SALT LAKE CITY – Deep down, the plan for Simi Shittu was always to enter the NBA bursting with upside and potential after completing a one-and-done college season.
Technically, things are still going according to plan.
The only problem is Shittu didn’t get enough done in that one-and-done season at Vanderbilt to propel himself into the NBA via the lottery, the first round or even as a selection at all in last month’s draft. So a little more than a year removed from playing in the McDonald’s All-American prep game and entering Vanderbilt as the highest-rated recruit in program history, Shittu is grinding from the ground up.
Simisola Shittu #11 of the Vanderbilt Commodores blocks a shot by Markell Johnson #11 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during the HoopHall Miami Invitational at American Airlines Arena on December 1, 2018 in Miami, Florida. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images.
And his faith and confidence remain unshaken as the 19-year-old Shittu, a 6-10 forward, embraces his opportunity as an undrafted prospect to carve out a role with the Grizzlies in summer league.
“The draft didn’t happen like I wanted, but I feel like this is a fresh start and I feel like I’ve been doing well, considering my age and experience,” Shittu said. “This is a great opportunity here for me. I did really well in summer training camp, and I proved a lot to get more minutes and get more opportunities on the floor. I just want to keep building and competing.”
With rookie No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant and second-year power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. sitting out, that leaves Shittu as the youngest player on the Grizzlies’ summer league roster. His age, versatility and untapped potential make him the active prospect with arguably the biggest upside.
The Grizzlies’ revamped front office and new coach Taylor Jenkins consider Shittu a promising blank canvas of incredible potential, which is why they quickly snagged the British-born Canadian teenager on a summer free-agent deal soon after all 60 picks were made in the draft.
Shittu showed promising signs in the first two games of the Salt Lake City Summer League, including a start at power forward on Tuesday. The Grizzlies wrap up play in the four-team, round robin field Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers before moving on to next week’s league-wide Las Vegas Summer League.
Heading into Wednesday’s game, Shittu averaged 17 minutes through his first two appearances. He had three rebounds and two steals in Monday’s debut win against the Jazz and followed with six points, three rebounds, two blocks and a steal in Tuesday's loss to the Spurs.
What the Grizzlies see is a quintessential development project, complete with a 240-pound frame and 7-foot-1 wingspan in a player who could eventually blossom as a modern NBA big man. Perimeter shooting has been Shittu’s most glaring weakness after he made just 43 percent from the field at Vanderbilt while averaging 10.9 points and 6.7 rebounds in 32 games.
But scouts and executives were impressed with Shittu’s performance at the NBA Draft Combine, where he showed defensive instincts and the versatility to rebound on one end and immediately initiate transition offense. That kind of skillset, combined with size and athleticism, make multi-positional players such as Draymond Green and Thad Young vital in today's NBA.
In Shittu, the Grizzlies have made a low-risk investment for a shot to yield a high-end return with proper development and patience. The bar has been set low, and all they want to see is incremental progress over three weeks of summer league play.
Simisola Shittu #11 of the Vanderbilt Commodores dunks against the North Carolina State Wolfpack during the HoopHall Miami Invitational at American Airlines Arena on December 1, 2018 in Miami, Florida. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images
“The biggest thing he’s got to learn is just the NBA game – the terminology defensively and offensively,” Jenkins said of Shittu. “He’s got the raw talent and the physical traits. I love how he competes on the defensive end. There are some discipline things he has to do a little bit better, like showing his hands and knowing how to guard in certain situations. But there’s been encouraging signs. The kid has gotten better each day since we’ve been with him, and I look forward to seeing his growth.”
That growth was visible when Shittu unleashed an emphatic, chase-down block early in Tuesday’s game that spiked both a Spurs’ player and the ball out of bounds along the baseline. Shittu then spent time matched up against 2012 NBA lottery pick Thomas Robinson, who is hoping to revive his career in San Antonio.
“I was comfortable when I was playing,” Shittu said of defending Robinson. “He’s an older guy and a vet, so it’s good to play against him and I feel I got better from it. My focus is just to start off strong defensively, because I feel the offense will eventually take care of itself. I can play anywhere from the three (small forward) to small-ball five (center). My best skill is getting the ball off the glass and pushing, getting my teammates involved. Obviously, I can get to the basket, too, and score.”
However, there’s plenty of work needed to improve his shooting stroke and efficiency from distance. Shittu made just one three-pointer and shot only 57.6 percent from the free-throw line in his lone college season.
“I know as my jumpshot develops,” Shittu pointed out, “I feel like the sky is the limit.”
And therein lies the limitless NBA upside, which makes him an intriguing tease.
Shittu’s potential and his journey share something in common: they're all over the map.
“I was born in England and moved to Canada when I was five,” said Shittu, whose full first name is Oluwasimisola and is from a family of Nigerian and Caribbean heritage. “Then I went to high school in America and finished up in Vermont my last year. My parents moved to Canada for better opportunities for work. Then we went to the States because at that time in high school, the competition wasn’t where I wanted it to be (in Canada). I want to be the best, so I wanted to go where the best were playing. I felt like going to the States prepared me for college and the NBA as well.”
Simisola Shittu #11 and Yanni Wetzell #1 of the Vanderbilt Commodores defend against PJ Washington #25 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the first half of the game at Memorial Gym on January 29, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.
Shittu starred on the prep and AAU circuits while outshining prospects such as Bol Bol and Shareef O’Neal, sons of NBA icons Manute Bol and Shaquille O’Neal. Then Shittu arrived at Vanderbilt as a consensus top-10 ranked recruit in the 2018 class. He joined guard Darius Garland to form a freshman tandem that was projected to lift the Commodores to SEC prominence.
However, a knee injury shut down Garland after just five games and Shittu responded with an underwhelming season as the focal point of the team that went winless in conference play. Garland recovered in time to impress enough NBA teams, and he shot up the draft board as the fifth overall pick by Cleveland.
Garland and Shittu were reunited in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, although Garland had been held out of summer league games. Meanwhile, Shittu is trying to make the most of every minute on the court he earns.
“No regrets,” Shittu reflected on both his rocky time at Vanderbilt and transition to the NBA. “I think everything happens for a reason. I went there, and obviously, everything didn’t work out. But I’m here now in the NBA. That’s been my dream since I was little and I know everything is going to come about eventually. It’s a process.”
Shittu is no longer burdened by going undrafted.
Instead, tasked with building his NBA career from the ground up, he remains undaunted.
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