By John Denton
ORLANDO – Jonathon Simmons’ story, once called the greatest example of perseverance and overcoming the odds in all the NBA by a Western Conference coach, is adding another triumphant chapter.
Simmons, who survived the rough streets of his Houston neighborhood, battled his way through basketball’s back channels and made it to the NBA via a $150 G League tryout, officially signed a free-agent contract with the Orlando Magic on Saturday.
Simmons, 27, was a surprising star of the playoffs, filling in superbly for injured San Antonio superstar Kawhi Leonard, and he was rewarded for it by landing a three-year contract from the Magic. The Spurs shocking renounced their rights to the restricted free agent on Thursday and the Magic sprang into action to pursue a 6-foot-6, 195-pounder who is considered to be a NBA talent on the rise.
“Jonathon (Simmons) is an elite wing defender that will provide toughness and athleticism to our team,’’ Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said in a release. “His tremendous work ethic has helped him continually grow as a player and we are very excited to add him to the Magic.’’
Weltman, who was hired in late May along with new GM John Hammond, promised that the Magic would be proactive in acquiring talent as it became available and he followed through on that by landing the two-year NBA veteran. The small forward/shooting guard averaged 15.4 points in San Antonio’s last seven playoff games against Houston and Golden State and repeatedly came up big for the Spurs after Leonard went down with a couple of ankle injuries.
Simmons showed his toughness and readiness to expand his game with two stellar showings in the postseason. In a clinching Game 6 against the Rockets – fittingly in his hometown of Houston – Simmons scored 18 points and locked down superstar guard James Harden (two of 11 shooting, 10 points) with suffocating defense. In Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals – a game after Leonard suffered a season-ending ankle injury – Simmons came up big again by making eight of 17 shots, drilling two 3-pointers and scoring 22 points.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Simmons showed toughness and grit in the face of adversity considering the rocky road he traveled to get to the NBA. He often refers to himself as “a 1-percenter’’ for avoiding the mean streets of his Houston neighborhood and finding success.
He attended Paris (Texas) Junior College and Midland (Texas) College before ending up at the University of Houston. He left the Cougars after his junior season, but wasn’t selected in the 2013 NBA Draft, leaving him on basketball’s fringes. A stint in the American Basketball League ended when the league had financial troubles and he was left to play in Pro-Am games around Houston to stay sharp.
Pushed not to give up on his basketball dream by members of his family, Simmons began working out three times a day to ready himself for a tryout for the Spurs’ G League team, the Austin Toros, in 2013. Simmons paid the $150 fee for the tryout, battled hundreds of others in the session and caught the eyes of scouts who ultimately extended him an invite to the G League team.
“I’m part of the one percent in my area,’’ Simmons told Yahoo’s The Vertical recently. “We were in a rough part of town. I’m the only one who’s played at this high of a level. I never thought this would be possible, wearing this (NBA) jersey. But it’s possible.’’
After two G League seasons and a successful stint in the Orlando Pro Summer League with the Brooklyn Nets, Simmons landed a NBA contract with the Spurs. Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson, who once worked with Simmons in Austin, called him the greatest story in the NBA because of his against-all-odds rise to basketball’s highest level.
Also, there was this from Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich, who played Simmons 55 games as a NBA rookie in 2015-16 and 78 games this past season: “He’s one of those guys that you have to be thrilled for. Not many of us paid $100 and ended up kind of like in a miracle like he has. To see the progress that he’s made is thrilling and we’re really happy for him because he’s going to have a future in the NBA.’’
In Orlando, Simmons’ future will be as a wing who is expected to guard the other team’s best player on a nightly basis. Pairing him with power forward Aaron Gordon and rookie Jonathan Issac gives the Magic three players capable of guarding multiple positions and fitting today’s “position-less’’ NBA style of play.
Like Simmons, Terrance Ross and Evan Fournier can play either the shooting guard or small forward positions, but the long-armed and explosive Simmons might have an edge in the battle for minutes because of his hard-nosed defense.
Simmons’ shot is still very much a work in progress as he connected on just 29.4 percent of his 3-point tries this past season while playing mostly in a reserve role for the Spurs. Still, there were so many signs that Simmons is ready for a more prominent role – his 20 points in the season-opener in Golden State; his 16 games with double figures in scoring; his 19-point effort in the Rising Stars Challenge game during NBA All-Star Weekend; and producing double-digit scoring efforts in five of San Antonio’s last six playoff games.
Now, Simmons’ unlikely and inspiring story continues with the Magic, and he hopes there will be plenty of more unfilled chapters to add.