By John Denton
Oct. 10, 2017
SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Spurs were the first team to make Jonathon Simmons’ dream of playing professional basketball possible – first, at the developmental league level and later, in the NBA. Still, the rugged guard/forward promised that he would walk into the AT&T Center on Tuesday night with “no emotions’’ – an all-business approach taught to him by San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich.
Popovich often handed out heavy doses of tough love to Simmons during his two seasons of playing for the Spurs, and that heavy-handed accountability taught the gritty wing to approach his profession with a seriousness not often seen in NBA locker rooms. Even though Simmons, 28, left the Spurs for the Orlando Magic in the offseason, the lessons learned under Popovich stick with him still today.
“Pop gives very few compliments as everyone knows, but he has a great sense of humor and he cares about you dearly,’’ said Simmons, whose nickname of “Dog’’ was given to him by the five-time champion coach of the Spurs. “Pop once told me (during a Spurs’ game), `If you turn the ball over again I’m taking $100,000 off what I’m trying to pay you at the end of the season.’’’
After getting hugs and congratulations from several of his former Spurs’ teammates, Simmons spent approximately 15 minutes back in Popovich’s office visiting with his former mentor prior to Wednesday’s game.
Simmons went into this past summer as a restricted free agent, but when he and the Spurs couldn’t agree on a contract, San Antonio renounced his rights and he became an unrestricted free agent. That moved shocked many in the NBA, especially after Simmons evolved into a postseason standout while filling in for an injured Kawhi Leonard.
Orlando acted quickly when Simmons became available, inking him to a long-term deal to bring toughness and grit to the Magic’s defense. Whereas Simmons played just 14.8 and 17.8 minutes a game the past two seasons in San Antonio, he feels that he is actually poised for a breakout season now that he is an Orlando system where he should have more freedom to grow his role.
“I think I struggled in the Spurs system because I was like this (in and out) all of the time,’’ said Simmons, whose playing time was upped to 20.4 minutes a night in the postseason while he replaced Leonard. “Pop always wants you to slow down and learn a lot of things and that’s was so great for me because I learned a lot. But now I think it’s time to release the animal inside of me.’’
CARING KID: NBA coaches often say that they don’t truly know a player until they coach them for an extended period of time. Orlando’s Frank Vogel hasn’t been around 20-year-old rookie Jonathan Isaac very long, but he feels he’s already learned a very valuable bit of information about the versatile forward.
“The great thing about him is that he really cares,’’ Vogel said with conviction. And the coach didn’t stop there, heaping high praise on the No. 6 pick from last June’s NBA Draft.
“Defensively, he’s special and he keeps showing it,’’ Vogel said of the 6-foot-10, 210-pound Isaac, who has a 7-foot wingspan and has blocked seven shots in his first four preseason games. “Every time he gets scored upon, he wears it. You combine that with his natural ability and he has a chance to be pretty special on the defensive end. He showed some of that tonight.’’
Isaac knows that the Magic intend to be patient with him in this rookie season, but he is proud that he has sped up that process somewhat by already earning the trust of his head coach and his teammates. Isaac, who got the first start of his NBA career on Monday in Dallas, averaged 8.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.75 blocks in his first four preseason games.
He likes that his coach has noticed his passion and seriousness for his craft – especially on the defensive end of the floor.
“That’s how it should be and I’m someone who takes pride in getting stops and being able to guard multiple positions,’’ Isaac said. “So, yes, I do get frustrated when I get scored on.’’
RESTING/SITTING/PLAYING: A night after resting starters Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton and holding out Evan Fournier (sore ankle) and Terrence Ross (mild hamstring strain), Vogel did the same on Wednesday with a few other primary rotational players. Center Nikola Vucevic, who had nine points, 14 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 25 minutes on Monday, didn’t play on Tuesday. D.J. Augustin and Marreese Speights, who had 24 and 10 points respectively on Monday, were also given the night off, while Ross and Fournier continued to sit for precautionary reasons. Bismack Biyombo, Mario Hezonja and Simmons were in Tuesday’s starting lineup alongside of Gordon and Payton.
Did Vogel consider sitting Simmons – who has yet to miss a game this preseason – on his return to San Antonio.
“He’s still a newcomer to our system and there’s still a lot for him to learn and a lot for me to learn (about Simmons),’’ Vogel said. “So I was just going to let him play every game because he hasn’t expressed any interest in wanting or needing a night off. I don’t think he would like that, quite frankly, so he’s not one of the guys I circled for tonight (to rest).’’
UP NEXT: The Magic will be off on Wednesday following the team’s back-to-back set of games and early-morning arrival from Texas. The Magic will be back on the practice floor on Thursday before hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers in the exhibition season finale on Friday night at the Amway Center.
Orlando opens the regular season next Wednesday (Oct. 18) at the Amway Center against the rival Miami Heat. The two teams also opened the regular season against one another in Orlando last season – a game the Heat won in convincing fashion. However, the Magic rallied to win the final three meetings of the Sunshine State rivalry.
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