LAS VEGAS — Anfernee Simons isn't the type of player that a team like the Portland Trail Blazers typically drafts. Solid playoff teams without much flexibility to add veterans often look for seasoned college players who will be able to contribute right away.
Blazers president Neil Olshey bucked trends on June 21 and put a laser on Simons, placing a bet that his long-term upside will justify the lack of present-day production for a team fighting to stay afloat in a brutal Western Conference free-for-all.
Heading into the draft, Simons was a virtual unknown, as he skipped college to spend a year training at Florida's IMG Academy. He's a talented but physically slight prospect who is two years away from being two years away. Simons could be the next Giannis Antetokounmpo, or he could be the next Bruno Caboclo.
The Blazers certainly weren't expecting him to play much next season when they selected him with the No. 24 overall pick.
"We were looking for the guy with the highest ceiling we could possibly find," Olshey said on draft night. "He's really gifted. We felt like he was the most talented guy on the board. He's got a really bright future, he works, he can dribble, he can pass, he can shoot, he's a high-level athlete, we know he's going to work. His skill set translates. When the physical growth catches up to his natural God-given ability, he's going to be a really good player."
Any summer-league production should be taken with an entire block of salt, but the early returns on Simons are promising. Although he came off the bench in his Las Vegas Summer League debut against the Utah Jazz on Saturday, he finished with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting. He followed that up the next day with a 12-point performance in a win over the Atlanta Hawks. Simons struggled in his first summer-league start against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, scoring only eight points on 4-of-13 shooting.
"These players are a lot faster," Simons said after his first game in Vegas. "They know how to finish better. You've got to be in the right position at all times. It's much easier now because there's a lot more spacing. I was able to get off ball screens and into open spaces and hit those open jumpers and floaters and stuff."
Summer league often serves as a rude awakening to rookies who had success in college. For Simons, that gap is even steeper. A top-10 recruit in his class, Simons initially committed to Louisville before decommitting in the wake of last fall's FBI investigation into NCAA corruption, which implicated the school and led to the ouster of head coach Rick Pitino.
Simons instead opted to train at IMG, a well-known athletics-focused prep school. He was essentially a fifth-year senior, playing in AAU tournaments against younger competition. He wowed scouts with his athleticism and shooting ability, but his thin frame raised concerns that he wouldn't be able to handle the physicality of the NBA. Add to that the obvious question marks about the level of competition he faced, and he entered the draft as more of a project than a sure thing. Most major draft analysts projected him as a late first- or early-to-mid-second-round pick.
Thus far, the 6'4", 183-pounder appears to be further along than expected. In three summer-league games, Simons showed the ability to get his shot off, along with surprising defensive awareness for a rookie. He received some sideline coaching from Damian Lillard, his new All-Star teammate who was in town to watch a Blazers team that also included second-round pick Gary Trent Jr. and second-year big men Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan.
"I could tell they were trying to be physical with him," Lillard said after the Blazers' win over the Hawks. "So I was just telling him how you can manipulate that. Obviously you won't be as strong as some of them. So there are certain movements, a jab here, a hook this direction, you're able to trick the defense. Once he gets to certain spots, he'll make shots. I think he's showing that."
Simons' role with the Blazers this season is uncertain. Portland's backcourt is crowded between Lillard, CJ McCollum, Evan Turner and new free-agent signees Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry. Under normal circumstances, Simons likely would spend the majority of the season in the G League. However, the Blazers are one of just three NBA teams currently without their own G League club, and assigning a prospect as raw as Simons to another team's affiliate is a risky proposition. Teams generally prefer to have players develop within their own organizations under the guidance of their own coaches.
Simons may have to spend his rookie season riding Portland's bench and soaking up knowledge from his high-scoring backcourt teammates. Lillard is already pushing him to be assertive in his first games against professional competition.
"I told him, you're a first-round pick out here, so put on," Lillard said. "You can't be in passive mode. Let these dudes know what it is."
Summer league is one thing. Eventually, Simons will be tested against real NBA competition.
He may be more ready than anyone expected.