First-round picks entering their second NBA seasons typically participate in summer league to build confidence after playing sparingly or inefficiently as rookies. Two sophomores who fit that description this year popped in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
The confidence meter has seemingly spiked for Portland Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons and San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV. Scoring looked noticeably easier for the 20-year-olds in July.
Even if both are looking up at proven veterans higher on their respective depth charts, a long NBA season and load management can create opportunities. Coaches may be eager to find out what they have in their 2018 draft picks.
Either way, talent and athleticism, plus a stronger skill level and understanding of the pro game, should lead to notable sophomore jumps for Simons and Walker.
Simons' Summer League Stats: 22.0 points, 55.8 field-goal percentage, 64.7 three-point percentage
Simons made just 20 NBA appearances last season. Since Portland doesn't have an affiliate team, he only logged four G League games with the Agua Caliente Clippers. Summer league exists for players like Simons to get free reps before starting a season with a larger role.
Anticipation accompanied the former No. 24 pick's performance this July given the intrigue tied to his unique journey from high school straight to Portland—but also since he played more than 15 minutes just once last year and erupted for 37 points on 21 shots in that April 10 game against the Sacramento Kings.
Just as he closed out his first NBA season, Simons went off again during his final summer league matchup, finishing with 35 points and six threes. It capped off an eye-catching three-game stretch that screamed breakout candidate as the Blazers look for more backcourt depth.
They lost Seth Curry, Evan Turner and Nik Stauskas this offseason. And given the newfound emphasis on load management, head coach Terry Stotts may occasionally want to dial it back with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum from November to early April.
Based on which of Simons' strengths should translate fastest, his shot-making will be valued most by Portland's second unit. A solid shooter out of high school, he clearly feels comfortable using his jump shot from range off the catch or dribble.
While his accuracy was the obvious takeaway from Las Vegas, Simons appeared to have worked on his footwork, both for shot creation and preparation. He took a note out of Lillard's book with a new side-hop to the shooting-hand side:
We also saw him step back the other direction, demonstrating more clean footwork and rhythm:
Simons had his way with defenses this month, and his control and balance consistently stood out. He created a strong foundation for himself on each shot, getting his feet squared up off his own nifty dribble maneuvers to separate before rising.
He also looked comfortable playing off the ball, continuing to show textbook fundamentals and fluidity hopping into his catch-and-shoot opportunities.
The game is slowing down for Simons. His ball skills and court vision appear stronger. He's cutting and executing with visible decisiveness:
Any games missed by Lillard or McCollum this year could mean a full workload for Simons. He's bound to have slumps and off nights as a 20-year-old first-time rotation player. A full-fledged breakout may not come right away, but he could be ready to make a fast jump from benchwarmer to relevancy, giving Portland a jolt of streak-scoring during second and third quarters.
Walker's Summer League Stats: 24.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 55.1 field-goal percentage, 30.8 percent three-point percentage
A meniscus tear last preseason set Walker back, taking him out of San Antonio's picture for 2018-19. The No. 19 pick in 2018 returned to play 29 G League games and just 118 NBA minutes.
Coming off a first-round playoff exit and heading into a season with the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers both expected to fly up the standings, the Spurs may soon have to start thinking about their young players' development.
Walker will become a priority after a dominant four-game stretch from Utah to Las Vegas. He took over without shooting well from three (4-of-13) by converting 60.7 percent of his two-pointers.
The key upgrade came from his pull-up game, which was a glaring weakness at Miami when he shot just 18-of-70 on dribble jumpers and 4-of-15 on runners in the half court, per Synergy Sports. This month, Walker's pull-up was the go-to weapon that elevated his scoring attack.
He got to his spots, set his feet and pushed off the ground to separate with balance:
Walker went to the pull-up out of different actions. He attacked closeouts, curled off handoffs, stopped and popped over ball screens and abruptly rose out of isolation:
Working on the ball, he became more dangerous than in previous years, mixing it up with various dribble jumpers, floaters and hard drives off hesitation moves that his jump shot forced defenders to play tighter.
He took sharper scoring angles to the basket, leading to higher-percentage finishes in the lane:
In transition, Walker was on another level compared to the rest of the competition, flying past defenses with long strides and an explosive last step in the paint. His eyes seemed to light up during those open-floor opportunities in which he could get downhill and leap off full-court momentum.
While Walker failed to catch fire from behind the arc, that was partly due to him sticking with what was working. His length, elevation, mechanics and track record since high school point to a high floor as a three-point shooter. He's always been threatening but not consistent and made 56 threes (34.6 percent) in 32 games at Miami and 34 threes (35.8 percent) in 29 games with the G League's Austin Spurs.
Better teammates, more spacing and regular minutes could ultimately create a more suitable environment for Walker to improve his three-point consistency. And assuming he continues to build on the mid-range flashes and timely slashes from summer league, the Spurs could eventually be looking at a three-level scorer.
In the meantime, he'll have to fight for minutes with Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and DeMar DeRozan.
Walker will inevitably get stuck on the bench for stretches. But between head coach Gregg Popovich's tendency to rest veterans and a potential urge to assess and grow the team's young players, he figures to get his chance and make his mark at some point in 2019-20.
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