By Joe Freeman • The Oregonian

LAS VEGAS —

After the Portland Trail Blazers polished off the Milwaukee Bucks 99-84 Friday night in their finale of the Las Vegas Summer League, the team huddled together in a makeshift locker room at Cox Pavilion for one final chat.

The players inched in close, each folding an arm into the middle of the cluster, and Anfernee Simons guided them through the customary closing chant.

“Blazers on three,” Simons shouted. “One, two, three: Blaaay-zers.”

Just as he reached the apex, Simons’ voice cracked like a 12-year-old boy, causing his teammates and the Blazers’ coaching staff to burst into laughter.

It was not a perfect summer league performance for the 20-year-old guard who, after just one season of behind-the-scenes grooming, will be thrust into an important rotation role on a team coming off a trip to the Western Conference finals. He finished with more turnovers (12) than assists (five). He opened with a frigid 5-for-14 shooting performance. He suffered a sprained ankle in the closing seconds of the Blazers’ third game and missed the rest of the tournament.

But Simons entered summer league charged with playing point guard and running the team, the next step in proving he was ready to be a backup ballhandler next season as part of the Blazers’ retooled roster. And, all in all, Simons and the Blazers left Las Vegas pleased with his progress and energized by his potential.

“Not a lot of guys can handle the responsibility of being a point guard,” Blazers assistant coach Jim Moran said. “Everybody wants the ball, everybody wants to shoot, everyone is out here trying to prove they belong in this league. So it’s a delicate balance. But I thought he did a really good job. He absolutely has room to grow. But I think he’s shown that he has the confidence to be on the court and make plays, hit open shots and run a team.”

Simons finished summer league averaging 22.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists and — outside of that cold opener — barely missed. He shot 56 percent from the field, including 65 percent from 3-point range.

In his final outing, before suffering the ankle injury, he erupted for 35 points on 13-for-18 shooting, including 6-for-7 from 3-point range, leaving an indelible mark on his week in Las Vegas. It was the second-most points scored by a Blazers player in summer league history.

“I think summer league was good for me,” Simons said. “Just to be able to come in and just play and run a different position. I learned a lot in three games and I think I’ll be a smarter player and a better player just experiencing this. I’m only going to grow from here.”

Simons acknowledged that he had a few challenges balancing scoring with facilitating and it was a game-by-game puzzle trying to figure out when to attack and when to steady the team.

The toughest task, he says, came when plays broke down and he had to quickly process whether to stay the course, correct the offense and bank on something developing for a teammate, or scrap the play altogether and improvise, creating a scoring chance for himself.

Throughout it all, though, the young second-year guard displayed a surprisingly consistent trait.

“Leadership,” Moran said, when asked where he saw the most growth in Simons. “This is a different level. He was at a prep school and now he’s running a summer league team with older guys and veterans. It’s a different dynamic. You bring age into it, with such a young kid, it’s hard sometimes to find your voice. But I thought he did a really good job with these guys. They respect him because he’s a hell of a player and he works hard. He just has to find his way as a leader. Is he going to be a vocal leader? Is he going to be a lead-by-example guy? It’s on him to figure out his style. This was a great opportunity for him to get more experience doing that.”

Simons’ growth on the court has been so steep and his potential so great, the team has all but handed him a rotation spot heading into next season, a stunning development considering he skipped college — and played just one season in prep school — before the Blazers selected him as a teenager in the first round of the 2018 draft (No. 24 overall). He was the first American-born player to go directly from high school to the NBA since the league changed its draft rules in 2005.

As a rookie, he had just one stint of meaningful playing time, joining the rotation in his 15th game after Seth Curry was sidelined with an injury. Simons had a solid first shift and finished with seven points in 13 minutes.

But his inexperience and defensive deficiencies were exposed a game later against Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards and his time in the rotation was short-lived.

Then, in the final game of the regular season, when the Blazers were resting their starters against the Sacramento Kings, Simons unleashed a performance for the ages, finishing with 37 points, nine assists and six rebounds. He made 13 of 21 shots, including 7 of 11 3-pointers, and the Blazers won, setting the table for their inspirational playoff run.

Simons was the first Blazers rookie to score more than 30 points in a game since Damian Lillard, and he tied the NBA record for most points scored by a player making his first start since the 1985-86 season.

That performance, combined with a slew of glowing praise from teammates and front-office personnel, has pushed the Simons hype to unexpected heights.

“I think Anfernee is extremely, extremely talented,” forward Moe Harkless said in May during the Blazers’ exit interviews (and before Harkless went to the Los Angeles Clippers in a trade). “I think he is going to be a good player in this league for many years. I think given the opportunity to play, he will play well. I’ve seen him put in a ton of work and I’ve seen how talented he is in practice and open run, so I’m excited to see his growth over the summer.”

Added Lillard: “His potential is crazy. His demeanor is what sold me. It kind of reminded me of myself a lot, just how in a room full of grown men in the locker room he was never uncomfortable. He stands on his own two feet. And he works. He puts the time in. He doesn’t complain. I think he has a lot of qualities about him that made me believe if he keeps working and keeps developing, I think when I’m on my way out, y’all will be talking to him every game.”

At the very least, people are talking to Simons now. And while he did not have a perfect summer league, it was good enough to keep the hype train barreling forward.

“That last game of the season helped me out,” Simons said. “I was like, ‘OK, I’ve still got it. I’m still here. I can still play. And I’ve gotten better.’ So that helped my confidence quite a bit. And so did summer league. I expected to be here and doing what I’m doing. It means a lot to know how much faith the team is putting in me.”

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