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It Only Takes One Team to Make Anfernee Simons an NBA First-Rounder

It only takes one team to make Anfernee Simons a first-rounder. On a weeklong scouting trip, the Front Office saw the IMG Academy star play up close and assessed his monumental upside.

The second leg of a weeklong scouting trip that started up north at the G-League Showcase brought the Front Office to the HoopHall Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts. At least two dozen future pro prospects took the court over the weekend (many of whom we detailed in yesterday’s column), but only one of them might hear his named called in this year’s draft. And so at least a dozen NBA scouts descended on Sunday to watch Anfernee Simons take the court.

Simons (pronounced like Simon Says) turns 19 in June and is finishing up a postgrad year at IMG Academy, making him eligible for this year’s draft. He said on Sunday that he will “most likely” declare without hiring an agent, leaving the door open for a combine invite, NBA feedback, and a chance to play in college this fall if he chooses to delay his draft declaration.

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It was a great chance to watch Simons in a competitive team context on Sunday, and he lived up to billing with 28 points on 11-of-22 shooting, including 4-of-8 from three. He put on quite the acrobatic show in pregame warmups, and that explosiveness translated to the game. The 6’3” Simons hit a number of impressive floaters and finishes and effectively picked his spots to attack over the course of a three-point win. His jumper has a quick release, and he shot with confidence. He’s one of the most athletically intriguing guard prospects I’ve scouted in the last five years, with an unusual level of balance and body control.

“He’s got an easy, free-flowing game, a scorer’s mentality,” IMG head coach John Mahoney told The Front Office. “His strength is his weakness right now—he needs to get [physically] stronger, which will come in time.” Simons’s skinny frame is just one of many elements that will have to break correctly for him over the next couple of years, but it doesn’t take long to understand the serious upside when seeing him in person.

While Simons is far from ready to contribute in the NBA, recent history has shown that players’ stay-or-go decisions and overall draft value tends to hinge on other factors. At present, teams are still gathering their info on him and formulating opinions. One scout suggested to the Front Office via text that Simons’s potential holds up well within the context of this year’s first round. Another scout who was in attendance came away impressed with Simons's showing, but thought he needed “at least a year” of college to prepare for the NBA.

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“I don’t think about it too much,” Simons told media after Sunday’s game, but it’s hard to imagine the prospect of an NBA jump won’t start to take center stage. Once committed to Louisville, Simons changed his mind in wake of the program’s naming in the FBI’s college basketball corruption investigation. His recruitment has picked back up, as he took an official visit to Tennessee last week and will visit NC State the second weekend of February. He also listed South Carolina, SMU, Florida and Minnesota as suitors.

Simons said he won’t make a big decision until the final college signing period (which runs from April 11 to May 16), though he can sign with a school and still turn pro. In reality, he has until the June 11 draft withdrawal deadline to decide. And it makes logical sense to speculate that a first-round promise might convince Simons to make the jump now.

“We don’t talk about [the NBA] a lot, and he doesn’t talk about it to me,” Mahoney says. “I told him just to focus on getting better and taking care of his business, getting bigger, faster and stronger.” Last season, Hamidou Diallo graduated early, left for Kentucky mid-season, tested the waters and had a chance at the first round, but decided to do a year of college. Each situation is different, but sometimes an air of mystery (as opposed to a full college season for teams to pick apart) can help a prospect come draft time. “The NBA, they do their homework,” Mahoney says. “Sometimes [scouts] watch a kid once and that’s all you need.”

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Regardless, there are plenty of things for Simons to work on, whether he spends next year in college or bouncing between the NBA and G-League to gain experience. He’s a combo guard who has started to develop his point guard skills, but spent much of Sunday's game at the two, with Maryland-committed teammate, Eric Ayala, playing as the primary initiator. He does have some playmaking ability, but it wasn’t on full display (he registered nary an assist, though to his credit, Simons had no turnovers). He plays with a stoic attitude that rarely changes and masks a good degree of competitive spirit.

On the defensive end, Simons has promise with his lateral quickness and he appeared to be locked in for much of Sunday’s game. He’s still learning to play hard consistently on that end, and IMG has purposely handed him tough assignments over the course of the season to help bring it out of him. “He can defend, and he will. We’re just getting him used to defending all the time,” says Mahoney. Physically, Simons is still a bit of a beanpole, but as he adds strength, you can see him handling point guards and eventually some twos with his agility and 6’7” wingspan.

Drafting Simons this season is banking on his major potential, but NBA teams have never shied away from risk-reward scenarios. Expect the interest to be there, at minimum. Simons is a potential high-scoring two-way ball-handler with elite-level tools, and has a chance to join a wide-open draft class. It spells opportunity. Though the expression is hackneyed, it lives because it’s true: it will only take one team to make Simons a first-rounder.