Orlando Magic forward Jonathon Simmons (17) battles Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson (13) for space during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
MEXICO CITY — Jonathon Simmons entered Zions Bank Basketball center on June 9, 2015 with one thing on his mind. He needed exposure.
“I was just at the time trying to get in the NBA and trying to be seen in front of whoever,” Simmons recalled.
The father of four daughters, his back was against the wall as he had mouths to feed, so for the next two days he tried his best to separate himself from the pack among the 26 other invited prospects during the Utah Jazz’s free agent minicamp.
Sadly, Simmons didn’t crack the Jazz’s roster, but he stay committed to his NBA dream. Even with the setback, his path has ultimately landed him in Orlando, where he now faces Utah, three years later, as a member of the Magic during the NBA Mexico City Games 2018.
“That was after the end of my second year in the D League,” Simmons said of the Jazz minicamp. “I did several minicamps and Utah was one of them, which I did great at, but you know it didn’t work out that way but I was able to be exposed in front of more teams and more guys were able to see me.”
Although Simmons was evaluated closely by the Jazz front office, they ultimately didn’t pull the trigger.
The summer of 2015 was a busy one for the Houston native as he played with both the Brooklyn Nets and San Antonio Spurs during the NBA Summer League in Orlando and Las Vegas, leading the Spurs to a title. Then, he continued to grind with at least six minicamp workouts with teams around the league, including Utah, before ultimately getting signed by the Spurs.
“I never had played that much basketball in my life until that summer,” Simmons said. “That was a grind for me but it all paid off and I was very happy with myself about it.”
Simmons would play well enough during his two-year stint in San Antonio to sign a three-year, $20 million deal with Orlando on July 14, 2017. The 29-year-old shooting guard is averaging 7.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists for the Magic. Now everyone around the league, including Jazz brass, are hoping for their version of Simmons’ Cinderella story through open tryouts and minicamp opportunities in the offseason.
“From afar, it’s such a great story, even coming from the University of Houston, with my ties to Houston and the way he came in,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said of Simmons during the Salt Lake City Stars tryout this summer. “We actually had him in Utah Jazz mini-camp and he played very well and we hesitated, so there’s a lot of pieces to Jonathon Simmons, but the San Antonio franchise should be proud that they helped him get in the league, although he’s now in Orlando.”
Although he certainly could, Simmons says he doesn’t hold any animosity toward the teams that passed on him because he understands the business side of basketball. He approaches hoops in the same fashion that he attacks life.
“It helped me, it humbled me for sure and helped me along the way of being a better pro,” Simmons said. “Obviously, going through that grind, the G League stuff is tough and even the minicamps because it’s so many guys and it’s only one spot at the end of the day. Sometimes you just got to get lucky, have faith and believe in yourself.”
He’s had to work extremely hard not only on the NBA level but even throughout his tenure at Houston’s M.B. Smiley High School to Paris Junior College and Midland College before playing one season at the University of Houston.
After going undrafted, he spent time in the American Basketball League, then the Austin Toros of the Development League — now G League — before sticking in the NBA.
“We’ve had players like Cory Joseph and Jonathon Simmons and Bryn Forbes who have gone through that. It’s been great for them,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the G League’s role. “So, it’s been good for a good number of players and it’ll continue to be.”
Jazz forward Jae Crowder has also admired Simmons’ journey and shares a similar path of reaching the NBA despite taking a nontraditional route of playing junior college basketball along the way. Crowder and Simmons battled against each other during their junior college tenure when Crowder attended Howard College and Simmons starred at Midland College in 2009-10. As members of the Jazz and Magic, exposure is now something they both don’t have to worry about while playing on the international stage in Mexico City.
“I’ve really respected his grind because it’s similar to my story. I know exactly what he had to go through and he’s a hell of a player,” Crowder said of Simmons. “He plays very hard and he takes full responsibility for his craft. He’s in the gym, he works hard and I know that from playing against him and getting to know him on our way to the NBA, so I respect him as a man and as a player.”