Simmons Impressing Clifford With His Toughness and Fearlessness

by John Denton

ORLANDO – A self-made player who reached the NBA off a $150 open workout and years of gritty determination and development, Jonathon Simmons couldn’t even bring himself to walk into a gymnasium this summer after having corrective surgery on his right wrist.

First, Simmons said he was anguished at being unable to play the sport that has meant so much to his life – even those summer pick-up games that have always helped to hone his skill and stoke his competitive fire. Secondly, he knew if he even got close to a basketball game that his competitive juices would get the best of him.

``It burned, it burned so much,’’ Simmons said of being unable to play basketball most of the summer following the late-April wrist surgery. ``I had to stay away from the gym because I would have been tempted to play with a cast on.’’

That kind of fearlessness and competitiveness has already made Simmons a favorite of new Magic head coach Steve Clifford, who has worked hard all training camp to try and instill a tougher and more aggressive mindset among Orlando’s players. After missing most of his workouts all summer, Simmons has used training camp and the Magic’s two preseason games thus far to try and knock some of the rust off his game. And, of course, he’s caught Clifford’s eye with his fire and fight in practice.

``I think he’s a terrific competitor and he’s so quick and fast,’’ said Clifford, whose Magic (1-1) face the Heat (0-3) Monday at 7:30 p.m. in Miami. ``He can get the ball, not just in the paint, but all the way to the rim. There’s not many guys in our league who can do that. So, I’d say that’s his best strength. And then it’s just his competitive spirit because he plays with a great deal of intensity.’’

That intensity led Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond to Simmons in the summer of 2017 when he surprisingly became an unrestricted free agent. The Magic bet big on the 6-foot-6, 195-pound guard, signing him to a multi-year contract. Simmons spent his first two NBA seasons as a reserve for the San Antonio Spurs, but the Magic felt that there was much more to his game if given a bigger role.

Simmons, 27, proved the Magic to be dead on the money while averaging career highs in points (13.9), rebounds (3.5), assists (2.5) and minutes (29.4) in his first season in Orlando. Last February, he had a dazzling 34-point night against Cleveland and LeBron James, the superstar who tried recruiting Simmons to the Cavs prior to him inking his deal with the Magic. Later in the season, Simmons torched the Milwaukee Bucks for 35 points and seven 3-pointers while showing his top-end potential when he has it going with his outside shot.

After starting just 10 games in his first two NBA seasons, Simmons started 50 times for the Magic last season. Showing that he was more than just a reserve and someone deserving of a primary role in the starting lineup proved to be a big deal to Simmons. He said that he always heard the whispers about his potential and he was determined to show last season that he was capable of handling a bigger share of the load.

``That’s a very big step and it shows want to and mostly mental toughness,’’ said Simmons, who noted that he doesn’t mind being used as a reserve as long as he’s on the floor in crunch time and late in games. ``Not personally (said) to me, but hearing (skeptics say), `Awww, he’s not good enough,’ and the negativity that comes with it. But I love the game, that’s why I’m here and that’s why I’m going to stay here.’’

The only questions surrounding Simmons now are these: What’s the next area of growth for him as a player? How good can he ultimately be? Does he have what it takes to evolve into the scorer, playmaker and leader that the Magic so desperately need?

``I want to be considered an elite guy at this level,’’ Simmons said candidly. ``So, if all-star is the next step, then that’s the next step for me.’’

Simmons, who will spend time playing shooting guard and point guard this season because of his dynamic abilities as a playmaker, is also quite concerned about the next step for the Magic. After going deep in the playoffs in his first two NBA seasons with the Spurs, Simmons struggled with the losing that the Magic had to deal with last season following a 6-2 start. He knows now that he must become more of a leader – both with his actions as a worker in practice and with his words because of his experience of past success.

``It’s going to take consistency and being able to bounce back from adversity,’’ he noted. ``Even the great teams in this league lose a couple in a row and have times where they need to figure it out. So, it’s just about us being together as a team and handling adversity.’’

Despite playing little basketball over the summer, Simmons has shown no sign of rust this preseason. He scored six points against Philadelphia and six points vs. Flamengo by getting to the rim, getting to his mid-range spots and getting to the free throw line. If not for the scar, no one would know he ever needed surgery to repair the wrist ligament he damaged during a collision in practice last March.

Not surprisingly, Simmons and Clifford have meshed well this preseason. Both take the game especially seriously, have a no-nonsense approach and are eager to see the Magic win big this season. Simmons thinks that is quite possible – more so than the national prognosticators – because of the Clifford’s impact and the growth of individual players such as himself. He doesn’t want this season going sour like the one last year did.

``I love my job, I love to play basketball and my love for the game outweighed anything negative,’’ Simmons said of last season. ``I’m happy to be in the situation that I’m in and I’ve come a long way. You look forward to things turning around and with the changes I believe in us more this year.

``I definitely sense a different vibe and sense a different work environment and a different culture,’’ Simmons added. ``John (Hammond) and Jeff (Weltman) know what they are doing. There’s a lot more structure and Coach (Clifford) is more demanding about what he wants for us. There’s more organization and I’m excited.’’

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.