Return to San Antonio Brings Back Many Fond Memories for Simmons

by John Denton

SAN ANTONIO – The Orlando Magic’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night hadn’t been finished long at all and already the phone calls and text messages from San Antonio started pouring into Jonathon Simmons’ phone.

First, a message from Spurs’ guard Danny Green came in and later there was a call from San Antonio forward Kyle Anderson. They knew the Magic were soon headed from Southern California to southwest Texas, and they couldn’t wait to see their former teammate from the past two highly successful San Antonio teams.

The feeling was mutual for Simmons, who couldn’t wait to go back to the spot where this unlikely, improbable NBA dream all began.

``It means a lot to me (being back in San Antonio) and I can’t wait to see a lot of those guys,’’ Simmons said. ``Slow-Mo (Anderson) just called me, too. He might think we’re coming (to San Antonio earlier). Not even with the basketball, those (Spurs players) were great guys off the court and they looked out for one another. I can’t wait to see them.’’

Simmons left the safety and security of San Antonio’s machine-like system – the Spurs have made the playoffs every season since 1996-97 and have won five NBA titles along the way – last July for a risky rebuilding project in Orlando. The Spurs are hoping to see get injured superstar Kawhi Leonard back by the end of the week and potentially keep alive their streak of making the playoffs, while the Magic (20-47) are limping to the finish of what will be a sixth consecutive non-playoff season.

Regardless, Simmons knows in his heart that he made the right move because he was eager to show the rest of the basketball world that he had so much more to offer than he was allowed to show while playing for the Spurs. Fresh off 25- and 24-point performances in Orlando’s past two games, Simmons has boosted his scoring average to 13.7 points per game – easily more than twice the 6.2 points per game he averaged last season in a reserve role with the Spurs. Even though playing far more minutes than he has ever played has taken a toll on his 28-year-old body, Simmons has been able to post career-highs in rebounds (3.5), assists (2.5) and steals (0.9), while making a solid 47.1 percent of his shots and drilling a career-best 60 3-pointers.

Simmons’ pursuit of individual growth – and the belief that he can ultimately influence change on the Magic’s youth-dominated roster – has helped him cope with the losing after being a part of 67- and 62-win seasons in his first two years in the NBA in San Antonio.

``It’s difficult, but I love the game of basketball. That, alone, helps me get through this,’’ Simmons said ``This is our job, and we go through ups and downs. You just have to keep the faith. I love Orlando and I love this group of guys. It’s unfortunate how our season has gone, but I’ll keep the hope that something is going to change.

``I’m just trying to make myself better. I understand that we’re not going to be a playoff team, so I’m trying to get better leading up to next season. I’m trying to focus in on all of those areas and get better on the court.’’

The Magic will most likely be better on the court on Tuesday if talented power forward Aaron Gordon is cleared to play. Gordon, Orlando’s leading scorer at 18.3 points per game, suffered his second concussion of the season and his third in the past 23 months last Wednesday in Los Angeles in a collision with power forward Julius Randle.

Gordon, who has missed the past two games against the Kings and Clippers, cleared another hurdle in the NBA’s concussion protocol on Monday when he practiced with contact. If there are no lingering symptoms and he is cleared by a NBA-appointed physician, Gordon could play on Tuesday when Orlando faces the Spurs in San Antonio.

``Today was a contact practice day, which he did, went through the whole practice and looked great,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``Now, he’s just got to complete the test.’’

This season has been a test – both mentally and physically – for Simmons, someone who made it to the NBA via a $150 tryout for the Spurs’ G League team. He’s always had to fight for whatever he’s gotten – whether it was making it out of the hardscrabble Fifth Ward section of Houston, attending three schools in three collegiate seasons or the three years playing professionally in basketball’s minor leagues.

When he did finally make it to the NBA in 2014 with the Spurs, Simmons was used mostly in a reserve role and his former coach, Gregg Popovich, heavily restricted what he was allowed to do with the ball in his hands. As a result, Simmons played just 812 and 1,392 minutes in his first two NBA seasons. This season with the Magic, he’s already played 1,933 minutes (29.3 minutes a game) and at his current pace he should easily surpass his combined minute total from the previous two seasons (2,204).

``I’m not fresh at all,’’ he said with a hearty laugh. ``I’m fighting it (because) I’m a fighter. I’m not going to let my team down. There are many times I didn’t feel like (he was able to play), but I’m not sitting out. I’m not that type of guy. Definitely, going into next season and this summer I’ll do things to take care of my body more to be ready for next season.’’

Vogel raves about how Simmons bounced back from a mid-season lull brought on by fatigue and he likes how the guard has kept his focus on the finishing the season on a positive note. Vogel said Simmons could have easily used the frustration of losing to lash out at his teammates and coaches this season, but he has remained professional and focused.

``He’s handled it with class and character,’’ Vogel said. ``He’s definitely tried to rally guys at certain times and made sure there’s an understanding that it’s unacceptable to lose at the rate that we’ve lost this year. But at the same time, he hasn’t short-circuited, either. Sometimes, guys short-circuit when they haven’t experienced losing and he’s been a team guy.’’

One of the reasons that Simmons is so excited about seeing Popovich and his former Spurs teammates again is because he is eager to show much his game has grown. Vogel and the Magic have given him the freedom to handle the ball more and use his creativity and toughness to get in the lane. His usage rate has soared this season (21.6 percent) as opposed to last year in San Antonio (17.9 percent) and his 3.5 free throw attempts a game rank second on the Magic behind only Gordon.

Simmons said he could have easily chosen to remain in San Antonio, a place where he respected the toughness and discipline of Popovich and loved the togetherness of his teammates. Ultimately, he said he told Popovich, ``I can’t be great here (in San Antonio),’’ and he sought out a new challenge with the Magic. His faith is still strong that he can build in Orlando what he left behind in San Antonio.

``There’s a lot more in the tank and now it’s just about building around it,’’ he said with conviction. ``I think, overall, I’m better as a player. I have shot the ball a little better than last year, I can pass the ball a little and, overall, I can do pretty much a lot of things on the court. I’m just trying to fine-tune my game and get better overall.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.