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The Rise of Portland’s Next Great Guard

With Damian Lillard sidelined and CJ McCollum traded, Anfernee Simons is shining for the Trail Blazers.

On the Tuesday before the NBA’s trade deadline, Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons was asleep in his Portland home when his girlfriend, Breonna Hudson, woke him up and delivered news poised to alter his career. “It happened,” she told Simons abruptly. CJ McCollum, who had played his first nine NBA seasons in Portland and had mentored Simons for the past four, was traded to the Pelicans in one of the biggest midseason moves of the year.

McCollum had been transparent with his teammates about the prospect of a possible deal. He said as much in a Players Tribune essay. Still, as Simons says, “For it to actually come true was a surreal moment, because he’s one of those people who you never thought would leave.”

Portland’s decision to send McCollum to New Orleans comes with a number of implications about the franchise’s plans, including what it means for Simons, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. In Simons’s mind, the trade showed that he’s part of the future in Portland. “I have a management that really believes in me and wants to see me succeed,” he says, “and wants me to help them reach a championship-level.”

The 22-year-old guard has proved his worth this year. Since Jan. 1, he is averaging a team-high 23.6 points and 6.1 assists in 36.1 minutes of action. A season after he started just five games, he has emerged as one of the front-runners for the league’s Most Improved Player award.

But Simons’s path to becoming Portland’s next great guard has been far from linear. In fact, when Simons entered the league, his trainer, Phil Beckner, identified a key area in which the guard needed to grow right away. Sure, Simons had room to improve his jumper and defensive positioning, but those things were secondary.

“He had no presence whatsoever,” Beckner says.

Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Anfernee Simons (1) drives for the basket between Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kenrich Williams.

Simons entered the NBA as a shy 19-year-old. In lieu of attending college, his parents, Charles and Tameka, enrolled him at IMG Academy, where he would spend the gap-year between high school and his debut professional season. After the Trail Blazers selected him No. 24 in the 2018 NBA draft, Simons’s parents moved with their son to Portland to help ease his transition to the NBA.

Neil Olshey, then-Portland’s general manager and president of basketball operations, had said that Simons was as “gifted as anybody” he had ever picked. It was Beckner who took on the challenge of getting Simons to live up to his potential.

At the start of Simons’s rookie season, Beckner crafted what amounted to a motivational flyer—one that Simons would hang in important places, like in his locker and at his home.

The top of the page showed a picture of Simons, then still wearing No. 24. Underneath the photo was the phrase “Dynamic Lead Guard”—words to remind Simons of what he could one day become in the NBA. And below that, in bold font, the word “Presence” with its definition: “The impressive manner or appearance of a person.” Beckner also listed synonyms—stance, attitude, aura, to name a few—and the places where having presence was important: huddles, on the practice floor, in pre-game routines, in challenging situations.

"He was super young,” Beckner says, “would hardly talk."

Simons appeared in only 20 games during his rookie season, averaging 7.1 minutes per contest. Perhaps his lone moment of early validation came in the team’s regular-season finale when he became just the third teenager in league history to tally at least 37 points and nine assists in a game. “It gave me a little bit more confidence that if I stay with it and continue to work, then I’ll be just fine,” Simons says.

Still, over the subsequent two seasons, Simons ping-ponged in and out of then-coach Terry Stotts’s rotation, averaging 20.7 minutes in his sophomore season and 17.3 minutes per game in the 2020-21 campaign. By last spring, Simons, fresh off winning the 2021 NBA dunk contest, yearned for a bigger opportunity. He knew he was capable of more. But Beckner also wanted the Blazers guard to take more ownership of his journey.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons.

As a result, on one occasion late in the year, Beckner walked off the practice court and refused to work Simons out. He believed shaping Simons’s approach was more important than the 250 made threes they would otherwise log. “You have to own your development and care about this more than I care about this,” Beckner told him. “And I’m not going to work you out until you do.”

Three weeks passed before Simons re-initiated a formal dialogue, asking where Beckner would be in the summer.

“Either Phoenix or Portland,” Becker replied. “Where are you going to be training?”

“Wherever you are,” Simons wrote back.

It was the kind of commitment, the kind of forceful display, that Beckner had been looking to see from his client.

“He was a quiet, shy puppy dog,” Beckner says. “Now, he’s like a confident golden retriever. He’s grown up so much.”

Under first-year coach Chauncey Billups, Simons feels as if he has been given the opportunity to play through his mistakes. Billups has also relieved pressure by trying to find easier matchups for Simons to attack. It’s paid off. This past January, in a game against the Hawks, Simons exploded for a career-high 43 points on 61.9% shooting from the field. Two nights later, he notched 28 points vs. the Heat, and less than a week after that, another 31 vs. the Kings. Very quickly, Simons’s 20-plus point outputs became less of a surprise and more of an expectation. Only once in the year 2022 has he not scored double-digits.

With star guard Damian Lillard out since Dec. 31 with an abdominal injury, it’s no coincidence that Simons has been able to step into the team’s lead ball-handling role. But Simons’s star-turn is also a reflection of his diligence this offseason to improve his shooting and creativity with the basketball. As Beckner notes, Simons even stayed at his house in Phoenix for a week last summer to train.

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Simons remains in constant contact with Lillard, too, receiving countless tips on how to get around blitzing defenders or how to create for himself or his teammates in late-game situations. At times, Simons's movements on the court even resemble Lillard's. 

Take this side-step three-pointer to ice a recent victory over the Grizzlies as Exhibit A of how Lillard has rubbed off. Look familiar?

The similarities are no coincidence. Not only are the two longtime teammates, but Beckner has trained Lillard throughout his career. (The two have known each other since Lillard’s Weber State days.) While their trainer insists that Simons made the decision to work out with him independent of Lillard, it certainly hasn’t hurt that the 6’ 4” guard has such a prolific workout partner on his team.

“I’m excited to come back and for us to get out there together cause I know his game real well, and he knows mine real well, so it’ll be exciting,” Lillard says.

“Seeing his development and seeing his growth, it’s been amazing to watch.”

Portland enters the second half of the season riding a four-game win streak and is in contention for the play-in tournament. While Simons continues to play “the game of chess” with his opponents, he does so recognizing he still has countless places for growth. Among other areas, he wants to continue developing his offensive repertoire and improve his play down the stretch of games. As important, though, he also has a desire to be even more vocal.

“[I'm] coming out of my shell a lot more,” he says. “Some people say I’m still quiet, but I’ve grown a lot and am out of the really quiet stage where I was in my first year. Now I’m much more talkative to a lot newer teammates.”

Before departing for New Orleans, McCollum left parting gifts for his former teammates: signed jerseys with words of advice scribbled on them. Simons collected his memento from the team’s practice facility on the day after the trade. On it, McCollum told Simons to keep going, to take in the moment and to not shy away from who he is.

In Simons’s eyes, that means being a presence in Portland for years to come.

“I 100% want to stay in Portland,” Simons says of his upcoming free agency. “And I think everybody wants me to stay as well. I think it’s a perfect fit for me.”

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