By John Denton
Nov. 14, 2017
PORTLAND – All you need to know about the swagger, toughness and hunger of Orlando Magic guard Jonathon Simmons could be summed up in a couple of high-level NBA conversations he had last summer.
Even though he’s a self-proclaimed “one percenter’’ who made it out of a tough neighborhood in Houston and someone who remarkably got the NBA thanks to a $150 tryout for a minor league team, Simmons still had enough gumption and belief in himself to tell two of the biggest names in the NBA “no’’ when they were trying to sway his decision-making last July.
LeBron James is undeniably the best player in the game, but Simmons brashly told him he’d rather play against him than with him on the Cleveland Cavaliers. And when five-time champion Gregg Popovich wanted Simmons to stay in San Antonio and stay in the lesser role he had inhabited for two seasons, Simmons’ desire for more out of life and basketball came pouring out with his words.
“That’s just part about me – improving, wanting to be better and wanting to have a bigger role,’’ Simmons recalled. “I said it to Pop. I said, `I can be good over here (in San Antonio), but I can’t be great.’ I want to be able to go against the Kawhi (Leonards) night in and night out.
“I even talked to LeBron James over the phone and he was like, `We want you in Cleveland,’’’ added Simmons, referring to another free-agent pitch back in July. “I said, `Naw, I want to play against you.’ I want to be able to play against elite guys, and in a couple of years down the line, be where they are. He said, `I respect that.’’’
That kind of belief in self and drive to always keep pushing for more has helped Simmons, 28, blossom into a steady standout for the Magic. After scoring 13 points in Orlando’s 110-110 loss to Golden State on Monday, Simmons has now posted 12 double-digit scoring nights in 14 games for the Magic (8-6).
His expanded role – he’s playing 25.3 minutes a night and getting 10.6 shot attempts a game compared to just 17.8 minutes and 5.4 shot attempts in San Antonio last season – has helped him become one of the best weapons in the NBA off the bench. According to STATS, Inc., Simmons (15 ppg.) ranks fourth in the NBA in scoring among reserves, trailing only Memphis’ Tyreke Evans (18.5 ppg.), Clippers’ guard Lou Williams (17.5 ppg.) and Lakers’ guard Jordan Clarkson (15.5 ppg.). Simmons has done that while also averaging career highs in field goal percentage (50.7 percent), rebounding (3.3 rpg.), assists (2.1) and steals (0.9 spg.). And because he’s such a gritty and fearless player capable of matching up with quicker guards and bigger wings, Simmons has been something of a Swiss Army knife for Orlando head coach Frank Vogel on the defensive end of the floor.
“He’s got great competitive spirit,’’ said Vogel, who will use Simmons against both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum when the Magic face the Trail Blazers (7-6) in Portland on Wednesday. “That’s why everybody says that he has a great edge about him and he does. That elevates the group.’’
That has been noticeable by many of the coaches throughout the NBA. Whereas Orlando’s bench was often the culprit in many losses last season, Simmons has given the Magic some offensive punch, defensive toughness and overall swagger.
Memphis coach David Fizdale, whose team faced Simmons 10 times in 2016-17 in the regular season (four times) and playoffs (six games), called Orlando’s addition of Simmons “a winning move’’ a month ago during the preseason. Recently, he gave Simmons much of the credit for making Orlando an edgier team this season – both physically and mentally.
“Simmons is an animal and he brings those winning ways with him from San Antonio,’’ Fizdale raved. “He’s a beast. It’s just who he is – he’s a hard-nosed, tough, high-motor, in-the-moment and winning player. He competes on every single play and he’s trying to win every single play. The kid is a scrapper and I didn’t expect anything less than this from him.’’
Vogel knew that the Magic were getting a solid player in Simmons when they signed him away from San Antonio last July. But Vogel never envisioned how Simmons’ drive to compete and his hunger to be successful could become so infectious throughout the team. Getting a good player is one thing, Vogel noted; but getting one who can will others to be better is another aspect completely, he stressed.
“He’s exceeded our expectations and he’s a tough-minded dude who really cares,’’ Vogel said. “He’s well-liked in the locker room and he’s changed our team’s identity, ego and attitude. He’s given us a little bit of an edge and a swagger.’’
Added Magic guard Terrence Ross: “He’s really vocal, easy to talk to, he wants to win and he’s pushing everybody to be better.’’
Simmons said that he will forever be grateful to the Spurs and Popovich for giving him the chance to play in the NBA after working his way through the $150 tryout for the Austin Toros and playing in the G League. But, deep down, he always hungered for a bigger role and wanted to show that he is the kind of tough-minded and physical player that a team can depend on.
He showed just that last spring, shutting down MVP runner-up James Harden in a close-out playoff game and filling in admirably for an injured Leonard in the Western Conference Finals for the Spurs.
In Orlando, he’s been the picture of dependability because of the focus and passion he brings to every game and his ability to penetrate defenses and rack up free throw attempts. He’s averaged 15.3 points in wins and 14.7 points in losses. Not surprisingly, he’s been his best in difficult situations, averaging 19 points a game on the second night of back-to-back sets of games and he’s scored more in front of hostile road crowds (16.6 ppg.) than he has in Orlando (12.8 ppg.).
And then there’s this: In his 133 regular-season games for the Spurs, Simmons scored in double figures 27 times and had just one 20-point performance. In just 14 games with the Magic, he’s hit double figures in scoring 12 times and he has two 20-point performances, including a career-best 27-point night on Oct. 29 in Charlotte.
“It’s about expanding my offensive game and showing that I’m more than just an energy guy and that I can give a team whatever it needs – passing, scoring or defense,’’ Simmons said. “It’s about expanding my role, period.’’
That doesn’t happen without bringing a level of hunger and determination to every game – something he credits Popovich for teaching him to do at the professional level. It also has been there since childhood when Simmons was determined to rise about the chaos and crime in the streets around him and make himself a success at basketball’s highest level.
Again, he invokes the name of LeBron James. Not because he is comparing himself to the four-time MVP and the three-time NBA champ, but because he wants to keep driving to be better and he expects more out of himself and his Magic teammates.
“I’m not trying to compare myself to LeBron James, but he’s been doing this for 15 years and he still brings it every night the same as I do,’’ Simmons said with conviction. “It’s just the love for the game and that adrenaline rush you get being between these lines.
“It comes from where I come from, and going into every game and every practice ready and always taking advantage of opportunities,’’ Simmons said of his motivation. “Everything matters to me. This is our job and we get paid to do this. There are a lot of guys who are just happy being on a team and getting paid and it doesn’t matter much to them whether they are winning or losing. That matters to me because losing stinks and I’m not a loser. You have to have a certain care level and I always try and express that to other guys on this team.’’
If anyone on the Magic is fatigued from this four-game, eight-night trip, sick of life on the road or ready to pack it in on Wednesday night when they face the Blazers, they had better not let the fiery Simmons catch wind of it. He said that a young, up-and-coming team like that Magic needs to play every night with an edge and a desire to prove themselves. That’s the mindset that has gotten him this far and that’s the mindset he will take into every game.
“Never pack it in, especially when you have a reputation of not winning. Everybody should be on the same (page) of, `Hey, let’s get this win,’’’ Simmons said of Wednesday’s game.
“Even if we lose, the spirit and the mindset should always be to come out and give everything. If they come out and just beat us, then that happens. But, with our care level, it has to matter more.’’
This much is certain: Simmons cares – about winning and about pushing himself and others to be better. And the Magic are better off for him having the nerve and moxie to choose them over James and the Cavaliers and Popvich and the Spurs last July.
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