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Simmons takes humbling path to earn role with Spurs

The swingman played in the American Basketball League and had a failed D-League tryout before realizing his dream

POSTED: Mar 30, 2016 3:40 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Rookie Jonathon Simmons is averaging 14.3 minutes on a 60-win, title-contending San Antonio team.

He attended two junior colleges, the University of Houston for one season, went undrafted in 2012 and tried the American Basketball League before it folded. After all that, Jonathon Simmons was so not a NBA prospect that a year later, he was among the herd of NBA D-League hopefuls with, let's face it, no real hope, who spent $150 for the privilege of being told to go away by the Austin Toros (the San Antonio Spurs' D-League affiliate).

He couldn't get a Summer League invite. He had to pay a minor-league team to watch him in a workout.

The small detail is that that Simmons' agent at the time put up the D-League entry fee, but same difference: Simmons left his home in Houston and drove roughly 175 miles west to Austin in 2013 because he was pretty much out of chances. If he couldn't stand out in an open tryout where the majority of players, by his estimation, couldn't dribble or pass and could barely shoot, he knew it was time to think hard about a career change.

He stood out. Rather than being passed over again, Simmons made the Toros for 2013-14, and again in 2014-15. He was playing a lot, defending and shooting with range.

And then he really stood out.

Simmons -- undrafted, overlooked, the guy who had to pay a minor-league team to give him a chance -- has become the guy who is being paid by a major-league team this season. Not just any team either -- the Spurs, the ultimate in stature.

An NBA rookie after two seasons in the D-League, he's averaging 14.3 minutes in 51 games, a decent role for a newcomer on a team loaded with veterans and on pace for 69 wins. He is second in the class in defensive rating, seventh in field-goal percentage and first in long shots who paid out.

Simmons looks around the locker room and still can't believe this is happening -- "I do every day," he said -- and yet it is. He bought his way into the gym that day in Austin, but earned his way into NBA minutes.

"I definitely do" appreciate being in the league more than most players, he said.

"It took some perseverance to get here. With that being said it's like you have no choice but to be humble about it and to appreciate every part of it and not take one minute for granted."

One of the success stories of the season, for any player regardless of experience and for any team, has come close to being ranked among the top 10 rookies, only to be held back by the lack of a prominent role. Averaging more than 15 minutes just once in a month (January) that included at least 10 appearances has been enough of a hit to so far keep him off The Ladder that is down to the final few installments.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Last week's ranking: No. 1

Towns Leads Wolves To Win

Karl-Anthony Towns scores 27 points and grabs 10 rebounds as the Timberwolves defeat the Wizards 132-129 in double overtime.

We have reached the point where it would be impossible to justify voting for anyone else for Kia Rookie of the Year. The leading contender from the opening month and the clear leader since about midseason has only one remaining challenge: whether he will be the unanimous winner of the award. The finishing kick to make it happen has included 22.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 58.5-percent shooting in March, on pace to be his best full month for scoring and field-goal percentage.

2. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

Last week's ranking: No. 2

Porzingis' Behind-The-Back Pass

Kristaps Porzingis passes behind his back to find Robin Lopez for the dunk.

He needed to find solid ground on offense, and got some. Porzingis is at 19.3 points, 47.7 percent from the field and 37 percent on 3-pointers the last six games. That span also included three blocks on three occasions and two on another, putting him in good position to hold off Towns for No. 1 in the category among rookies, an accomplishment in a season when two first-year players may finish among the top 10 of the entire league. Porzingis is currently seventh, Towns ninth.

3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week's ranking: No. 3

Jokic Finds Faried

Nikola Jokic dishes to Kenneth Faried for the two-handed jam.

Jokic took advantage of the knee injury that ended Jahlil Okafor's season early to move into third place with 14 double-doubles, behind only Towns and Porzingis, even while averaging a modest 20.9 minutes. The workload has increased to 25.1 minutes in March, mostly because of the defense and rebounding that has reached 8.5 boards this month, including eight, nine, 12, eight, four and 14 the last six appearances. That has moved Jokic to 6.6 overall, fourth in the class with a slight chance of climbing one spot to Okafor's 7.0 but no real risk of being passed by Myles Turner (5.4). "He's skilled," one scout said. "Very skilled."

4. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat

Last week's ranking: No. 5

Justise's Strong And-1

On the break, Justise Winslow takes it to the hole, draws the foul and hits the running floater.

He is shooting 47.3 percent on 6.6 attempts per game in March in what will be a third consecutive month of improved shooting, moving Winslow at 43.2 percent overall. It's far from a big area of impact, but the push toward respectability in that area is an important sign of progress in developing into more than a one-way player capable of helping only on defense. The team in a tight race in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack is sold -- the Heat are playing him 30.5 minutes overall in March and nine in the fourth quarter, more than any rookie.

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Last week's ranking: No. 8

Booker Shines In Sacramento

Devin Booker leads the Suns scoring 26 points versus the Kings.

He is averaging 22.7 points per game in March even while struggling behind the arc (28.0 percent) after breaking 50 percent in two previous full months. Imagine the scoring numbers with Booker anywhere close to his past play there. As it is, he has at least 26 points in three of the last four games and seven of his last 14. Now to see if it's enough to halt Towns' season-long strangle hold on Rookie of the Month in the West.

6. D'Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week's ranking: No. 4

Russell's Fiery Feed

D'angelo Russell fires the bounce pass ahead of the defense to Larry Nance Jr. for the big-time flush.

The January and February that showed why the Lakers took him second have been replaced by the offensive struggles of March that has been too much of a reminder of the slow start the first half of the season. Russell is shooting 40.2 percent this month with only nine more assists (42) than turnovers (33) in 14 games. He is at 34.9 percent the last five games with six assists total and has shot 25 percent or worse in four of the last eight.

7. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week's ranking: No. 6

Towns (18.3 points per game) has pulled away enough to essentially end the possibility that Okafor (17.5) could still finish first in the class in scoring, with no chance that Porzingis (14.3) will catch Okafor for second. By playing 53 games before being sidelined by a knee injury, Okafor fail to reach the qualifying minimum of 62 appearances and will not make the final league-wide scoring rankings. He is currently 33rd.

8. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Last week's ranking: No. 7

Kia Awards: Myles Turner

Myles Turner is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month.

He is third among rookies in blocks, sixth in rebounding, eighth in shooting and seventh among rookies in scoring. The follow-up to winning Rookie of the Month in the East for February has been a slight struggle, though, with drops from 29.8 to 25.1 in minutes, 51.0 to 41.7 in shooting and 1.8 to 1.4 in blocks. It will be interesting to see whether the minutes continues to decline if the inconsistent production continues as the playoffs near and every outcome has big implications for Indiana's playoff hopes.

9. Josh Richardson, Miami Heat

Last week's ranking: No. 10

The story keeps getting better. After not playing more than nine games any previous month, after shooting 25 percent in December and 23.5 percent in January, Richardson should be among the contenders for Rookie of the Month for the Eastern Conference. His dream-sequence of a March includes shooting 56.8 percent overall, 63.5 from behind the arc (on 33-for-52 shooting), 29.1 minutes and 12.8 points. Richardson has not only surged to No. 1 in the class in 3-point shooting, his 50.0 for the season leads the pack by a wide margin.

10. Trey Lyles, Utah Jazz

Last week's ranking: Not ranked

Lyles is on pace for his third consecutive month of 45 percent shooting or better, especially noteworthy because it comes with occasional 3-pointer. The minutes haven't always been there -- 25.1 in January, followed by 10.2 in February and back to 15.8 in March -- but the No. 12 pick has shown why many front offices regarded him as such a promising stretch-four prospect. What hasn't gotten the same attention is that Lyles has also had good moments on defense.

Dropped out: Emmanuel Mudiay (9).

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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