It can be a bit tricky for coaches to strike a balance between supporting and instilling confidence in their players while at the same time being honest about performance and areas of improvement. Every player is different, with some being receptive to honest assessments, even when it might not be especially positive, while others bristle at minor of suggestions. The way in those messages are delivered obviously goes a long way toward dictating how the player is going to respond, but for some, even the most delicately worded feedback can cause a rift between player and coach.
And then there’s Anfernee Simons. The 6-3 guard now in his fourth season out of IMG Academy is a kind and reserved young man, one who seems almost too nice to make it in the cutthroat world of professional sports, at least until you see what he can do with the ball in his hands. At just 22 years old, he does not have the look nor the bearing of a grizzled veteran accustomed to difficult conversations.
Yet that’s exactly what he’s asked for from first-year head coach Chauncey Billups, who has preached the importance of accountability since being named to the job in June. Rather than hoping the new coach would come in praising what he does well and ignoring the rest, Simons has not only welcomed a more honest assessment, he’s explicitly asked for it.
“We had that conversation before the season about how I wanted to be coached and I told him you can be hard on me because that’s all I know,” said Simons. “My dad was hard on me growing up, so that’s the only way I can get better is somebody constantly on me on certain things.”
So far, it seems to be working. Through two games, Simons is averaging 14.5 points on 60 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent shooting from three, 2.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 20.8 minutes. But more important than the stats, Simons looks far more comfortable running point for the second unit than at any previous point in his career. It’s only two games, but the difference in the confidence he’s displayed from the end of last season to the start of this season has been undeniable.
“I think this year Chauncey gave me that opportunity to be free, play within my own spaces. It’s good for me because that’s how I like to play,” said Simons. “It frees my mind a little bit. Instead of coming to games strictly thinking about doing one thing, trying to go in there just playing and feeling the game out, stuff like that. So it’s been good.”
And it’s not as if it’s been all tough love. A point guard himself, Billups has been able to convey to Simons some of the finer points of playing the position while also delivering his criticisms and critiques with a healthy dose of positivity and unflinching support.
“The main thing I’m telling Ant is: stay aggressive,” said Billups. “I just think he’s so good, he’s so gifted. The way that he can handle the ball, he can get to anywhere he wants on the floor, he’s a big time shooter. So I’m always just trying to pump confidence into him. He doesn’t need that, I don’t think, but I just feel like I needed that when I was playing. I needed the coach to be telling me how much he trusts me so that’s what I always try to do.”
Between the toughness, the tutelage and and “pumping confidence,” Billups’ approach to working with Simons is already paying dividends. While it’s still early, the days of white-knuckling when both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are on the bench might be coming to an end, thanks in part to Simons’ desire to hear the unvarnished thoughts of his new coach.
“It’s been good, good feedback,” said Simons. “Tell me anything no matter what. Have no filter for me. And that’s the only way we’re going to get a better relationship and how we get better.”