By John Denton
Oct. 3, 2017
ORLANDO – Superstar players Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Isaiah Thomas filled the NBA’s offseason full of juicy drama and blaring headlines by making major moves to new teams over the summer.
Jonathon Simmons, statistically the NBA’s best individual defender last season, did something that could have been perceived to be just as shocking, leaving the perennially powerful San Antonio Spurs to sign with the rebuilding Orlando Magic. Understandably, that transaction received far less hype and fanfare because of the guard’s designation as a reserve for much of his career and the Magic’s spot out of the national limelight in recent years.
However, in due time, Simmons’ move to Orlando – one that already has NBA coaches thinking it could be a transformational transaction for the Magic – might rival that of Paul, Irving, Anthony and others as one of the offseason’s biggest additions. After all, Simmons had the NBA’s best defensive rating (96.7 points per 100 possessions) for players who appeared in at least 75 games last season and he possesses the kind of hard-to-find toughness few teams are rarely ever able to add.
“He’s an elite defender, an elite competitor and he’s really developed his game offensively,’’ said Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fisdale, who knows a thing or two about Simmons after facing him 10 times last season in the regular season and playoffs. “I think he’s a winning piece to any formula.’’
The mere mention of “a winning piece’’ has to be cherished words to basketball fans in Orlando who have suffered through five losing seasons as the Magic have worked to add tough-minded, veteran talent to a young core. New President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond just might have pulled off the most underrated move of the NBA’s offseason by landing Simmons, a player whose journey to professional basketball has been defined by his fight and determination.
Simmons’ difference-making abilities were on display in Orlando’s first preseason game on Monday in Memphis when he completely flipped the feel of the night with his hustle and toughness. He confidently drilled a 20-foot shot for his first points in a Magic uniform and then stripped Grizzlies’ guard Wayne Selden near midcourt and dunked on the other end of the floor. Seconds later, Simmons raced the length of the floor for another high-flying dunk that brought his teammates out of their seats along the bench. He finished the quick-burst rally off with another fast break conversion, this time using the pass to set up Mario Hezonja for a layup.
“He’s a dynamic player and I’m really excited about what he looked like (Monday) and what he’s going to bring to our team,’’ Magic head coach Frank Vogel said. “The athleticism, the attacking of the basket, the relentless drives to the rim and the toughness on the defensive end – I’m just excited about what I saw.’’
Simmons, a 6-foot-6 wing, morphed into a playoffs standout last spring when he filled in for an injured Kawhi Leonard and smothered MVP runner-up James Harden in a series-clinching victory for the Spurs. Why then, one has to wonder, did Simmons’ move to the Magic get mostly overlooked in a NBA offseason dominated by player movement?
Flying under the radar is just fine with the reserved, but resilient Simmons.
“I’m just going to let the NBA deal with that and I’ll just handle what I have to do here (with the Magic),’’ Simmons said matter-of-factly when asked if his signing with the Magic was underrated nationally.
After stacking the stat sheet full in just 16 minutes of work on Monday in Memphis – he had nine points, three assists, two rebounds, two steals and a free throw – Simmons was asked if he could be a player the Magic could count on to bring energy over an 82-game schedule. Simmons said his goals are far greater than that; he wants to be someone who helps to change the Magic’s culture with his offensive fearlessness and his defensive toughness.
“Hell yeah, that’s what I live for and what I take pride in,’’ Simmons said of his desire to bring grit and fight to the court every game. “I just have a will to win and then once you win everybody gets recognized when you are winners.’’
To be winners once again, the Magic must defend better than they did last season when wing scorers regularly paraded to the rim for points. That’s where players like Simmons and rookie Jonathan Isaac – another long-armed defender with an ability to switch onto any foe and hold his own – should come in handy for the Magic.
As for Simmons, he makes it abundantly clear that it’s personal when it comes to his toughness and his unbreakable will as a defender. That isn’t often the case in the NBA where star players usually train their focus on 3-point shots, dunks and offensive exploits that will be shown nightly on the highlight shows. Could it be that Simmons’ transformational toughness on the defensive end could make him one of the biggest offseason additions in the NBA after all?
“I hate getting scored on,’’ he said bluntly. “It’s just a pain in the behind to me and it lets my teammates down. Obviously, it’s the (NBA) and you can’t stop everybody, but I take pride in containing people.’’
Undoubtedly, that’s an addition that the Magic are excited about having on their team for the season ahead.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.