After Years Of Incremental Progress, Simons 'Becomes Himself' As A Starter
While the recent play of Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons has been incredibly impressive, it hasn’t exactly come as a surprise, at least not to those who have been paying attention.
Sure, leading the Trail Blazers to wins in four of their last six games after being thrust into a starting role due to Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell all missing extended time while averaging 28.3 points on 51/46/91 percent shooting, 8.2 assists and 2.7 rebounds in 37.7 minutes in the month of January might have been a bit unexpected, but it’s not as if he hasn’t wowed with his offense before.
“I’m learning every single game, playing through mistakes, trying to be aggressive in certain areas,” said Simons. “I know a lot of teams are going to start showing me a lot of attention so just being prepared for that and knowing how to counter it. I think I’m handling it pretty well considering.”
And Simons finishing an acrobatic and-1 despite having his back turned to the basket in Portland’s recent victory versus the Brooklyn was a spectacular highlight, though he did win the 2021 NBA Dunk Contest and there’s never been much doubt about his ability to utilize his athleticism to pull off moves which are near impossible for most mortals.
“It was situation where there was a late shot clock, I got good verticality and I just tried to get over the defender somehow,” said Simons of the play. ‘I didn’t realize I had spun that much, but it was pretty amazing. I was surprised it went in honestly. I just guessed and threw it up.”
Even Simons joining Luka Doncic, D’Angelo Russell, Trae Young, J.R. Smith and Gary Trent Jr. as one of just six players in NBA history to have five games with at least seven three-pointers before turning 23 years old after going 7-of-14 from three in Saturday’s win versus the Wizards in Washington, D.C. is quite the statistical milestone, but again, not all that stunning for anyone who has seen how easily the ball comes off the young guard’s hands when he’s got the green light.
Again, all of this is very impressive, and in some ways, his play is a season-saving development, but Simons has done these things before. Perhaps not at this level nor for this long, but the fits and starts of his career have soothsaid what we’re seeing out of him now.
But seeing Simons get called for a technical foul in the fourth quarter of Portland’s 114-101 loss to the Cavaliers, that was a new one, literally. Never through the first three-plus season of his career had Simons, easily the most soft-spoken individual on the team, been called for a technical, not that he feels he deserved it.
“I went up to (the referee) and I said ‘He kicked the f-ing ball’ and then I think what triggered it is he was asking for the ball and Chauncey was asking for the ball and I gave the ball to Chauncey, so he gave me a tech for that,” explained Simons. “I’m trying to get it taken away though. People say way worse! I’ve heard people say way worse than that and not get a tech so there’s no way I can get a tech for that.
“It takes a lot for me to get riled up in that way. That was a pivotal part of the game and that was a call they missed in a pivotal part of the game so I got kind of upset about that.”
Simons’ reaction was not only surprising, it was also encouraging, as it signals two facets of his maturation from the young man who was selected with the 24th pick of the 2018 Draft just a few weeks after his 19th birthday to the player and person he has become in his fourth season, one who looks more like a sure-fire starter in the NBA with each passing game.
First and most obviously, it shows that Simons is taking on a larger leadership role, one that requires a certain level of verbal communication that was once outside of his comfort zone.
That’s not to say that drawing technicals during the deciding moments of games is always a good thing -- very often it isn’t -- but being willing to speak up for yourself and your teammates shows that Simons understands and accepts the responsibility that comes with leading a team from the point guard position. Whether it’s on the court or in the locker room, Simons is being encouraged to speak up.
“I’ve definitely grown in that area,” said Simons. “People have pushed me to become more vocal, speak your mind because people that know me know whenever I speak, it’s not like I’m saying anything wrong. So it’s like, you holding all this in, stuff that you need to say, just say it and voice you opinion and people will respect you based off that. I think I’ve been trying to do that with CJ and Dame and them out. Obviously I look to the vets a bit, they’ve been here longer than me so I let them take the reins of being vocal with the team. And when I get my time, I say what I need to say as well, so it’s a collective leadership, in a way.”
And secondly, Simons bristling at what he thought was a missed call, and subsequently being punished for stating as much, indicates that he’s realized he doesn’t have to be satisfied with nor simply accept what is given. As in, his play has earned him the right to expect respect, be it from teammates, coaches, opponents or officials.
He might still be young -- he calls himself a “mini vet,” someone who is one of the longer tenured players on the team but is still on a rookie contract -- but has started to take on the bearing of a player capable of putting up numbers when the games actually matter. He’s not just happy to be here nor out to prove he belongs. The former is no longer true, if it ever was, while the latter is no longer necessary.
“Maybe I’ve just become myself a little bit, a bit more confident. I can’t tell the difference in that part, but I might be carrying myself with more confidence and being more comfortable with myself,” said Simons. “I’m just happy that I’m getting the chance right now to show what I’m fully capable of, show all aspects of my game and what I’ve been working on for the past three, four years now.”