Jonathon Simmons’ remarkable journey from nowhere to the San Antonio Spurs

Jonathon Simmons’ remarkable journey from nowhere to the San Antonio Spurs


By Steven Simineri


The San Antonio Spurs are known for finding players from all over the world, but with undrafted rookie swingman Jonathon Simmons, they signed a player who was basically in their backyard. While the addition of the 26-year old Simmons wasn’t as heralded as the off-season additions of LaMarcus Aldridge or veteran David West, going from an open tryout to the pros is the stuff of Disney. But that is only part of the unusual path Simmons has taken to becoming a rotational contributor for a 54-10 Spurs team that come June could be competing for an NBA title.


“I knew I could play,” Simmons told me. “I played in the ABL, averaged like 30 points a game but it wasn’t like the competition was just bad, there were a lot of guys that played college ball in that league, played overseas or whatever. I knew I could play, it was just about opportunity. It’s always been about opportunity for me. So I knew once the chance I got the opportunity to play at this level and get a lot better then I know my work ethic will speak for itself.”


Simmons attended M.B. Smiley High School in North Houston, a school that a 2007 John Hopkins study labeled as a “dropout factory,” with 40 percent of freshmen failing to last through their senior year. Simmons recalls cutting class to watch television or hang with friends and not thinking that he would make it out of high school. He definitely didn’t consider basketball beyond high school, but his grandmother, Jerusha, pushed him to stay in school and become a success.


Jonathon Simmons, San Antonio Spurs

Jonathon Simmons, San Antonio Spurs

When she died of a massive heart attack during Jonathon’s sophomore year, his desire to finish school waned until an unexpected growth spurt at 16 transformed him from 5-7, 5-8 to 6-3 in the span of a few months. During his senior year at Smiley, Simmons earned co-MVP honors in district and the attention of some big time schools. Michigan State, Texas A&M, Marquette and the University of Houston all showed interest, however, he didn’t qualify for a Division I school because of his grades.


Simmons played one year at Paris Junior College and another at Midland College before transferring to the University of Houston, where he sat out the 2010-11 season due to NCAA transfer rules. He was the Cougars’ leading scorer in the 2011-12 season, averaging 14.7 points and five rebounds a game. Then, against the advice of his coaches, Simmons declared for the NBA Draft before his senior season, saying that he was unhappy in college and wanted to provide for his three young daughters.
When he went undrafted, Simmons didn’t even get an invite to a Summer League team and he had no backup plan. His mother urged him to enroll in barber school. But he latched on with the Sugar Land Legends, a semi pro-team of the now-defunct American Basketball League in 2012-13, where he averaged 36.5 points per game in 16 contests.
“Actually it was just kind of something to do, something that just came out of nowhere,” said Simmons, whose mother, LaTonya, raised him and his three siblings on a salary working the gate taking tickets for United Airlines at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. “I was kind of almost done with basketball when that came around and I just decided to do it and then just kind of went on from there. I had some people in my ear just saying that maybe you could play at a different level and so that’s what I did.”
That fall, Simmons paid a $150 registration fee to join an open NBA Development League tryout for the Spurs’ affiliate in Austin, then named the Toros. He joined about 60 other players with college experience and rec league backgrounds. Coaches put the hopefuls to work, with every candidate getting an opportunity to impress the organization in drills and scrimmages that went from 9 a.m. to about 3 p.m.
The 6-foot-6, 195-pound guard showed he could defend, rebound and score. Simmons earned an invitation to the team’s training camp and eventually made the opening-night roster. He became the first player to make the Toros through an open tryout in two years and it turned out to be the best $150 Simmons ever spent.


“Right, it didn’t come out of my pocket but somebody paid for it,” Simmons admitted to me over a laugh.
Simmons averaged 9.8 points in his first season in the D-League and he always had a cheering center at the Cedar Park Center, as ten or more friends and family members would often make the trip up from Houston. In 2014-15, his numbers spiked to 15 points, four rebounds and three assists per game. He was also named to the D-League All-Defensive Third Team, but Simmons watched as three of his Austin teammates – Bryce Cotton (Utah), JaMychal Green (San Antonio, Memphis) and Jarell Eddie (Atlanta) – received NBA call-ups.
“You always have doubts, especially with stuff like that. D-League, nobody is really talking to you,” said Simmons, who credits coaches Ken McDonald, Earl Watson, Jason Fraser and Mike Miller for helping elevate his game. “You don’t know what’s going on. Then my first year I didn’t really have a good agency or whatever, but I love basketball so I always found a way to stay positive and do my job.”


This past summer, the Brooklyn Nets had Simmons on their summer league team in Orlando, where he was a DNP-CD in the first game. While sitting on the team bus heading to the next game, his agent called to tell him that the Spurs were offering him a guaranteed NBA contract. The contract is modest by NBA standards: Two seasons at $1.4 million, with only about $525,000 guaranteed. But to Simmons, and his family, the money was life-changing.
“Definitely worked out because going into it I had no clue what was going on, didn’t even know I was almost on the radar to get signed anywhere,” said Simmons, who nearly gave up on his NBA dream while trying to make ends meet. “Just surreal and definitely happy about it and trying to continue to move forward.”
Simmons hopped on a flight to Las Vegas and made a name for himself with the Spurs’ Summer League team. He scored 23 points in the championship game, leading Becky Hammond’s squad to a title while winning MVP honors. He didn’t get off the bench through the teams first nine games this season, but he has emerged from an anonymous bench player to a rookie who looks to have a future in the league.
Simmons has played in 48 of the Spurs’ 64 games, yet even that is more than most expected. He is averaging 14 minutes and 5.6 points, but his per 36 minutes numbers are more impressive: 14.4 PTS, 4.3 REB, 2.8 AST, 50.0 FG%, 42.1 3P%. Simmons has impressed teammates with his explosiveness and he is good for at least one jaw-dropping dunk every few games — like this one over Gorgui Deng on Tuesday night.

The Spurs still aren’t certain what Simmons can be, but he has showed plenty of athletic ability, a nice touch from 3-point range and plenty of fight. He’s seen Danny Green’s success from the D-League to the Spurs, and if there’s anyone that’s going to stay humble, it’s this guy.
“Just put in my trust in my work, my pregame work, and just keeping a level head and staying focused,” Simmons said. “I think at this level, this is a confidence league and I think if you have confidence you can be in any type of place you want to be.”


Print Friendly, PDF & Email