The Portland Trail Blazers had a lot of pleasant surprises during the 2021 training camp. One of those was rookie forward Johnathan Turner, who was impressive enough to earn himself a spot on the team.
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When Damian Lillard saw a picture of his young teammate Anfernee Simons earlier this summer, he knew there was something unusual about him. It became clear all of a sudden. Simons got a half-sleeve tattoo on his left arm after remaining ink-free for the first three seasons of his NBA career—another step in the 22-year-continuing old’s transformation from a famously timid youngster to Portland’s possible breakthrough star in 2021-22.
“I was simply like, ‘Man, this guy is growing up,’” says the author. On Wednesday, Lillard laughed as he remembered first seeing Simons’ tattoo. “When he first arrived here, he was around 15, and now he had tattoos and a Hummer.”
Simons’ growth isn’t limited to body art, costly vehicles, and an apparent gain in strength and general size as the regular season approaches. In Portland’s preseason opening against the Golden State Warriors, the fourth-year guard dished out six assists, appearing at ease in his new position as the Blazers’ second unit’s main ball handler. More reassuring than his assist totals or even his vision test? The Blazers committed 26 mistakes in a game in which they used Chauncey Billups’ offensive scheme against an opponent for the first time, and none of them were due to Simons.
“They’ve been pushing me to become a decent point guard for the last few weeks in practice,” Simons said after Wednesday’s practice. “Every day, they’ve been stressing that, pushing me to become that.” That’s a first for me. In that situation, I’ve never had anybody encourage me to take a step forward. It’s been nice because they trust me to work in that area. Every day, I’ve been studying and striving to improve.”
The progress Simons has made this season won’t always translate to more playing time. Outside of his starting five, Portland is stocked on the perimeter, and the emergence of fellow training camp standout Nassir Little means Billups won’t have to depend on three-guard lineups. Simons’ most reliable indication of his more subtle improvement from a year ago may also fall. According to NBA.com/stats, he hit a blistering 51.4 percent on catch-and-shoot triples in 2020-21, third-best in the league and a single-season figure that even the world’s greatest shooters may find unsustainable.
The Blazers won’t mind if Simons returns to earth a little from deep if it implies an increase in the overall difficulty of his efforts. Simons, on the other hand, has been a recognized commodity since he was selected. Simons’ potential as a conventional point guard or even a dependable backup playmaker has always been a source of speculation regarding his role and eventual ceiling, which he seldom addressed favorably when playing caretaker and stationary shooter under Terry Stotts.
But, in previous seasons, the frequency of his chances with the ball has been almost as much of a problem for Simons as his effectiveness with it, and he seems to be feeling energized by Billups’ intentions to utilize him. On one particular possession from the preseason opener, Lillard witnessed Simons’ increased confidence in action.
“At halfcourt, he was pressed once. He used to just let him push him and try to force a pass because he felt he had to run the offense, and then someone would tip it or something like that,” Lillard recalled of Simons. “They put pressure on him, so he went behind them, got to the rim, and knocked the floater off the glass.” To identify that circumstance and respond in that manner demonstrates a different degree of confidence and comfort.”
For Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and the overwhelming majority of the league’s established playmakers, that’s a routine play. Simons, who averaged 2.3 drives a game last season and shot a dismal 24.4 percent from floater range and 51.4 percent from the restricted area, isn’t one of them. Needless to say, a player who complements his top shooting ability with the kind of explosive agility that won him the dunk contest last year should be anticipated to have much more off-dribble verve and finishing flair.
Simons’ next goal is to become a consistent downhill danger in the halfcourt and on the open floor. For the time being, Portland will be content with him just enjoying the freedom and responsibility that full-time point guards have, while continuing to improve on the skills that helped him break into the Blazers’ rotation last season.
So far, everything has gone well.
The Portland sports is a blog that covers the Portland Trail Blazers. The 1 pleasant surprise who stood out for Blazers during 2021 training camp is an article about one of the players that has shown great potential since the start of training camp. Reference: portland sports.
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