You have heard the news: the Portland Trail Blazers are under-performing and will add a proven veteran—other than already signed Carmelo Anthony—to their roster to make a push toward their ultimate goal, the playoffs, and the chip.
What you have also heard about, too, is that Portland is hanging the “untouchable” tag on someone named Anfernee Simons. Anfernee what!? Anfernee Simons, that is.
Simons is a second-year player out of... nowhere. If you’re a little bit lost, well, I feel you and understand you and don’t blame you. Simons isn’t your average hooper—not by a mile—so let me update your brain’s database.
Back in the summer of 2018, Portland faced the same decision as any other team in the NBA: to draft, or not to draft a guy by the name of the now-U of Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. No relation, obviously, other than Simons’ parents being too much in love with Penny’s game that they decided to award their son his name. Kudos to them, because Anfernee rocks.
Anyways. Back to draft day, if you looked at any mock draft of any reputed site and sorted prospects by their college of precedence you probably found something at the time that felt like an error to you given your knowledge of those kids: Anfernee Simons, --. Yes, those couple hyphens should represent a college, only they didn’t for Simons as he didn’t attend one. Nor did he leave the States to play overseas as is the trend these days. Nope, Simons reclassified back a year and played a postgrad season at IMG Academy, that of the not-so-famed-by-then Trevon Duval and Jonathan Isaac.
That fact made Simons unique in the 2018 draft and a risk only one team was going to be always remembered for taking. That team, now we know, were the Blazers with no less than the 24th overall pick. Oh, and with that, Simons entered the NBA history books as the first American to go prep-to-pro since the league banned that route all the way back in 2005. I guess things are getting a little clearer by now.
Simons was always a highly-coveted and regarded baller. He was ranked for the first time in July of 2017 already as the 19th-best prospect in the nation. He spent a month stuck at that place, and then jumped all the way to the top-15 in September, was at the 12th spot entering October, broke into the top-10 by the end of November and he was deemed the 8th-best player in the class of 2018 in June of that year, just days before declaring for the NBA draft.
Looking back at that 2018 class, these are the seven names that beat Simons in the rankings (all of them except Charles Bassey, rookies this year as they spent a season in the NCAA-ranks): RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Nassir Little, Bol Bol, Zion Williamson, Bassey, and Romeo Langford. Of course, you know those names. You better start bumping Simons up that list too, because he’ll soon start getting to demand that if not more attention.
Simons has always been on the low, and never in the spotlight. He started playing ball at Edgewater HS in Orlando and then transferred to powerhouse Montverde Academy, where he had little chances. That aided his decision of spending an extra-year of high-school ball at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, where he honed his game and felt ready to make the jump straight to the Association. And to be sure he took the leap and fell flat-footed and without a single wound.
If you haven’t heard about Simons too much perhaps it’s all because he spent most of last year with the Agua Caliente G League team acclimating to this whole new professional thing. Keep in mind Simons is still 20 years old (will turn 21 in June), so we’re talking about a teen going pro before most would have guessed.
Not afraid of the task, though, Simons was already balling with the Blazers to start the year debuting Oct. 30 of 2018 and playing under a minute to get his first taste of the NBA. He played a couple of clock-rounds a day later (both wins), and although he didn’t log a minute for the next six games he did play more than 13 minutes against Minnesota in mid-November and finished with seven points, three boards, and one dime. Not bad for a start.
He’d go on to play a bunch of NBA games on limited time until he was sent to Agua Caliente for a four-game stint in which he averaged a great 17-3-1 line on 22 minutes of playing time. He shot 43.3 percent from the floor and hit three-pointers a ridiculous 47.6 percent clip while scoring 87.5 percent of his freebies. A week to remember for Simons at the second-echelon of NBA hoops, and more than enough to make Portland realize it had a diamond in the rough in its system.
Thus, the call back to the Blazers. And the franchise wasn’t joking this time. Simons played his first game after getting back to the main team in early February and his minutes and chances ramped up until concluding with a hard-to-believe 48-minute outing by Simons in Portland’s season finale. You read it right: Simons played 48 minutes—which is to say, never rode the pine all-game long—and never said a bad word of complaint about getting no rest. No wonder, though, with all he had gone through and the work he had put on during the months (years, in fact) since he locked the NBA-dream inside his brain. The final line against Sacramento that night: 37 pops (with seven three-pointers), nine dimes, six boards, and a theft to round the day. Sublime.
As sublime was his participation in the Blazers’ deep playoff run. Yes, again, you read that right. Simons wasn’t that important for Portland in the months leading to June, but he logged his first five playoff games and in 12 minutes of run combined he put up 12 points and three steals. Not a lot, but the post-season badge was already hanging in his wall of honors.
Fast-forward to today, and there is little doubt in why Portland doesn’t want to move Anfernee out of Oregon. This year, Simons has played in every single game (27 at the time of this writing) and is averaging 9.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.6 apg, and 0.4 spg in 21.6 minutes per. Those numbers are not gaudy, sure, but Simons is one of only 37 guys 20-or-younger in the league and he got into it without the preparation most of those acquired by playing college-ball. No matter what, the Blazers are trusting the kid and it shows: Simons’ 21-plus minutes rank 16th-highest among those youngsters, and his 9.9 points rank 11th.
Go for efficiency and you’ll find a greater treasure: Anfernee’s shooting splits on the season are at 41.9/33.9/74.4 percent on the season. Of those 37 kids, only five other than him are posting those percentages: Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyler Herro, and Kevin Porter Jr. Talk about some good company.
All of this interest in Simons from Portland’s side speaks volumes of a kid that opted to extend his high school career, and who honed his skills in the G League. Both avenues are becoming more and more popular by the day. Youngsters are soon going to be opened the prep-to-pro route again—as soon as in 2022—and names like those of Paskal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, and Kevon Looney are former G League products.
When it comes to upside, Simons has it all. It might have taken him to make some tough, risky, and not-so-shiny decisions in the past, but here he is now.
Untouchable, as they called it.