HS Star Anfernee Simons Decides CBB Isn't for Him, but Is He Ready for the NBA?

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 23, 2018

B/R (via AP)

ORLANDO — The NCAA Tournament Selection Show is well underway, but as he lounges in a booth at the Miller's Ale House, Anfernee Simons seems disinterested.

Instead, the 18-year-old basketball prodigy stares at his phone, scrolling through text messages and Twitter while virtually every other patron stares at one of the sports bar's 50-plus televisions as the 2018 bracket is revealed.

Standing an imposing 6'4" yet shy and soft-spoken, Simon shrugs when pressed to name his favorite college team.

"I don't really have one," he says quietly.

What about a prediction for this year's tournament? Who will win the 2018 title? Simons gazes at the now-complete bracket.

"That's tough," he says. "Maybe Duke. Maybe Michigan State. I really don't know."

Or perhaps he simply doesn't care.

Although he stops just short of admitting it, Simons clearly hasn't thought much about college lately. Ever since he decommitted from Louisville back in September, Simons' mind has been focused on turning pro.

Although he never played in college, Simons is eligible for the 2018 draft as a postgraduate because he's one year removed from high school and turns 19 in June, which satisfies the NBA's draft requirements.

"I'm just keeping my options open," says Simons, an Orlando native who spent the past season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. "We'll see what happens."

Eleven days later, on Thursday, Simons indeed entered the NBA draft. The decision, that ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski first reported, was announced through Simons' agents, Bobby Petriella and Drew Rosenhaus of Rosenhaus Sports Representation. With their hiring, Simons has forfeited any possibility of playing in college should he have a change of heart.

"After discussing the matter with my parents, I have decided to forgo the opportunity to play in the NCAA and to instead enter the NBA draft," Simons said in a press release. "I am very thankful for the support I received at IMG Academy and from the NCAA coaches who recruited me. I am ready and excited to pursue my dream of playing in the NBA."

An NBA scout told Bleacher Report on Friday that Simons has a good chance to be a first-round pick this summer.

"He's got as good a chance as anyone," the scout said. "Sometimes there's a little fatigue with scouting the college guys, and he's going to benefit from having been somewhat under the radar. Once NBA people get a close-up look at him, I think he's got a chance to really rise."

The day before Simons released his statement, his father, Charles, told Bleacher Report in a phone interview that his son would likely skip college altogether if he felt strongly that he'd be a first-round pick. ESPN.com's Jonathan Givony projects Simons as the No. 19 overall selection, and the site ranks him as the seventh overall player in the high school class of 2018.

Kenny Gillion, who coached Simons' AAU squad, Team Breakdown, said he has no doubt that Simons is ready to be a pro.

"He wrestled with the decision a little bit," Gillion said, "because there was a time he was excited about going to college. He really wanted to play for [Rick] Pitino at Louisville. 

"But we just had to tell him, 'You're different than most kids. You're special. Sometimes, in order to do what's best, you have to make some tough decisions.'

"In the end, I think he felt he couldn't have one foot in and one foot out. He wanted to commit fully and start training and not look back."

A point guard, Simons became consumed with basketball at a young age. In fact, his father named him after former NBA standout Penny Hardaway.

"I liked the uniqueness of the name—and, of course, I liked Penny," Charles said. "He was from Memphis and I grew up in Nashville."

Ironically, Charles eventually met Penny and the two became friends. And then Anfernee became best friends and teammates with Penny's son, Jayden, who also attended IMG. When Penny Hardaway was hired this week as Memphis' head coach, the assumption was that Anfernee would sign with the Tigers.

But that won't happen now, as Simons is following the same path of childhood hero, Tracy McGrady, by skipping college altogether for the NBA.

Paving the way for the move was the family's decision to reclassify Anfernee after his freshman year of high school. With a June 8 birthday, Simons—who is still 18—was young for his class, and his parents felt he needed an extra year to mature physically and mentally.

"It was pretty obvious after my freshman season that I'd need an extra year," Simons said. "I was a step behind everyone, and I was only 5'8" with no muscle."

He enrolled at the prestigious Montverde Academy in Florida as a junior to play for Kevin Boyle, who has coached the likes of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and D'Angelo Russell. Simons, though, was still developing and had trouble earning playing time, so he returned to his original high school (Edgewater) in Orlando for his true senior season.

"The timing was just bad," Boyle said, "but I could tell he had the potential to be a big-time shooter. And he was a good kid. In time I knew he'd blossom wherever he was at."

After graduating from Edgewater in 2017, Simons spent the summer starring with Team Breakdown on the AAU circuit. In one of his most memorable performances, Simons scored 35 points in a victory over Team Final—which features Duke signee and projected 2019 lottery pick Cam Reddish—at the Las Vegas Fab 48 tournament.

"After that game," Gillion said, "there wasn't even a question who the best player on the floor was. When he plays against the top players, he has a killer mentality. If he's not winning, he's not happy. He equates success with winning. ... He's going to try to outperform the guy in front of him while his team is winning."

Simons spent the ensuing fall and winter at IMG, where he averaged 22.4 points while shooting 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from three-point range. IMG coach John Mahoney said there were several games in which Simons "caught fire and hit eight or nine three-pointers."

"He can really stroke it, really fill up the bucket," Mahoney said. "He came to work every day and never complained."

Along with the coaching and the chance to play against high-level competition, Simons said the biggest benefit of attending IMG was the chance to mature.

"Just being two-and-a-half hours away from home helped me grow up," he said. "I had to take responsibility for a lot of things and not depend on my parents. I needed that. Now I have the confidence to know that, wherever I end up, I can adapt."

Even the coaches who missed out on an opportunity to work with Simons are supporting him in his journey toward the NBA. SMU coach Tim Jankovich—whose squad was one of three finalists in the mix to land Simons along with North Carolina State and Tennessee—said he understands why Simons is turning pro.

"It makes total sense to me," Jankovich told B/R. "If people are telling him he’s going to be a first-round pick…that's tough to turn down. I don't blame him one bit. He's a good kid with a good family. He may have to spend some time in the G League, but talent-wise, his ceiling is high. I'm rooting for him."

Still, there are questions about Simons. Even though he gained about 10 pounds of muscle at IMG, basketball insiders wonder whether his body is ready for the grind of the NBA. There are also concerns about his passing, which can be sloppy at times, and his shot selection.

"There are a lot of athletes out there with great skill sets," said ESPN commentator and former Division I coach Fran Fraschilla, who worked with Simons at Steph Curry's summer camp in August. "Still, most guys that age aren't ready for the rigors and the physicality of the NBA. There's a whole level of maturing and coaching that college offers. You risk putting yourself in a tough situation when you miss out on that."

Folks in Simons' camp don't seem too concerned. In fact, Gillion said Simons possesses a blend of traits that many NBA superstars lack.

"Most guys who are silky-smooth scorers—guys like Trae Young and Steph Curry—aren't quite as athletic," Gillion said. "I mean, imagine if Trae Young had a 35- or 40-inch vertical. Then you have guards like John Wall and De'Aaron Fox, who are incredible athletes but not smooth scorers. Anfernee is one of those guys who combines smooth scoring with great athletic ability.

"NBA people are going to be really surprised when they get him into a workout. He's an athletic, smooth-scoring guy that can create."

The NBA scout agreed.

"He's going to have to grow physically and mentally," the scout said, "but he can score and he's got some tools. He's kind of a late-bloomer. The post-grad year was really good for him, and betting on himself is really admirable. He's put himself in a really good position heading into this predraft process."

Simons will have a chance to prove that to scouts both at the upcoming NBA combine and in individual workouts—a scenario that, at times, seems surreal to a player who didn't jump onto the national scene until about two years ago.

"This has all happened really fast," his father, Charles, said. "We're just thankful to be in this situation. Two years ago he wasn't the Anfernee you know now. The only way he got here is because he was able to block everything out and focus. … We tried not to worry about offers and rankings. We just said, 'We've got to get better every day. You've just got to put yourself in a position to be successful.'"

Charles chuckles when he recalls the time when Anfernee was eight and had a chance to meet McGrady, who he grew up idolizing, at an amateur tournament in which Charles was playing.

"He got so nervous and scared that he started crying," Charles said. "He wouldn't do it. I tried to introduce him, and he wouldn't go near him."

Now, 10 years later, if things go as planned, Anfernee may soon be in a position to leave a young fan awestruck and starry-eyed.

"It's crazy," Anfernee said, "to be this close to my dream."

    

Jason King is a senior writer for B/R. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King has received mention for his work in the popular book series The Best American Sportswriting. In both 2015 and 2016, King was tabbed as one of the top five beat writers in the nation by the APSE. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.

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