By John Denton
Sept. 26, 2017
ORLANDO – Jonathon Simmons isn’t supposed to be here now – not here in Orlando, not here in the NBA and not here as the envy of all his friends and family – and he reminds himself of that every day.
Because Simmons knows the enormous odds that he overcame to get to this point, there is not a chance he will ever become complacent even though he’s seemingly made it with a lucrative, long-term contract with the Orlando Magic.
Again, he’s not supposed to be here, but he is here and that serves as both a great source of pride and constant motivation.
“I’m a one-percenter,’’ said the self-made small forward, who hails from Houston’s inner city. “From my area where I’m from and my community, I’m a one-percenter.’’
How many players have made it to the NBA after getting their start at two tiny junior colleges? How many players made it to the NBA after paying $150 for a tryout to a minor league team? How many players have been called “a dog’’ by Gregg Popovich and smiled because he knew that the San Antonio Spurs’ coach meant it with affection? How many players have stared into the eyes of superstar guard James Harden and have a fairytale-like story to tell about it?
To Simmons and those closest to him, this whole basketball joyride from being a no-named wannabe all the way now as a NBA standout is still surreal and mind-boggling. And he takes every chance he gets to relive the journey so that he never forgets how far he’s come.
“I pinch myself every day,’’ said Simmons, who went through his first official practice with the Magic on Tuesday at the Amway Center. “It’s still like a dream to me. Me and friends sit around the table and we’re like, `This is crazy!’ I get so much love from friends and family and they are so happy that I made it. To hear things like that, it’s amazing and I’m very appreciative.’’
The Magic are certainly appreciative to have a player the quality of Simmons after a somewhat bizarre sequence of events in the summer. Simmons, 28, became one of the NBA’s surprise stars of the playoffs when he replaced an injured Kawhi Leonard and completely outplayed Harden in a series-clinching victory for the Spurs. The fact that Simmons scored 18 points, while smothering Harden to the tune of 10 points and six turnovers in his hometown of Houston, well that just made the dreamlike sequence all the sweeter.
“Not having those kinds of minutes all season and then being thrown into the fire against all-star players, it was mind-boggling in a good way,’’ Simmons recalled. “That was some real heat and it was so good for me to perform at a high level.’’
Surprisingly, the Spurs and Simmons – a restricted free agent at the time – couldn’t come to an agreement on a new contract in July and San Antonio had to release him in order to make other transitions.
The Magic sprang into action, quickly negotiating a deal with the 6-foot-6, 195-pound defensive ace. Orlando’s President of Basketball Operations, Jeff Weltman, still feels incredibly fortunate that his organization was able to add a player with the unique qualities of Simmons. Now, he is hopeful that the passion, grit and hunger that Simmons plays with will rub off on an Orlando squad looking for defensive stoppers.
“I love having guys like that and I don’t know anyone in management or coaching that doesn’t love having guys like Jonathon who just fight, bring a chip on their shoulder and an edge,’’ Weltman said of his biggest offseason addition. “Teams just don’t win in the NBA without that and we were happy to have Jonathon choose us.’’
Magic head coach Frank Vogel has always been something of a defensive guru what with the way he teaches teams to play with grit and stinginess on that end of the floor. However, Vogel never was able to get through to the Magic in terms of defense in his first season in Orlando and the squad struggled immensely.
Vogel was watching on May 11 when the Spurs faced the Rockets in that Game 6 of the second-round playoff series. Sure, the Spurs led the series 3-2 at the time, but questions abounded about how the team would respond with Leonard – one of the league’s greatest two-way players – out injured.
That answer came quickly as Simmons aggressively bodied up against Harden to take away his air space. His physicality and willingness to battle seemed to break the spirit of the Houston star, who made just two of 11 shots. Offensively, Simmons sprinted hard for layups and knocked down open shots and made eight of his 12 field goal attempts. Not only did San Antonio win 114-75 in a surprising laugher, but the Spurs were a plus-32 on the scoreboard in Simmons’ 31 minutes on the floor, while the Rockets were a minus-28 in Harden’s 37 minutes.
Simmons’ preparedness and complete lack of fear of the moment let Vogel know that the gritty wing was a special player.
“That’s probably a big reason why he’s here,’’ Vogel said of Simmons. “That’s why we went out and got him because it did show us a lot. That’s who he is – he’s a hard-playing dude who fights and competes. That should enhance what we’re doing here.’’
Simmons feels that having a bigger role in Orlando should enhance his overall game. In what was just his second NBA season, Simmons played only 17.8 minutes a game in the regular season and averaged 6.2 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 0.6 steals a game while shooting 42 percent from the floor. In his four playoff starts while replacing Leonard, he played 29 minutes a night and posted 16.8 points, 4.0 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 0.8 steals while shooting 46 percent from the floor.
“I actually think I struggled in the Spurs system because I was always like this (in and out),’’ he said of his limited regular-season role. “(Popovich) wants you to slow down and learn. That was great for me and I learned a lot, but now it’s time to unleash the animal.’’
Simmons’ feel-good offseason hit a heartbreaking halt when his hometown of Houston was battered and flooded by the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey. Staying with a friend in suburban Houston throughout the storm, Simmons and the other 19 people in the house ultimately had to be rescued by boat when rising waters reached the front door and food supplies grew scarce after three days.
Simmons’ downtown condo and his vehicles were not damaged in the storm and his family in Houston also escaped unscathed.
Leaving Houston and packing up for his move to Orlando, Simmons was struck with one thought: He’s never lived outside of the state of Texas before. He vowed that even though he’s now in Florida, he’ll never forget where he’s come from – both physically and metaphorically.
Sure, he’s not supposed to be here, but the thought of that will keep reminding him to play with the hunger and passion that has guided him along this winding, unexpected journey.
“I love nasty. I love the grit,’’ Simmons said of his calling cards as a scrappy defender and a survivor who has overcome numerous odds. “That’s where I come from and it’s a part of me.’’
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