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NBA Daily: Blazers Grooming Future Duo With Simons, Trent

Spencer Davies takes a closer look at the Portland Trail Blazers’ exciting up-and-coming pairing of Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr.

Spencer Davies

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Entering their fifth season together with brand new contract extensions, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will continue to torch defenses as arguably the most dynamic starting backcourt duo in the NBA.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ All-Star-caliber pairing scarily knows each other’s tendencies.

When one is having an off night, the other will pick it up. Both can isolate with the best of them and get red-hot in an instant. They can open opportunities for their teammates and make the right plays naturally. It’s downright dangerous if both of them have it going on at the same time.

But while those two hone their craft and tighten that relationship even further, the Blazers have quietly begun grooming another future tandem that could turn out to be something special.

In the 2018 NBA Draft, Portland selected Anfernee Simons in the first round and traded for the rights to Gary Trent Jr. in the second. Banking on depth and development, both players spent the majority of their seasons learning from those ahead of them in the pecking order.

Simons had a short stint with the Agua Caliente Clippers in late January, while Trent was assigned to the Texas Legends around the same time. Still, their bond had been growing over the last year and it particularly showed in the final game of the regular season.

With playoff seeding on the line, the rookie one-two punch combined for an impressive 56 points en route to an improbable comeback over the Sacramento Kings. Simons poured in seven three-pointers and Trent came up huge on both ends of the floor against the team that dealt him to Portland.

It was a memorable moment that not only gave the two a meaningful experience—each played the full 48 minutes—but also shifted the Western Conference standings going into the postseason. There, playing time was scarce for both — Simons saw about 10 minutes in total and Trent didn’t suit up for a single game.

“I’m not gonna lie at all — it was tough,” Trent said at summer league. “It’s the first time in my life I’m not playing at all for a while. So it was great. There’s great people in front of me that I’m learning from them, that I’m watching them day in and day out on everything they do. How they work, how they stay after, how they eat – I watch every single thing that they’re doing day in and day out.”

Simons and Trent did get their time to shine, however, at the 2019 NBA Summer League. And they did not take the opportunity for granted.

As the veterans of the Portland squad in Las Vegas, Simons and Trent averaged a combined 42.6 points per game. They played off one another beautifully and improved other facets of their game, to boot, in their second summer league experience as teammates and being leaders.

“Me and Gary are the only people that have really been here, so we kinda gotta help everybody out on the court as well,” Simons said. “So I’m always directing people to stay right here and I’mma have you help. And just kinda staying talkative.”

Though neither was spectacular in the team’s summer league opener, it didn’t take long for them to bounce back the next night. Trent blew up for 31 points, six rebounds and five assists in a win over the Houston Rockets, and Simons chipped in 16 points along with four boards and a couple of assists.

“When Gary hits a couple in a row, it’s over,” Simons said. “We try to look for him as much as we can, get him the ball and let him go. Inside, outside. Swing it to him, he’s gonna attack the rim. When he’s going like that, he’s hard to stop.”

“Me and him work countless hours in the gym with the coaches,” Trent said. “Working on our jumpers day in and day out. So when it’s time to showcase and prove it, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Looking at the film, you can see the confidence in Trent. He’s able to pull up from three or shoot it on the catch. He makes smart passes and heady feeds through tight windows. Most importantly, Trent is able to turn steals into transition chances at the snap of a finger.

“Last year, everything was coming at you so fast,” Trent said. “Now this year, everything’s slowed down for me a little bit. I know where to go, just getting to the gym, for example. So just little things like that.

“I’m not a finished product. I’m nowhere near where I wanna be, so I gotta continue to work on my all-around game – my dribbling, my shooting, my mindset to the game, my playmaking – everything.”

As Trent flaunts his IQ and uses his bigger frame to his advantage, Simons utilizes his fearlessness. Key in on the kinds of shots he takes and you’ll promptly realize why the one they call “Ant” is so difficult to defend. The IMG Academy product is a bolt of lightning that constantly plays downhill. He’s able to drive to the rim, but there are times where he’ll just stop on a dime and fire a triple, from Lillard-like distances in some instances.

There’s explosiveness within Simons’ game, on that keeps you on your toes. Yet, it’s the unpredictability of what he’s going to do—a sidestep three, a sprint into the paint or a quick crossover into a mid-ranger—that gives him a real edge.

Take the very next game — the one that followed Trent’s big night — as an example. In a closely contested matchup against the Utah Jazz, Simons took his turn to burn the competition, dropping 35 points on 13-for-18 from the field with key conversions during crunch time before suffering an injury in the final moments. He buried six of the seven trays he attempted, nabbed six rebounds, dished out two dimes and recorded a pair of steals.

“He’s amazing,” Trent said. “The other night, when I knock down a few shots I can get hot in an instant, and it’s the same for him. The way he can shoot the basketball, he can get to the hole, his athleticism – he’s a terrific player and I’m glad he’s on my team.”

Blazers’ summer league head coach Jim Moran mentioned that he’d like Simons to be more assertive and communicative on the floor. That still did not take away from the magnificent performance he put forth.

“He’s a very talented kid. He does a really good job creating separation,” Moran said. “He’s so shifty and quick. He’s got a really good handle. He’s able to loosen the defense up, get space and get to his spots and get shots.

“We see it all the time on the court, but he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities in real game situations. But it was kinda good to see him hit shots and kinda push the pace and find his.”

Similar to what Trent said, Simons agrees that the preparation for his second summer league go-round helped tremendously with being comfortable. Even in knowing the potential he has on offense, Portland has asked him to specifically lock-in as a defender. His thinking and understanding of the game are where he feels he’s made the most strides to date.

“Obviously, I got a long way to go. But I think I’m going in the right direction,” Simons said.

There’s no doubt with either when it comes to their potential as individual talents. They can be that much more threatening if they play off one another. Moran sees Simons taking the load off Trent’s shoulders, but the flipside is true too as both can handle the ball and initiate sets.

“They’ve been together all year working out together, and I think the chemistry is starting to show with them. It’s nice,” Moran said. “Summer league is a great environment for them because either one of them has the ball for the majority of the time. So they have been able to kinda tell each other what’s coming or talk to each other during free throws about the upcoming plays and stuff.

“They have a really good relationship and line of communication, and I’d like to see that continue to grow and them getting more comfortable with each other.”

Trent believes the same.

“We complement each other because we can take the pressure off each other,” Trent said. “For instance, I can come down, I can shoot it – but they’re also worried about him, so they’re gonna stay on him and give me extra space and vice versa.

“So it’s just great to have a complementary player like that that can do everything on the offensive end.”

Time will only tell when it will be their turn to command the spotlight at the highest level in basketball. It’s not an overnight thing — equally, it’s important to remember that Simons and Trent are still only 20 years old. Gradual progress in their respective careers will be important in ensuring consistent success. They’ve also got to produce against higher-level competition.

Additionally, the Trail Blazers are quite deep with Rodney Hood and offseason acquisitions Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja, either. But if this continues into training camp, preseason and practice, Simons and Trent may force Terry Stotts and Portland’s hand to find a real role for both.

After all, two dynamic duos is a good problem to have.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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