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The Trail Blazers’ Secret Weapon Isn’t a Secret Anymore

Anfernee Simons skipped college and went straight to the NBA in 2018. Then he disappeared from the public eye. After a year of watching Damian Lillard rather than playing alongside him, Simons has the league buzzing and Portland hopeful that he can be a contributor to its title push next season.

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The peach fuzz on Anfernee Simons’s chin is visible these days. The hair, though sparse, is growing. But when Damian Lillard walks up to Simons after the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Pistons on the second day of Las Vegas summer league, Simons notices that it’s Lillard who is surprisingly clean shaven. The reason? Lillard had to be baby-faced for his upcoming role in Space Jam 2. So after a season of being looked at as the kid on the team, Simons decides to take his shot in the tunnels of the Thomas & Mack Center. You look younger than me now, he tells Lillard. The All-NBA guard laughs off the dig.

Stubble or not, few players—in the NBA or at summer league—look as young as Simons. There’s still a boyish quality to Portland’s 20-year-old sophomore guard. His grin spreads as wide as his 6-foot-9 wingspan, and his cheeks round when he smiles like Alfalfa.

Former Blazers forward Evan Turner remembers when he first met Simons after the 2018 draft. “He looked like a little-ass kid,” said Turner, now with the Hawks. The “little-ass kid” fooled everyone else too. Said Turner: “Legit, people would come up and say, who is that? Who is the 15-year-old on your team?”

Simons was an elite prospect coming out of high school, albeit not one who would show up in viral highlight videos. Still, he spurned college ball and went straight from a postgrad year at IMG Academy, a prep boarding school in his home state of Florida, to the NBA last year. He catapulted up draft boards, and the Blazers took him with the 24th pick. Then, he disappeared from the public eye.

The Blazers were one of three teams without a G League affiliate and will be one of two without one next season. So aside from a four-game stint with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Simons sat on the Blazers’ bench. He played only 141 NBA minutes, and 91 more in the G League. All the work he did was behind the scenes, in film rooms and on practice courts, through conversations and mentorships. It is nearly impossible to fly under the radar now—there are too many ways to be seen and be known, especially for a former top-10 recruit like Simons. Yet the first-round pick was a mystery outside Portland one year into his NBA career.

The buzz around Simons started to grow in April, when he dropped 37 points and nine assists during a regular-season finale that the Blazers tried to lose by resting their usuals and playing only six end-of-the-bench players; they won, with Simons scoring six of their final eight points. The only teenagers who had ever put up that stat line in an NBA game before Simons did it were LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Now this offseason, the scuttlebutt is that Portland is really high on the young wing’s potential, and even that trading for him would cost more than one might think. “They love him, they absolutely love him,” one front office talent evaluator told me. “Not saying that you could pair as a starter with either CJ [McCollum] or Dame right now, but maybe down the road, you never know.”

In three games at summer league, Simons showed another glimpse of his evolution. Now 10 pounds heavier than last year, he averaged 22 points on 56 percent shooting and earned a spot on the All–Summer League second team.

“They say they are expecting big things from me,” Simons told me while sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas last week. Publicly, Blazers coaches have tried to temper the hype. But you can keep a secret for only so long.

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“Bucket.”

Inside the Fast Twitch training facility in Miami months before the 2018 NBA draft, Simons was learning to talk trash. Simons is soft-spoken and shy; talking junk is not in his nature. But his trainer, Justin Zormelo, wanted him to play with more confidence. So every time he scored on the older G League and overseas players he was training with, Simons was instructed to trash talk. “Bucket” was a baby step. He said it after blowing by a player and hitting a jumper in a drill. He repeated it over and over, at a volume only slightly louder than his inside voice. Zormelo and Simons’s dad, Charles, chuckled at the attempts while sitting courtside. It was a start.

Zormelo, who has trained Kevin Durant as well as Thon Maker, another prep-to-pro player, said Simons has gotten better at it since. But he didn’t need to talk to get noticed on a court of NBA veterans.

“The first time we went live, he was on the scout team and CJ was guarding him, and he scored a decent amount on CJ,” Turner said. “He was hitting from the 3-point areas, just like off the dribble and stuff like that. I’m like, ‘Oh, shit. He can actually put that ball in the bucket.’”

The scoring ability was never in question. When Zormelo began to work with Simons, he noticed that his physique was underdeveloped—his thigh would cramp 45 minutes into a workout, Zormelo said. But he saw the potential for an elite offensive player. Because he wasn’t in college, Simons started prepping for the draft in February, working with both Zormelo and strength coaches to develop his ability to be more than a shooter. By June, he was a different player. By that point, Zormelo found it easier to sell teams on Simons’s chance to be, in his words, “the next Klay Thompson with a mixture of Damian Lillard.”

“I told every GM and coach and scout I saw that you better take this kid in the lottery,” Zormelo said. “We held private workouts for four days, and he went insane. I don’t know how he slipped.” According to the front office talent evaluator, teams saw the shooting ability but were worried about whether his lithe frame could hold up. The Blazers saw enough to take the risk other teams passed on. They even gave Simons a promise—he worked out with Portland a second time and then canceled a workout in Memphis as a result.

Simons played shooting guard for most of his young career, but the Blazers see him as a scoring ball handler, much like Lillard and McCollum. The two guards—both of whom also came up outside of the major-college pipelines—were examples of what Simons could become and what he needed to do to get there, so all season he watched them intently. Simons may have never gone to college, but every Blazers game this season was its own lecture, complete with Q&A sessions. In between halves and after the game, he would ask teammates—oftentimes Lillard—why he made a certain move or what went right or wrong on a specific play. He was an active watcher, assistant coach Nate Tibbetts said, with the ability to separate the good habits from the bad and then take the best moves for himself. “Every day he was probably stealing a little something.”

“I was just trying to learn by watching [Lillard] and seeing how he plays against teams trying to scheme against him and take him out of the game,” Simons said. “How he picks apart the defenses and is able to score at every level.”

If Lillard was Simons’s sensei on the court, Turner was his guidance counselor off it. The job was easy because there was, as Turner puts it, “no fuckery.” At first, Turner assumed that any fatigue Simons displayed at morning practices on the road was a sign that he had gone out. But when Turner questioned Simons and fellow rookie Gary Trent Jr., they told him they were just in their room.

“Doing what?” Turner asked.

“Playing Fortnite,” Simons replied.

“Like, fuck,” Turner says now. “This ain’t no sleepover.”

It was one of several reminders Blazers players got throughout last season that showed how young Simons was. He didn’t know what Boy Meets World was, and when Lillard decided to take some of the younger players to shop on Rodeo Drive, Simons said he just wanted some Supreme gear. Turner took a liking to Simons personally; he said Simons was hungry for instruction. He was also poised for his age, so Turner kept his overall advice simple: Don’t be stupid.

“What you’re doing and how you are is perfectly fine,” Turner would say to Simons. “Stay that way. You’re not missing shit out here.”

Whereas outsiders may have seen a sheepish teen, the team soon began to see Simons as someone who simply makes his words count. Once he got comfortable enough to speak up, Simons would make one remark and walk away—be it in the middle of a rap discussion (“T.I. is the best rapper”) or a roasting of another player. Often, he’d leave a full-blown argument behind him. “Anfernee is funny,” Turner said. “It kind of shocked the shit out of me. He just knows how to pick his spots.”

When Turner and other Blazers players would try to frazzle Simons during interviews or while performing rookie duties, he wouldn’t respond. Now, they are watching that confidence play out on the court. What was once for their eyes only is now being unveiled to everyone else.

Terry Stotts can’t help but smile. The Blazers head coach is sitting courtside at Cox Pavilion during a summer league game against the Rockets and watching as Simons stops on a dime outside the 3-point line, takes stock of his defender, and pulls up in his face. Swish. Stotts looks at the Blazers’ bench and nods as if to say, “Yeah, I saw that.”

Simons’s game is built to thrive in the summer league setting. He’s quick and long, athletically gifted yet under control. That allows him to both shoot off the dribble before lesser defenders can react and get to the rim before they can catch up. This was Simons’s second year in Vegas, and it showed in his confidence and production. He punctuated his strong three-game appearance with an exclamation point: 35 points led by six 3s, including a scorching 5-for-5 from deep in the first quarter of his final game.

Last year, a couple of made shots could be seen as justification of the Blazers’ selecting a little-known prospect in the first round; this year, the Blazers handed him the keys to the offense with the expectation that’d he show progress as a lead ball handler. And Simons delivered, controlling the pace and exhibiting the effects of his redshirt year with eye-opening moves. At times, he looked like the best player on the floor. “You’re seeing some of the stuff he did in the weight room, and on the court, paying off here,” Tibbetts said.

Yet in between all the Vegas hoopla, Simons was still learning. Zormelo sent Simons film, and when he dropped into Vegas, they went over a report focused on Simons’s analytics, primarily where on the floor he was struggling with his shot and how well players were shooting when he defended them.

“I don’t really try and focus on it too much,” he said of the reports. “But I really try to see the areas that I’m good at and … where I’m not, and then it just flows into the game.”

That Simons is already receptive to analytical feedback is a testament to his year in an NBA system rather than a college classroom. Simons’s path isn’t for everyone; his decision to bypass college afforded him his NBA education, but also prevented him from getting the exposure that comes from playing for a Duke or a North Carolina. But it’s hard to argue that being in the Blazers’ film room wasn’t better for his game than spending eight months scoring a bunch of points against overmatched defenders or being a cog in a college team’s system. “I think he had the year we needed him to have,” Stotts said. “He studied the NBA game and got stronger, so we like his progress so far.”

“It helped me pick up on things faster and understand where to be,” Simons said of the redshirt year.

”The redshirt year helps so that you’re not in no-man’s-land, maybe struggling with a G League team far away and you get down on yourself,” the talent evaluator said. “I really think it’s mental, because you’re with the major league team, you’re hanging out, you’re spending time with everybody, you’re learning through the reps, you’re being patient and seeing how the pros do it. But I think it’s all about having the right environment. … Portland is a really good situation with a really good culture, and it was a good fit.”

Now the mystery has turned into anticipation—especially from the Blazers’ staff. With Turner and Seth Curry gone, there are minutes available for a ball handler off the bench who can give Lillard or McCollum a rest. Tibbetts said Simons will spend some time off the ball too. “The great thing about him is that whatever role he gets, he’s going to accept,” Tibbetts said.

As far as Simons has come in a year, he knows there’s still a long way to go. He knows his disruptive length needs to be supplemented by a higher defensive IQ. He knows he needs to get stronger. He knows he’s gotta tighten his handle and make his shot as consistent as possible. It’s why he pays attention to the numbers just as much as what Lillard tells him.

“I’m gonna get better.” That’s Simons’s go-to phrase when receiving constructive criticism. Zormelo said it’s the response he gets when he brings numbers or film to Simons, when he mentions his defense or urges him to communicate—even trash-talk—more. “I’m gonna get better.” But while Simons may already be thinking about the next part of his game to improve, soon everybody else will get a chance to see how good he may already be.

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