By John Denton
Oct. 26, 2017
ORLANDO – Undoubtedly, Jonathon Simmons will always have a great deal of gratitude toward the San Antonio Spurs since they were the ones who saw enough in him to pluck him out of a $150 open tryout and eventually give him his first shot at playing in the NBA.
To this day, Simmons still raves about the lessons learned in two seasons of playing in San Antonio, whether it was the tough-love barking from head coach Gregg Popovich that taught him accountability or the defensive tips that he picked from watching superstar forward Kawhi Leonard on a daily basis.
On the flip side of that equation, however, Simmons feels that the Spurs system – one built around ball and player movement and disciplined shot-taking – often strangled the creativity out of his game. Popovich regularly rode him hard for his mistakes and Simmons said he often played with the thought that he would be benched for taking questionable or contested shots.
For those reasons, Simmons said he couldn’t be happier now being a part of the Orlando Magic, one of the NBA’s early surprise teams with their 3-1 record. The Magic host the Spurs (4-0) on Friday night and Simmons is confident that they will see a different player than the one who was used in limited minutes much of the previous two seasons. In Orlando, Simmons has been given the freedom to use his aggressive and attacking nature to get into the lane and make plays for both himself and others.
“I actually think I struggled in the Spurs system because I was like this (in and out) all of the time,’’ Simmons, 28, said recently, referring to the 14.8 and 17.9 minutes a game he played in two seasons in San Antonio. “Pop always wants you to slow down and learn a lot of things and that’s was great for me because I learned a lot. But now I think it’s time to release the animal inside of me.’’
The animal inside of the 6-foot-6, 195-pound Simmons was often relatable to that of a “dog,’’ Popovich’s nickname for him because of the attacking style he had defensively. He used his knack for getting elite scorers out of their comfort zones last spring in the playoffs when he dominated his matchup against MVP-runner-up James Harden – something that helped San Antonio close out Houston in the second round of the playoffs even though Leonard was out at the time with an ankle injury.
Simmons’ career – arguably the most unlikely one in the NBA based on his journey including the $150 tryout that earned him a spot on the Spurs’ minor league team – seemed to be blossoming after the way he filled in admirably for Leonard in the playoffs. But to the shock of many in the NBA, San Antonio renounced the rights to Simmons last July when the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term contract. Also at issue was Simmons’ desire to have a bigger role on the team – something that likely never was going to happen in San Antonio with veterans Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Leonard around.
Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond acted quickly when Simmons became available in July, quickly hammering out a deal that would bring the guard/forward’s toughness and grit to the Magic. Simmons said there are no hard feelings with how things went down in San Antonio because he landed with the Magic, a team that fully embraces his desire for a bigger role.
“(Leaving San Antonio) didn’t make me mad at all. For one, with all of the things that I’ve been through (in contract negotiations), it makes me understand the business of basketball a little more,’’ Simmons said on Thursday after the Magic conducted a lengthy practice to prep for the Spurs. “I know now to never get emotional about (contract talks) because sometimes things just happen and you have to make the best out of it. I think I made the best out of it by coming here to Orlando and I’m making the best out of it with this team.
“Pop understood that and I explained that to him,’’ added Simmons, referring to his desire for a bigger role on the team. “I told him that I just couldn’t play at the highest level that I wanted to there (in San Antonio). I want to become great and play against those elite guys every night myself. He tipped his hat to me and told me if I ever needed anything else from him he’d be there for me. We still have a great relationship and I’m looking forward to seeing him.’’
Simmons got to see Popovich back on Oct. 10 when the Magic played in San Antonio and won 103-98 behind 20 points, 10 assists and two steals from their new guard. Not only did Simmons hold close friend and former teammate Danny Green (zero for three shooting) scoreless in 10 minutes, he had the game-sealing assist in the fourth quarter by driving the lane and dropping the ball off to center Bismack Biyombo.
“He was terrific in that game,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel recalled. “It seemed to me that he had every reason to go out and try to get 30 (points) that night, but he had 10 assists. Stuff like that from him makes it contagious in trying to get everyone to pass the ball.’’
Another feature of Simmons’ game that has been contagious has been his willingness to scrap, claw and fight on the defensive end. He made it to the NBA by being “nasty’’ – his word – and last season in San Antonio he had the NBA’s best individual defensive rating for players who appeared in at least 75 games.
“I’m so happy that he’s a part of this organization because of his tenacity, his grit and tough play,’’ Magic forward Aaron Gordon said. “Him and I, we both play with heart. I love playing with guys like that. When he gets into a guy then everybody wants to raise their level of defense and hold that standard to the next man.’’
In Orlando, Simmons has gotten the offensive freedom that he sought while serving as the Magic’s first reserve off the bench. Often, he is at the head of the offense and is given the freedom to make plays off the dribble and with his fearless forays into the paint. As such, he’s averaged 13.3 points and 2.5 rebounds in 23.8 minutes a night – numbers that would all be career-highs when compared to his production in San Antonio.
In addition to being solid with his shooting (45.7 percent) and much-improved from beyond the 3-point line (50 percent), he’s gotten to the free throw line 18 times with 16 makes – both of which are either first or tied for first on the Magic. His eight free throws on Tuesday helped Orlando get to the line 40 times and beat Brooklyn 125-121 in a thriller.
“He’s helped because he plays with a lot of energy and he brings it on both ends of the floor,’’ Magic center Nikola Vucevic raved. “He’s good offensively at getting into the paint and drawing fouls, so he’s helping us with that, too.’’
Simmons was happy that he left the Spurs on good terms – something that was evident in the way Popovich praised him profusely earlier in the month and had him back in his office for a visit prior the Orlando/San Antonio preseason game.
“He’s got a big heart and he’s come a long way,’’ Popovich said. “He’s obviously a talented player and I’ll tell him, `it’s all between the ears’ and `how long you are going to last is dependent on how you handle things on an emotional and mental basis,’’’ the Spurs coach continued. “The talent is there and he did a great job for us last year. He came a long way in regard to his mental discipline and being more efficient on the court. Hopefully that will continue for Orlando.’’
Simmons is confident that his success will only continue to grow because Vogel and the Magic have given him a bigger role on the team and the freedom to be himself as an offensive player. As much as he will always owe San Antonio and Popovich for helping him get to the NBA, he said he is just as grateful to the Magic for believing in him and letting him expand his game.
“I need to be able to be comfortable and play basketball and not worry that if I make a mistake whether I’ll be on the bench or not,’’ Simmons said. “So, coming here has helped me with that and I’m happy.’’
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