culmination of years of tireless developmental work. Whatever the proportions of the above, I think it’s safe to say he’s worked extremely hard on improving his game and putting himself in a position to make the most of this opportunity, and that this opportunity has engendered a series of basketball epiphanies which otherwise may never have arisen.

When I watch Simons now, at least once per game I find myself exclaiming, “Wow, I didn’t know he had that!” And whatever it was — lefty scoop finish on the right side against the Kings, Jordanesque backwards and-1 flick shot against the Nets, some novel species of floater, a full-speed L-R between-the-legs crossover in traffic — he probably didn’t have it in his bag sometime in the not-too-distant past. 

And that’s the thing with projects: there’s a manufactured quality to their games. Upon marvelous athletic and/or physical foundations they are built, components added every summer and refined through sheer repetition. Many projects fail, but some, as increasingly seems to be the case with Simons, blossom into stars. We’ve now seen enough from him to recognize an undeniably promising developmental trajectory. We’ve seen how well — how naturally — he’s responded to this sudden and significant increase in responsibility. We’ve seen improvements that wouldn’t be possible without an unwavering willingness to grind, and we’ve seen flashes of sheer brilliance which have inspired excitement as to what we might see in the future.

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About Brett Usher: Co-founder of the Overstated NBA Show Podcast. You can follow Brett on twitter at @UsherNBA!