Zach Lowe: Little's Growth, Simons' Float Game

By Desmond Johnson

The Trail Blazers have spent more time than they’re accustomed to without the likes of star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the court this season, but this most recent stretch without Lillard and McCollum has shed light on the development of two potential stars-in-the-making in Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little. 

Simons has averaged 27.8 points and 7.6 assists on 51.1 FG% and 44.6 3P% in a starting role over his last five outings. While Nassir Little hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet offensively in quite the same way, he’s been tasked with guarding the other team’s best player most nights and answered that call beautifully. Against the Nets on Jan. 10, he finished the game with three blocks and a steal and spent much of his night bothering the shots of Kevin Durant (9-19 FG) and Kyrie Irving (9-21 FG). 

At only 22 and 21 years old respectively, Ant and Nas are putting the league on notice. ESPN Senior Writer Zach Lowe included the Portland duo in his ‘Lowe’s 10 Things’, a weekly collection of intriguing storylines throughout the league, saying:

Little may be turning into the 3-and-D tweener forward the Blazers needed when they were trying to win. Little's shot comes and goes -- he's at 32% on 3s -- but his form looks fine, and he's stepping into them with confidence. He's only 21. 

More encouraging has been watching Little zip by defenders who run him off the arc, knife into the lane, and make the next pass. He has shown glimpses of a post game against switches, or when defenses hide guards on him. 

Little is a solid defender, with a chance to be really good. He's strong enough to defend power forwards, and envelopes wings with his massive 7-1 wingspan. Little isn't super athletic, but he's the right kind of fast to excel on defense -- quick in tight spaces, nimble changing direction, with good balance and instincts.

He also spent a lot of time on Kevin Durant, and anyone who survives Irving and Durant without looking foolish is someone to watch.

Simons has a filthy first step -- powerful and fast. He's hitting enough 3s -- about 40%, though only 32% off the bounce -- that help defenders pressure him on the pick-and-roll. Simons roasts those guys in open space. 

His floater has been a revelation. He gets huge elevation, and lofts from odd angles going left or right. 

Simons has nailed an amazing 53% from floater range, per Cleaning The Glass. Portland has scored 1.09 points when Simons shoots out of a pick-and-roll, or passes to a teammate who launches -- fifth among 126 players who have run at least 200 such plays, per Second Spectrum. 

The Blazers are only minus-5 in 283 minutes when Simons has played without both Lillard and CJ McCollum. 

Simons' next step is playmaking for others. He's a gunner, and over-dribbles setting up pick-and-rolls. Even so, you can see some early strides in his passing. 

 

CJ McCollum is set to rejoin the team this week, but with Dame sidelined after undergoing abdominal surgery, the Simons/Little duo should continue to see big minutes. There are many players in the NBA capable of having big nights when given the opportunity to play extended minutes, but it is the consistency with which a player can string these performances together that determines who becomes a star in this league. Both Simons and Little have taken a huge leap in the consistency department this season and their expanded roles will provide ample opportunity for them to prove such.

The continued emergence of Little and Simons should be fun to watch, as these two electric young players continue to see the work that they put in pay off in big ways on the court.

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