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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: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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