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Blazers' Anfernee Simons seizing his opportunity with Damian Lillard out

The 22-year-old guard has taken the spotlight as Portland's star guard deals with an injury.

Anfernee Simons is averaging 27.8 points and 7.6 assists over the last 5 games.

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — While Portland guard Damian Lillard remains sidelined with an abdominal injury, Anfernee Simons is seizing the opportunity to show he has the abilities to be an everyday starter in the NBA.

Simons’ emergence has given the Trail Blazers a spark in an otherwise bleak season. Just 16-24 and sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference, Portland is missing both Lillard and his backcourt partner CJ McCollum because of injuries.

“That’s my main goal really, just to show that I can be that guy,” Simons said. “So that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Simons had 23 points and a career-high 11 assists in Monday night’s 114-108 victory over the talent-laden Brooklyn Nets, who were missing James Harden but played Kyrie Irving for the second time this season.

The win capped a homestretch during which the Blazers went 3-2. Simons kicked off the homestand with a career-high 43 points in a 136-131 victory over Atlanta on Jan. 3.

Known by his nickname Ant, the 22-year-old Simons has averaged 27.8 points and 7.6 assists over those five games, scoring 20 or more points in four of them.

“I think he’s on his way,” Portland first-year coach Chauncey Billups said when asked if Simons has proven himself to be an NBA starter. “This stretch here without Dame is going to be big for Ant. I know what I feel about him, but it’s not about me, it’s about proving himself to everybody else. He’s going to have to maintain that consistency.”

He started each of those games in the absence of Lillard, who has struggled this season with lower abdominal tendinopathy. Lillard, a six-time All-Star and the Blazers’ stalwart leader, has been bothered by the injury since the Tokyo Olympics.

Lillard isn’t accompanying the Blazers on their upcoming six-game road trip, which starts Wednesday night in Denver. Instead, he’ll be evaluated further — a troubling sign as the Blazers seek their ninth straight playoff berth.

McCollum has missed 15 games after suffering a collapsed lung and is now awaiting the birth of his first child. Portland is also without fellow starters Norman Powell because of COVID-19 protocols and Larry Nance Jr. because of right knee inflammation.

Simons is hardly alone among the league’s young players who have been garnering more minutes as coronavirus cases spike.

Miami’s Omer Yurtseven, 23, has had double-digit rebounds in his last 11 games and was the first NBA player this season to have four consecutive games with at least 16 rebounds, a streak he’ll try to extend Wednesday when the Heat visit Atlanta. He’s been getting more playing time while Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon are both hurt.

“I think everybody’s seeing it this year, probably more so than any other year ever in the NBA, is that young guys are getting opportunities and they’re taking big-time advantage of it,” Sacramento Kings interim coach Alvin Gentry said. “You look at a kid like Simons, who everybody feels like is a good player. As to how good that is? Well, if you play on a team with the two backcourt players (the Blazers) have here, there’s just not a whole lot of time for you to play. So now that he’s got extended minutes, you can see what he can do.”

One of the pitfalls of taking over the starting job, and capably performing in it, is that defenses are now keying in on Simons.

“I’m learning every single game, playing through mistakes, trying to be aggressive in certain areas. I know a lot of teams are going to start throwing me a lot of attention,” Simons said. “Just being prepared for that and know how to counter it. I think I’m handling it pretty well.”

Simons is in his fourth season in the league. He was a first-round draft pick by the Blazers in 2018 out of the IMG Academy in Florida. When he moved into the backup point guard role ahead of last season, Lillard wholeheartedly endorsed him, saying: “I believe in Ant.”

“They just want me to play my game. Everybody’s saying shoot the ball, make plays, and everybody’s giving me the confidence to do that,” Simons said. “So it makes it much easier. I’m not going into the game worrying about the burden that’s on my shoulder, or the weight that’s on my shoulder.”