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.